Erwin James (2016) Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope.

‘Writing makes me feel I was really living.’ There’s irony in when Erwin James writes that he’s a Category-A prisoner and banged up for killing two people. He doesn’t dwell on that. No excuses of how it was a robbery that went wrong –twice- and turned a thief and his mates into murderers.  I’m not usually criminal, although sense of humour border on it, but I  also write to make sense of the world and there is a lot of Ewin James I recognise in myself. This is Jack Abbot territory, an insider account ‘In the Belly of the Beast’.  Not a plea for redemption, but understanding. The material Erwin James works with is himself, his memories:

‘Understanding how I’d become what I’d become before prison was central to me agreeing that is was possible for me to live again.’

His father Erwin senior was born in Stevenson, Ayrshire and his mother from Paisley. Erwin was born in April 1957. There’s a post-war boom and the family move to England. Alison, a baby sister, soon follows. Fast forward to when Erwin junior is inside serving his term for murder. He’s told his dad is dead. Ewin senior was sixty-four and he’d been found alone lying on the floor of a sheltered housing complex. No great loss was my way of thinking. He’d smashed up people’s lives, beat up whatever girlfriend he’d hooked up with, abandoned his kids, and spent all the money that should have went on caring for his kin on drink and drunk himself to death. But here’s the rub, Erwin junior always dreamed of living with his dad. Of his dad loving him. And them living happily ever after. The boy that was in the man never gave up on that dream, even when he was inside.

Erwin junior and Alison’s life might have been different if his mum had lived. But their dad insisted that one of their pals drives her home, even though he was incapable of turning the ignition key in the barrel, and he drove off the road and killed himself and the kid’s mum. Erwin senior survived. People like him always do.

John Steinbeck got it about right, ‘A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ’. And for a boy aged five, his sister aged two, he latched onto the only thing he knew, his dad. One of the images that sticks with me is young Erwin sent to school with a cut down pair of wellies and on the school trip the teacher rounds up all the other pupils as his mum had ‘forgotten’ to make him a packed lunch. Erwin eats everything thrown at him before the bus leaves.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s,  The Spirit Level, gives a checklist of some killers i)low social status, ii) lack of friends iii) stress in early life. Erwin had all of these things in spades. He ends up in a care home and graduated with honours in drinking, fighting and stealing.

Erwin recognised that is needed not be that way. He had a choice. But the pattern was there. ‘The majority of people in prison had similar life experiences to mine – they had been in care, limited education, had family problems from a very young age, had issues with alcohol, drugs and mental health.’

The father of two kids he’s abandoned, Erwin found redemption in the French Foreign Legion. He didn’t know that the majority of recruits don’t get into the Legion. They are rejected. He was used to that. On another school trip a swarm of school kids had poured into a public toilet, he was sleeping in one of the stalls and the school kids had rejoiced that they’d found a tramp. Erwin was twenty-three. In the Legion he found the French language and that he was a natural soldier. Everything he did, he did well and got into an elite regiment in the Legion. But wanted for murder he decided to go home.

Erwin finds hope in Joan Branton, a prison psychologist, who believes in him and his ability to change. And Erwin finds education allows him to think. Writing in beautiful prose allows him to create a voice out of the mosaic of his past. It’s a voice that holds true through the difficulty years inside. He wins the Arthur Koestler award and gets to write for The Guardian.  Twenty years later he walks out the door and into a new life. The old lives are not forgotten, but part of his new life helping rehabilitate other offenders. Erwin knows better than most that when cuts to the system come they start with the poorest and those most in need, they start with the prison system. Lock them away and forget the key. That’s not a solution we can trust but is a vote winner. There is no redemption there.

David Leslie (2015) Carstairs Hospital for Horrors


Someone gave me this book, perhaps knowing I’m never happier than when unhappy and wallowing in the worst of humanity, and it makes a pleasant change from Nazi death camps. Erving Goffman defined a total institution as a place that is isolated and enclosed as Carstairs Hospital obviously is, but a wider reading also acknowledges the secrecy that such places engender. My first attempt at novel writing, Huts, written around eight years ago takes place in a similar total institution.  Staff are not allowed to talk about their work to outside agencies. More than that maxim, a total institution goals, such as the cure and rehabilitation of the violent and insane, become subverted to protecting its employees: the total institution exists because it exists, and it must always exist, whatever the cost. In this case the cost to taxpayers works in around £14 billion per year, or £285 000 per patient in NHS fees, or the equivalent of Wayne Rooney’s weekly wage, but the figures never seem to add up. Then again most public limited companies also follow this practice. It’s almost a state secret trying to find out, for example, how much Manchester United pay in tax (the answer is negative).  It is no surprise that David Leslie’s attempt to get someone inside the institution of Carstairs to offer an official response to his book was met with a firm ‘no comment’, especially with a title that includes ‘Hospital of Horrors’, worthy of most News of the World type headlines and its journalists who gleefully admitted their mandate was to destroy people’s lives. But the residents of Carstairs really did destroy people’s lives

By far the best writing in the book, the equivalent of Jack Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast, who in a familiar pattern, went onto kill after being released, come from the mea culpa letters of Robert Mone. The irony that when Robert Mone and Thomas McCulloch escaped from Carstairs in 1976, killing a fellow patient, a nurse and a policeman with weapons made inside the institution, and terrorising a family before being captured is not that they were insane, but that they had not planned beyond getting over the fence and they were later tried and sentenced in a criminal court and sent to prison. Their escape bid was successful as they did not return to Carstairs. Leslie asks the simple question what is Carstairs for? He cites numerous cases of patients moved to other institutions and from there into the community, who then go on to rape and kill. Thomas McCulloch now married and living outside Carstairs fits into that category.

But there are different kinds of murders. None worse than the cliché. David Leslie leaves no stone unturned with his identikit descriptions. I’ll string a few pearls together. ‘He was a nasty, cowardly, killer, made fools of staff and showed security to a joke at the establishment, which had been specifically created to be the most secure in the land.’ Leslie is referring to Noel Ruddie, who killed ‘popular dad of three James McConville…blasted at point blank range. It was only by sheer good luck…’

The case of Noel Ruddie particularly interests me because of a character Archie Denny I wrote about over eight years ago in my first attempt at a novel.

A Flymo appears on the slope, hovering like an orange spaceship, cutting blade set spacer by spacer high, but not as high as Archie Denny, white as a ghost, in dark winter wear, who dwarves the machine, making it look like a children’s toy. He’s extremely quick over the ground, moving his strong wrists in a sinuous and easy manner, with his head cocked, as if he is listening to the beat of the two-stroke engine and the promise of tender spring in the smell of freshly-cut grass. Archie seems to have a feel for the weight of a mechanical part and an eye for how things work. The Flymo glides, spraying green, bumping up on the tarmac path.

I jerk a hand up in greeting, much like I’d do to stop a double-decker bus. Side-shed swept across his forehead with enough greyish hair to hide behind his cloudy grey eyes, he can’t fail to see me, but doesn’t really make eye contact.   I’m used to one or the other with most patients, but not both. The machine slides away from my feet.  He is always in a hurry, always has fags because he works outside and has wee jobs fixing things. Archie is maybe a bit younger than Wullie the Pole, but not by much. It’s as if Archie’s shy or sly, he turns the machine and rattles the Flymo away from me without looking in my direction.

Archie Denny was employed as a gardener in fictional Glenboig hospital, as Noel Ruddie was in a Lennox Castle hospital before he killed again, but I thought my portrait of Archie Denny might have been  overstated, the equivalent of a pink flamingo standing in a bucket of water, but I now know that’s not the case. I’m grateful to David Leslie for that insight, but there are some horrors in his book I can’t overlook.

In the movement between fact and fiction is a waste land and in lives lived backwards: ‘There [sic] claims of innocence fell on deaf ears’ (p237). ‘Elaine was flattered by his attention, flaunting her body before him’ (234). ‘Marriage is a relationship in which trust is all important’ (233). ‘Had the devils been banned from his head?’ (233). ‘She was left heart broken and distraught’ (229). ‘By a strange quirk of fate, at almost the same moment’ (219). ‘The same doctors who fought to save her, now battled to preserve the life of a killer’ (216). ‘He would fight his greatest battle to regain his sanity surrounded by strangers’ (216). ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah, never knew what hit her’ (216). ‘Blessed unconsciousness took her from the nightmare of pain, terror and bewilderment’ (216). ‘There were no clouds on the horizon’ (214)’.

I’ll take two consecutive sentences and rewrite it to show how bewildered I became ‘by no clouds on the horizon’, patients living in the lap of luxury, and no killer cliché left unturned. ‘Night after night, he lay awake, unable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’

Night after night, he lay awake, uUnable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’

Leslie has problems other than grammar and semantics such as ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah,’ a jumble of mismatched words and chapter titles that start out with one topic and end on a different island. He refers to a Clydebank hotel and later a Clydebank motel, the Clydebank Hotel, the Erskine hotel, which is a bit confusing as Clydebank has three hotels and none of them are, or were called, the Clydebank Hotel. Someone goes to Lourdes for the ‘air’ and not the waters which are said to hold miraculous healing properties. My favourite was a Carstair’s patient, Wilkinson, who raped and killed a little girl, but ‘good was possible even in those capable of great evil’ (71). Wilkinson’s greater good was to offer his kidney for a transplant to a stranger. But Wilkinson suffered from ‘epilepsy associated with a personality disorder’. If a person has epilepsy it does not follow they have a personality disorder, although some might have, in the same way that some individuals who suffer from epilepsy might like cheese cake. Having epilepsy, a medical condition associated with the electrical activity on neurons in the brain, has little of nothing to do with the behavioural patterns of a perceived reaction to social stimuli, nor do either have much or anything to do with the kidneys (see cheesecake example). Like Leslie I’m over embellishing the egg. Carstairs Hospital for Horrors. The horrors of the prose stand out, although Robert Mone is a stand-alone hit and I’d certainly like to read more of his work.