It’s a memoir of darkness and hope so straightforwardly yet beautifully written that when the book ends, it’s with sadness that we’re no longer immersed in this person’s life journey – and yet this is a man convicted of two brutal murders. It sounds unlikely and yet it’s impossible not to be drawn into the remarkable, heartbreaking life journey of Erwin James.
The book begins with James standing trial at the Old Bailey for two murders, but then we don’t hear details of the murders again until later in the book, with a reprint of a real newspaper story from the time of his conviction. The narrative moves back to the time before he gave himself up when on the run with the French Foreign Legion in Corsica. Wanted for the two murders in the UK, he eventually heads to the French mainland to hand himself over to French authorities and face whatever awaits him.
He then casts back to his childhood – born of Scottish parents in a deprived part of Northern England, he remembers his first years with his two parents and extended family as relatively happy, until the death of his mother in a shocking car accident. At this point Erwin reminds us of that traditional literary orphan – an Oliver Twist or David Copperfield – but any hopes of a fairy tale end there, because everything starts to unravel for the seven-year-old.
His father becomes a wayward, womanising and increasingly violent drunk – he and his sister are dragged along to live with a series of stepmothers, some of them also prone to violence. A shy but intelligent child who does well at English (though at home he is always made to feel stupid), he changes schools frequently and draws deeper into himself. Witnessing his father’s attacks on his stepmothers and continuously around drunken and violent behaviour, he turns to petty crime at an early age. Without even knowing why, crime quickly turns into a habit for the young Erwin and he is convicted of his first break and entry at only 10 years old. Soon he is in a series of care homes and then more serious youth remand centres. When not there, he is sleeping rough or moving between relatives’ houses.
As the crimes get more serious and the lack of money shorter, James’ life becomes increasingly out of control. Time and again he attempts to pull himself out of the mire but, like his father, he turns violent when drunk and always promises his girlfriends – and himself – that he’ll start to change, but never does. By his early twenties he is wanted for two murders and flees to France to join the Legion.
Once convicted, James finds himself in a series of Britain’s most notorious prisons as a Category A prisoner. Here his eyes are opened to the horrors of crime, and the guilt begins to eat at him until, with the help of a prison psychologist, Joan, he begins to understand his life and tries to make sense of what he has done and the profound effects his actions have had on others.
“Most of the people in this prison have been hurt and damaged at some point in their formative years and the rest of us have had to pay for it,” she [Joan] said. “Unless we try to understand we’ll have no chance of ever resolving what drives such harmful behaviour.”
Soon after he finds meaningful work in prison – mostly in the Braille department. He educates himself to degree level and starts writing newspaper columns about life inside prison for national newspapers. This leads to a regular column in Britain’s Guardian newspaper which James continues after his release. While many people were highly critical of the newspaper for giving a convicted killer a voice, the columns were also widely praised for their realistic account of prison life.
After his first published piece, the prisoner governor tells him, “We’re expected to give you some rehabilitation, but anything that looks like you’re getting a treat or a benefit from being in prison gets people’s backs up. You writing for the national press? That’s probably a little too much rehabilitation for some people to stomach.”
While James’ transformation in prison is out of the ordinary, it make us question how we think of incarcerated people, even murderers. What makes someone act the way they do? Is evil inherent or learned? How much are upbringing, bad luck and poverty responsible for the crimes people commit? It questions society’s dealing with criminals – should they be simply punished in dehumanising and brutal environments or should there be an attempt at rehabilitation? What is better for society?
By never letting us forget that there were victims of his criminal behaviour and not writing with deliberate self-pity, James focuses us on these questions and in the process has written a compelling – and hugely significant – book.
Reedeemable by Erwin James is published by Bloomsbury in March 2016