Opinion

John Bird on Erwin James: Redemption, as it should be done

"Erwin James' story proves that he bucked the madnesses of his child-rearing, that led to those ugly deaths"

Becoming a Guardian correspondent whilst serving a life sentence for a double murder is a rare achievement. But possibly the greatest achievement Erwin James’ book, Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope, highlights is that of James himself. For by rights he should have gone the way of his drunken, child- and woman-beating, disastrous father, and teetered into a declining living hell.

Certainly he was on the road. Drinking and fighting as a teenager, yet the one thing that seemed to distinguish his future path was that he was also a thief. His father stayed within the traditional semi-skilled working class, though still managing to bring catastrophe to all about him.

Violence oft begets violence, and the social engineering his father dished out to the boy Erwin in the form of a fist turned a gentle boy into a nasty piece of work. Losing his mother in a car accident aged seven, in a drunken violent escapade that went wrong, once again at the hands of his father, further undone the boy.

By his late teens Erwin James was an unsustainable, unattractive, boiling cauldron of vehement hate

By his late teens Erwin James (pictured above) was an unsustainable, unattractive, boiling cauldron of vehement hate. Even his father had some kind of structure to his life, in and out of jobs and relationships. But the son had no compass. Just drink and petty crime and bad relations with two women who each gave him a daughter.

The book almost screams out: “Where do I go from here?”

The comeuppance comes as no surprise. The disdain, the hatred, the fierce loyalty to drink and one’s own appetites lead to murder. Murder for a few pounds. Murder without purpose. And the destroyed lives of two men and their families. Two men who had the misfortune of running into a violent, mugging, self-destructive man.

James’ redemption, though, begins before he gets anywhere near the prison gates and the help of a prison psychiatrist. In the strangest of manifestations of self-help, he runs off to join the French Foreign Legion. And here, among men almost born to run away, he finds a family. He finds a strange sense of joy and purpose.

Join The Ride Out Recession Alliance

The Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) will develop and implement practical steps and solutions to prevent families losing their homes, and help people remain in employment.

Learn More

It may not be the kind that Guardianistas would recognise as redemption territory – but lo, he comes out of two years’ service a different, disciplined man. And hands himself over when he realises that the police have put him in the frame for the earlier murders. And there begins 20 years of prison life, part whilst awaiting extradition from France, and then, after the foregone conclusion of the Old Bailey trial, nearly two decades of British prison life.

For anyone to make a way through a veil of tears of violence and misery, you need to distinguish yourself. You need to strenuously apply yourself to some ends. As it was said about Tiger Woods, The Beatles, in other spheres you have to put the work in. A wrongdoer has to put in the same effort and do the thousands of hours of self-improvement. You have to do the overtime – whether it’s sport, education, art, writing.

The man who came out of the Foreign Legion was not the same man who killed two people. It seems in the storytelling, James proves that he bucked the madnesses of his child-rearing, that led to those ugly deaths, by joining the Legion.

In prison he builds on that. He buckles down to take the guiding and helping hand of the beatific Joan, the prison psychologist. And begins to make another man of himself, still scared and scarred by that appalling beginning.

The man who came out of the Foreign Legion was not the same man who killed two people

In the end, it is almost a duty for him to rejuvenate and transform himself; for he contradictorily owes it to the victims and their families.

For if he had gone in, done his time and never lived to tell the tale then it would not have allowed an explanation to that terrible spat of deadly thinking that led to the death of two innocents.

A mass cheap print on thin paper, and sent to schools, prisons, justice department boffins, is my recommendation for the afterlife of this book. For Erwin James has slain a few dragons here. There is no bumptious celebration of toughness. Just the signs of contrition and redemption. With his victims forever remaining always in his mind.

This is how redemption should be done. So we can see it and understand it. James has done us a great service.

Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope is out February 11 (Bloomsbury, £16.99). John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Purists might baulk, but Sam Smith headlining BBC Proms opens a pathway to classical music
Sam Smith arrives for the 2023 BRIT Awards ceremony at The O2 arena in London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Claire Jackson

Purists might baulk, but Sam Smith headlining BBC Proms opens a pathway to classical music

We need more women MPs – but we can't just expect women to stand for election. We must act
Lyanne Nicholl

We need more women MPs – but we can't just expect women to stand for election. We must act

Poverty prevention is our best hope. Here's some tangible ways to keep people warm, dry and fed
Tom Clark

Poverty prevention is our best hope. Here's some tangible ways to keep people warm, dry and fed

If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?
Paul McNamee

If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know