There are two reviews of the Booked! festival I’m only now writing up. Better late than never springs to mind – although one could argue that is not always the case. The second review is one I thoroughly enjoyed and, in my humble opinion, would have made a great finale, no disrespect to Rhona Cameron. You can read that review below.
The other I have been struggling with ever since I attended the Alastair Pearson Lecture at the Millennium Hall, Gartocharn on May 9th, 2016. I have attended two previous lectures/talks to honour the memory of a most remarkable gentleman, so it was a surprise to read about the speaker chosen this year.
I’m really finding it difficult but hope I will sort out my own thoughts by sharing them with anyone who may be reading this piece. I have written several attempts which I have now shredded. I found it difficult to be objective and have concluded that my problems may lie more with me than the talk itself.
Erwin James is the pen-name of a convicted murderer with a whole (99 years) life sentence. Fifteen years into his sentence he began writing a column, ‘A Life Inside’, for ‘The Guardian’. Money raised from this went to charity, apart from the year previous to his release on licence which went into the bank for his personal use.
His talk revealed a disturbed childhood, his drifting into a life of crime, his encounter with the prison psychologist who ‘instilled in him a belief in himself’, his education gained in prison. He also spoke of the prison culture, of the hostile environment, not conducive to turning out good citizens. He posed the question, often asked, What is prison for - revenge/retribution or rehabilitation?
And it is in answering this question that my difficulty lies. Is my answer the first option or is it the second? Do I cop out and go down a philosophical road of ‘It lies somewhere between the two’ or ‘It is both’.
If the first option is the answer then it would logically follow that Mr James should never have been released. If the second then Mr James’ life following his release proves its validity. And I am still torn between those two answers. I feel I should be able to answer with the second but my own little Jiminy Cricket sits firmly on my shoulder.
As far as I remember, and I did take copious notes during the talk, Mr James never referred to himself as a murderer. Instead he spoke of his ‘actions which led to the deaths of two people’. Anyone checking out the details of those deaths will judge for themselves the savagery of them, even if the intent was not originally there. Two people WERE murdered.
As I’ve already stated I felt unsettled by this talk and the doubts about myself it raised.
However, the catharsis of writing has helped me resolve in some way how I feel about the question.
Thank you for ‘listening’.
Next time a happier piece… I promise!
Books by Erwin James available from Amazon UK
Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope
A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook