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April 23, 2009 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Erwin James: the real me. Erwin James has written about prison for the Guardian for a number of years, from the point of view of an insider: when his column began, he was serving a sentence for two murders. He completed his sentence a few years ago, but continued to write under that name, a pseudonym. Here, he talks about the crimes that he was originally imprisoned for, his time in the French Foreign Legion, how he became a writer during his time in prison, and gives his real name for the first time.
posted by chorltonmeateater (19 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I suspect it was this forum discussion which prompted this article.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 11:21 PM on April 23, 2009


You kinda buried the lede there, didn't you.
posted by dersins at 11:48 PM on April 23, 2009


It's curious that his outing had to do with lies about his life secondary to his crime. The Guardian clearly knew he was trying to avoid details about his crime. How far do you go to do this in an age where bloggers with scant details can fact check a multitude of public details? Clearly the lies weren't 'authorized' by the Guardian, but they do seem like logical extensions of their policy with him. I suppose that's why he's still being given space, etc. And now that it's all out, will the victims' famlies actually care?

Fascinating all around, thanks for the links.
posted by FuManchu at 12:37 AM on April 24, 2009


It is fascinating, isn't it? Part of the appeal of James' work was its authenticity -- the fact that he was writing about prison from the inside. And the length of the sentence that he was serving meant that he was almost certainly in for murder, but while the details were hazy, the Guardian-reading liberals (myself among them) weren't forced to confront the sordid details of James' crimes.

Now though, the gig is up, and we learn that he was involved in the murders of two men, during the course of robberies/burglaries? That he was party to strangling somebody in order to steal a television set and a VCR. And all of a sudden, the way that you think about him shifts, ever so subtly. He's no longer the heroic intellectual, struggling to nurture the germ of an undeveloped talent against an oppressive system. Instead, he's revealed as a bully, someone who victimized men who were physically weaker than himself, and held their lives in so little value that he was happy to snuff them out for the contents of their wallet.

A second unnamed man, serving a prison sentence in the North of England, has also been questioned over the killing of a theatrical agent, Mr Greville Scott Hallam, and a National Coal Board solicitor Mr Angus Cochrane.

And while the details here are very slight, I can't help wondering if these were predatory acts against gay men? A theatrical agent and a solicitor, the latter attacked in St. James Park? Were they cruising for sex, and then when they got back to the apartment, letting in the other accomplice?

I've got nothing against offenders-- be they current or ex -- writing about their experiences, and getting paid to do so, and I'm perfectly happy to accept that someone has served there time and are therefore rehabilitated. But there's something that makes me really uncomfortable about the idea of someone who has been convicted of two murders, who is using their life experiences in the criminal justice system as the raw material of their work, yet continues to conceal the fundamental details of the offences for which they were ultimately convicted. It creates a huge lack of transparency, which I think is important in reporting.

I know that there are lots of journalists who use their own lives as the raw material for their stories that hold back a lot of stuff, but they aren't usually double murderers and I do think that makes a difference.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:25 AM on April 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


There is always such a delicious tension in the Guardian. It offers the jet setting vacation mass consumption lifestyle but with carbon offsets and eco-friendly locally sourced cruelty free pate foie gras. Sugar coating the ick factor of a double murderer writing an insider perspective on prison life doesn't seem at all inconsistent with this.
posted by srboisvert at 2:31 AM on April 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Reading his column over the years it was fairly early on it was clear that he was in for murder and given the length of his tariff (something that he mentioned on more than one occasion) it was a obviously something fairly major (though not as extreme, as say, a serial killer).

I'm going to have to re-read his piece but I can't really see why he had to lie about his Legion experiences - surely he could have just prevaricated some of the details - or even said he'd changed a few things to cover the identity of some of those he served with. I'm sure his editors at the Guardian would have been able to give him some advice - as long as he was up front about it.

One of Erwin's great pluses about his writer - and I read every single one his diary entries of the years with complete fascination - was his seeming complete honesty about himself and his situation - and especially over how he's grown over the years. But if he's lied in print about the Legion stuff, what else might he have lied about?

And while the details here are very slight, I can't help wondering if these were predatory acts against gay men? A theatrical agent and a solicitor, the latter attacked in St. James Park? Were they cruising for sex, and then when they got back to the apartment, letting in the other accomplice?

Yeah I'm kind of guessing it might have been something like this.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:55 AM on April 24, 2009


it was obviously something fairly major

I'm not sure why, but I'd always imagined it was some kind of gangland warfare, or a domestic violence thing gone wrong. Perhaps because of his continual wrestling with his own moral issues and his refusal to condemn his fellow inmates, I always felt he was presenting himself as someone who was fundamentally decent who had somehow gotten into trouble.

Revealing the full details of his conviction really does undermine that presentation, I'd have thought, making it much harder for his audience to like him or empathize with him.

I do wonder if he'd had any advice from The Guardian's editorial staff on how he should deal with this, and what that advice was?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:10 AM on April 24, 2009


some kind of gangland warfare

Although I can't remember ever really speculating on the precise details of the crime, I think I did assume it was something of that nature, given the tariff. However Erwin's brief sketching in on his life before prison in his columns, of the chaotic nature of his life, later made me think he had not been involved in organised crime or anything of that nature.

Given the nature of his life before prison and especially the details of the murder, it's obvious why he would want to leave it behind him and indeed it does really seem to have grown past it - and at least the authorities think so or he would not have been released.

The Erwin before prison appeared to have been someone who I would not want to be in the same room as, but the Erwin who wrote the columns seemed someone who was almost admirable, and the Erwin who has been revealed today... well I not really sure how I feel at the moment.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:16 AM on April 24, 2009


For some reason, I suppose his name, I always imagined Erwin James as a black guy. Not that I know any black people called Erwin. I actually dont know anybody called Erwin. Who the hell is called Erwin?

I do wonder if he'd had any advice from The Guardian's editorial staff on how he should deal with this

I dont imagine that the Guardian editorial staff would have offered him advice if he didn't ask for it, although I'd also like to know what their advice was, if any.

I always felt he was presenting himself as someone who was fundamentally decent who had somehow gotten into trouble.


Well don't you think we're all fundamentally decent people who get into trouble, especially with that kind of childhood?
posted by criticalbill at 5:18 AM on April 24, 2009


OK, so at least one Erwin
posted by criticalbill at 5:18 AM on April 24, 2009


I'm not sure why revelations about his dishonesties about the time in the Legion are anything except frankly trivial. Also, are we really super-anxious about the exact nature of the murder? It wasn't going to be something appealing, something pretty or sanitised, so I rate that as pretty irrelevant too.

Interesting piece though. The old Erwin certainly wouldn't have agonised about minor deceptions. I hope he's changed as deeply as he'd have us believe: he's certainly paid a substantial price for his crimes.
posted by imperium at 5:47 AM on April 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always imagined Erwin James as a black guy

I had assumed either he was Welsh or it was reference to something Welsh (Not beause of Irvin Welsh - but because it's a Welsh name). I remember back in the day spending a few minutes googling what it might be a reference too... without thinking it was the old pseudonym stand by of moving your names around.

Well don't you think we're all fundamentally decent people who get into trouble, especially with that kind of childhood?

I suppose that comes down to the old nature/nurture argument - and not all people with terrible upbringings become murderers.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:57 AM on April 24, 2009


"Not all people with terrible upbringings become murderers." But how many mefites have had as bad an upbringing as Erwin James?
"For a number of years I had been subjected to serious violence and emotional deprivation that I am not going to go into detail about. By the age of 10, I was running wild, sleeping rough."
It seems that his spell in the foreign legion and the self respect he found there was what gave him the moral courage to turn himself in. "At that moment I decided to return to England, initially to face up to what I had done. I left my unit in Corsica that night without permission and made my way by ferry to Nice, where I handed myself into the British consul, who advised me to give myself up to the French police." I think the key phrase here is "my conscience was growing". Conscience, or empathy, isn't an all or nothing, you have it or you don't quality, it lives and dies by your experiences and/or your exercise of it.
posted by houlihan at 7:43 AM on April 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


cf. In the Belly of the Beast
posted by dhartung at 8:46 AM on April 24, 2009


Well don't you think we're all fundamentally decent people who get into trouble, especially with that kind of childhood?

No, I'm pretty clear that some people *aren't* fundamentally decent. Sometimes because a childhood like Erwin's robs them of the capacity for empathy, sometimes because it was never even there to begin with, and sometimes because people know what the right thing is, but choose to disregard it for their own gratification or enrichment.

I mean, that guy who kept his daughter imprisoned in the cellar for 24 years while he fathered seven children to her? Was he also fundamentally decent, but someone who'd just got into trouble?

I don't think so. I think he's someone who falls into the latter category of someone who deliberately disregards the misery he's inflicting, because he sees his own needs as paramount and his daughters as unworthy of any consideration. And I'm perfectly happy to make moral judgements about people who behave in that manner. In fact, I don't understand why anyone would be reluctant to do so.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:01 AM on April 24, 2009


Revealing the full details of his conviction really does undermine that presentation, I'd have thought, making it much harder for his audience to like him or empathize with him.

If comments on the blue about certain characters on The Wire are any indication, the only thing standing between Erwin and empathy may be sufficient camera time.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:31 PM on April 24, 2009


At the risk of prolonging a slightly silly debate I'd just say that even Fritzl seemed to have some recognition and regret for his actions at his trial, when he changed his plea after hearing his daughter's evidence. That would suggest that the capacity for decency was intact although obviously hugely perverted over their lives.

I'm trying not to say that many people are misguided instead of evil, but I suppose I think that most people who we would call evil or whatever don't categorise themselves that way; they don't just disregard the suffering they cause out of their own volition, but because they don't understand it or empathise. I'm not saying people shouldn't take responsibility for their actions, just offering a maybe Panglossian view of human nature
posted by criticalbill at 1:25 PM on April 24, 2009


also very good by EJ at the same site: "sometimes the visit of a musician to a prison can be a transformative experience for prisoner and player alike."

Thanks very much for this post, chorltonmeateater. Enlightening reading.
posted by telstar at 5:59 PM on April 24, 2009


Sorry, I have to make moral judgments about someone who can rape their daughter repeatedly and imprison her and the resulting in children in his basement for decades, at one point, letting one die for lack of medical attention.

I think there really is nothing other to describe that than evil. The guy clearly had a choice: after all, he kept his wife and his other kids upstairs and let them free. Why not that daughter and her children? Oh yeah, because then he'd have to go to jail for rape and incest. Oops, too inconvenient: his freedom is more important than that of these other people, his own children. Sorry folks. Evil, selfish, wrong: there's really no other way to describe it.

There are lots of situations where I can understand to some extent why people make choices that could be perceived by others as evil, where they literally cannot see other options at the time they make the bad choices or where social pressures like "following orders" make it difficult to make other choices.

The Fritzl situation was simply not one of them because he obviously recognized that there were other options, he just didn't care.
posted by Maias at 8:11 PM on April 24, 2009


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