By VIEW editor Brian Pelan
I can vividly recall the first time I read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was in the late 1970s during a bad time in my life. I was living in a squat in London and I was unemployed. It was not the best time to be reading this classic novel.
Devouring copious amounts of beans and toast, I hurtled through this dark and compelling tale, unable to put it down.
Erwin James in his biography, Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope, recounts reading the same book in his prison cell. “A dark, gripping story that haunted me for a long time and made me think deeply about the motivations behind every criminal action I ever made . . . Until then I had only considered the damage my crimes had caused others. This book made me aware of how badly crime damages the perpetrator…”
Erwin spent 20 years in prison after being convicted, along with his co-accused William Ross, for the murder of the two men – theatrical agent Greville Hallam and solicitor Angus Cochran – in 1982,
He was released in 2004.
The concept that everyone can be redeemable is explored fully in this book. Readers can decide whether they agree or not.
The language and narrative style chosen by Erwin is brutally frank and honest. He never once implores the reader to forgive him. Instead he recounts his life and what led him to commit two murders.
It is a tale of harrowing misery, a descent into a life on the streets as a vagrant, sleeping rough and solely existing for the next random opportunity to commit a robbery in order to feed his addiction for alcohol.
He lost his mother at the age of seven after she died in a car crash. “Nobody told me my mother was dead. No one talked to me about the crash. But in the days afterwards I listened in carefully on adult conversations until I knew for sure.”
What follows is unrelenting darkness as a young child, who needed support and love, is plunged instead into a catastrophic existence.
From a young age he witnessed regular violence as his alcoholic father unleashed brutal assaults on his Aunt Stella and others. Life became a series of house moves with each event gradually destroying any chance of a ‘normal’ upbringing.
As in the case of many prisoners, Erwin, the child victim, becomes Erwin the criminal. It was a meeting with psychologist Joan Branton, when he was being held in Wakefield Prison, that was to result in Erwin examining his actions and the terrible harm that he had inflicted on many people.
He describes his first encounter with her. “The gentleness in her voice was a surprise, as was the hint of a sympathetic smile on her face when she looked at me. It felt good to be in the company of a woman again, even one whose job was to assess my dangerousness. Her manner gave me the impression she was kind and considerate – everything I and the hard prison environment were not.” The fact that she believed he was redeemable, notwithstanding his crimes, was a catalyst for Erwin to radically change his thinking about himself.
I first came across the author when I read his regular prison columns in The Guardian newspaper. His writing style was all the more raw and effective because he was in jail. It reminded me of another classic book, The Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.
Erwin writes about his first visit to the Guardian offices in London in 2004: “As I drew closer to the Guardian building at 119 Farrington Road recognition of the area dawned on me. I nipped up a side street and emerged onto Leather Lane. Twenty two years earlier this was a place I slept rough… a dangerous drunken tramp with no hope and no life…I continued up to the Guardian building and as I walked through the doors and into the reception I could barely take in the journey I had made to get there.”
Redeemable is a powerful book. I urge you to read it.
• Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope is published by Bloomsbury Circus; priced £16.99
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