Report by Lisa Nightingale
You’d be forgiven for comparing the early life of prize-winning author and Guardian columnist, Erwin James, to that of Dickens’ Oliver, but there was nothing to sing about. Or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; there was definitely no romance. Found guilty of stealing sweets at just ten, he became a victim of a neglectful, remorseless society and was thrown in a children’s home
The reality of the fictional world that we writers choose to live in never ceases to amaze us; the truth behind the life of spies, the ferocity of competition between athletes, the harshness of war and the brutality of children’s homes in 1960’s Yorkshire where Erwin James lived. Despite the inadequacy of the carers, James’ life of petty crime was overturned by small kindnesses..
James had only a basic education. At that time educational investigations had proven that 74 % of adult male prisoners had a reading age of less than that of an eight year old child. For Erwin James, being a writer was far from his own expectations.
Sessions with the Prison Psychiatrist persuaded him to enlist in part time education. He completed a degree in History Degree, along with an interest in writing Fifteen years into his life sentence, rehabilitation gave him the opportunity to write for The Guardian..
‘I am a writer.’ he told the Prison Governor, Monster Mansion, HM Prison Wakefield.
‘Better get another hobby!’ was the reply.
So, where do you go from there? Returning to his cell after that short but damning conversation, he stared despondently at the wall.
‘Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent …..’ Part of a speech made my Calvin Coolidge, the thirty- third President of the United States. James had copied these lines though ‘I had to look up “omnipotent” though,’ he admits.
He escalated his cause, petitioned the Home Secretary and eventually was allowed to accept the offer from The Guardian. His deadlines, perhaps didn’t pose the same restraints that they do for many columnists, nor the motivation or inspiration. ‘ Life is what happens on the outside; surely?’
‘…we just aren’t sure how rehabilitated the prison service wants the prisoners to be…’ the Governor commented.
For four years, James wrote and submitted his weekly column.
‘You know you’re a writer when you want your readers to see and feel what it is that you see, ’he said.
Instrumental in the setting up of reading/writing groups within the prison, James made the decision to be what he is, a writer. His psychiatrist believed that he could be a writer.
‘I never expected to ‘live’ again.’ he said, ‘Thank you for this opportunity.’