More poetry by Angye Gaona


The road dreams it leads to the sea

Meanwhile it climbs the volcano
Or crosses the great swamp.The road of oceanic shore
Reminds of snow and blindness,
The secret of the lagoon,
The empty speech of the jungle.The memory of the road is nomad:
Remembrances transit in any direction of time,
Make it closer, make it farther.

The road collects deranged aromas
It leaves forgotten tools on the brink of envisioned routes.
It holds farewells that motley
Refract on the side mirror

Returns, occasionaly, the road
Bringing within
Landscape of time prints.

You claim to see it,
To escape putrefaction,
To run with claws ignited
– burning beat –
And vapored head when you turn round
Toward the past.
Have you seen
Its trail of wistful blue escape
And behind it
The troops besiege its fate.
Through the trail of nights moves forward.
Leads the thrones,
Seeks you,
Have you seen it,
Builds a ship on the mountains,
Starts mature in its dreams,
Explosions of symbol,
Are to you clear
And listen,
The cosmos is a code that understands,
The centre of the galaxy in its body,
As such it feels.
Follows you
Like you
Moves toward the sun,
Its golden lip
Brings thirst for fire.

(Translated by Maite)

No harm in writing? Jonny Steinberg at the University of York.

Jonny Steinberg, author, academic in political theory and criminology, and lecturer at the University of Oxford, spoke at final event of the Prison Fictions and Human Rights series on November 16th, 2012.

In his lecture ‘The Ethics of Narrative Non-Fiction,’ Steinberg raised some highly thought-provoking issues surrounding the ethics of being a non-narrative fiction writer, drawing from his own experiences of being a writer. Having written several successful, non-fictional accounts of social interactions, troubles and prejudices in South Africa, Steinberg looked back at his past work, answering for the difficulties with which he is now confronted as his career has progressed.

The lecture began by addressing the relationship between a writer and their audience – whether this relationship benefits more from truth or spectacle, and whether the occasional merging of fact with fiction in storytelling is ethical in a country like South Africa, where he claims that it is inherently difficult to know the truth at all. On one hand, publishing writers operate within a distinctly capitalist system and must respond to the public’s demand, which he sees as a ferocious hunger for factual, personal information – that the public wants to see where the “subject’s soul is shattered and consciousness crumbles,” referencing a line by Grossman. “I’m very much a product of my times,” he admits. On the other, theoretically unbiased accounts are impossible to produce (as an articulation of author’s voice contains biases of priority and emphasis) and are generally less sensational among the book-buying public.

Steinberg was then unable to ignore questioning the degree of responsibility a writer has to his subject both during, and subsequently after, the period of time in which the writer forms his interview – a period that can last months and create emotional ties even between people of extraordinarily different attitudes. What are the writer’s obligations to the meaning of the subject’s responses, as far as it can be construed? And what of economic obligations?

Michelle Kelly talks to Jonny Steinberg in the Bowland Auditorium, University of York

Any writer in a similar position has the temptation to err on the side of exploitation, and indeed when a traumatic subject assents to an interview for their own reasons a writer can accept this consent, whether or not the interview will later portray the subject favourably. Any interview is an opinion piece in some way – the questions asked and the portions of answer selected from the transcript, despite often seeming in themselves innocuous, contain a writer’s bias that is further propelled by the contextual information supplied and the subject matter of the surrounding text. The articulations of an interview subject are therefore always contextualised within a wider circle – the inherent bias of interview, the author’s text around it, the language in which it is printed and distributed, and connected to it, the market for the work, which defines the readership. Statistically, a character (factual or fictional) will either please or displease a majority within this defined market. The articulations of the writer, however, are regulated (among such influences as their religious, social and political stances and their writing style) by their emotional attachment to the subject.

In some of Steinberg’s accounts, the subjects came out economically or socially worse for the interview, and part of the talk felt to me to be in some sense a confession. When I asked him what he would have done differently with regards to Midlands, an account of a South African farmer whose son had been murdered amongst racial tensions that he wrote a decade previously, he replied, “I’d never choose that story now.” In hindsight, he thought that the negative outcomes of its publication on the farmer were always inevitable – it is a book “impossible without grief” – but that his immaturity and his own desires to write the story had clouded his judgment. It led to more questions – in a society that limits the amount of responsibility held by, say, sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, where can a line be drawn if a contract is private and inherently about personal perspectives? Should traumatised persons be protected from interviews by a third-party, or would this simply constitute a gross contravention of civil liberty?

Steinberg recounted that the interaction with the subjects created an uneasy bond between them, neither interviewer-interviewee nor human-human. I would speculate that the reason for this is in the nature of the work itself – interviews, which cause a subject to open up themselves to strangers in a way that they normally never would, changes the face of what is otherwise a contractual business relationship. They are further complicated by the fact that Steinberg does not pay some of his subjects for revealing themselves, and particularly if he later pays them royalties out of compassion for their poverty. The relationship becomes personal, and so an unfavourable account constitutes a betrayal.

On the whole, however, I got the impression that Steinberg’s work in this field had moved him far away from his initial ambitions, which seem to be, at least in part, using his interviews to narrate greater allegorical generalisations about the politics of his home country. He was humble and penitent for those whom his stories had harmed, but also practical, maintaining that he cannot support a subject indefinitely because of a consensual interview (though he conceded that he did not know quite where it ought to be cut off.) While his work has twice won him The Sunday Times Alan Paton Prize, South Africa’s most prestigious non-fiction award, I felt assured that Steinberg would pursue subjects for his writing more cautiously than he once did, and that he viewed storytelling not as an obligation to society but as a pursuit followed by a writer for various, largely economic, reasons. The conscience hereafter dictates what the writer writes – once more, ethics are individual – but it seemed clear that Steinberg had acknowledged responsibility for his words and the effects of his writing. Whether this translates into personal responsibility for the people themselves, or whether these types of account – or indeed any writing – can be written without some degree of harm seems impossible to tell.


Interview: David Wilson

UK leading criminologist and ex-prison governor Professor David Wilson, speaks to  Ally Swadling about his experience of prison, penal reform and how to dispel prison stereotypes.

“When I went there I’d ask if he was OK, and say that I was concerned that he was locked up by himself. On one memorable occasion he waited for me to visit, and when we opened his cell door he had stripped naked and covered his entire body with black shoe polish. He then threatened to “stab me with his moustache”, and told me to “fuck off”. I did.”

The press called him “the most violent prisoner in Britain” but for Professor David Wilson, Charles Bronson was simply another one of the inmates at HMP Woodhill where Wilson worked as a prison governor. A ‘Category A’ prison, Woodhill is the notorious home of two special units which Wilson helped to design and to manage, containing the 12 most disruptive prisoners in the country. “Even if my primary responsibilities were to the prison’s special units, I saw Bronson regularly enough in the segregation unit,” Wilson recounts in his column in The Guardian. “Only one person wanted Bronson to be in solitary confinement – Charles Bronson.”

Professor David Wilson was the youngest prison governor in the country before returning to criminology

Sat with a coffee in hand, the Wilson sat in front of me is very much the “celebrity” academic I’ve seen in more recent years on the TV and writing in newspapers – not perhaps how I’d imagine him as a prison governor dealing with the likes of Bronson. Wilson is direct and precise in his expression and he quickly abandons his coffee to free his hands, which are constantly gesticulating as he speaks. Notably, he is also nothing like the detached, chain-smoking bald bloke who was chosen to portray him in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 biopic Bronson, which depicts an incident where Bronson held the prison librarian hostage and Wilson took on the role as hostage commander. “Of course I might have been calculating – or appeared so to him – but I am not bald, bespectacled and I have certainly never smoked.” Wilson is an interesting man, to say the least.

In 1983, he completed his PhD at Cambridge and was then quickly recruited by the HM Prison Service’s Assistant Governor Scheme before starting his training at HM Wormwood Scrubs.

“Originally I was interested in the philosophical idea of why do some behaviours become labelled as crime and why do some behaviours, which cause just as much damage, are seen as permissible. Because I was reading philosophy it was this particular idea that attracted me to pursue a career in dealing with offenders. I wanted to apply the idea, and so my first ever job was an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs” Wilson explains. “I literally went from the philosophy to the practice in the course of a weekend.”

As a perpetual student in his twenties with no previous experience of employment, it comes as no surprise that the transition was stark. “Stark contrast is perhaps understating what happened,” he smiles. “I think prison officers didn’t like assistant governors, especially ones called ‘Doctor’ who had come straight from Cambridge; they wanted their prison governors to be ex-army or something. It was only because I could prove my abilities of playing rugby and that I understood the idea of boarding schools and people living in close proximity that I was able to survive those first few months. They were crucial in allowing me to then go on and pursue the ideas that had interested me in the first place.”

By the age of 29, Wilson became the youngest prison governor in the country. I ask how his experience of working with violent prisoners had affected his original philosophical thinking at this point. “My first exposure to a serial killer was when I was training as an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs and he was called Dennis Nilsen. I was kind of intrigued by that,” Wilson explains, referring to “the Kindly Killer” who was convicted in 1983. “But my first real experience of working with really violent prisoners was at Grendon, which operates as a psycho-dynamic therapeutic community and therefore its purpose is incredibly optimistic.”

Working at Young Offender’s Institutes Finnamore Wood and Huntercombe, Wilson went on to work at Grendon prison where he ran a sex offender’s treatment programme. Following his “positive experience” of working at Grendon, Wilson was asked to work with the violent prisoners of Woodhill. “That was a much more challenging experience and not at all as optimistic as the experiences of working at Grendon,” he concludes gravely.

His time and contact with these violent offenders began to shape his ideas on prison, and ultimately led him to quit the prison service in protest of the conditions. “I resigned when I returned from a visit on behalf of The Council of Europe to Albania, I was asked to help to advise the new democratic government of Albania about setting up a democratic penal system [Albania was previously under dictatorship]. Albania is an incredibly poor country – I was expecting their prisons to be appalling, but frankly they were better than our own.” His hands motion emphatically, also gesturing towards a deep-seated passion that now seems to have been masked by a well-practised television persona. “So because of being under a dictatorship, their attitudes to prisons were far more enlightened than British attitudes towards prisons. I resigned when I came back from visiting Albania, saying I don’t want to do anything more in our penal system. It was a natural return therefore to apply for an academic job.”

Wilson, who is now a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University has 15 published books predominantly on the subject of serial killers. He’s also become a figure of the public eye, regularly contributing to The Guardian and presenting documentaries for the BBC and Channel 5. I ask Wilson about his responsibility to dispel the kinds of distorted images of prison and prisoners the media so loves to weep about. “Well to bring it bang up to date, I think it is very interesting how Channel 4 promoted Gordon Ramsay” Wilson begins, referring to Channel 4’s favourite over-used leather handbag who went into Brixton prison to teach prisoners how to cook. “Both Channel 4 and Ramsay have played on two stereotypes of prison: the first was he was going to encounter super predators, that everybody there was going to try and kill him and try and hurt him in some way. But equally he’s also played on the other flipside of that stereotype; that prisoners are lazy and don’t want to get out of their cells; that they’ve really got to be cattle-prodded to take any action to change their circumstances,” he explains cuttingly, mimicking the tabloids. “So often what I’m doing in the public eye is trying to counteract those stereotypes by talking about how prison is in fact a much overused space that usually creates more problems than it solves. I think because the vast majority of the public don’t get access to the prison—that’s why programmes like Ramsay’s are so important—and if he panders to stereotypes it seems to me that it’s an opportunity missed.” Wilson raises his eyebrows as a resigned look flashes across his face. “I am pleased that it disappeared with almost no trace.”

However Wilson’s involvement in television is also problematic. In 2008, Wilson resumed his role as prison governor in a fake prison with the former Home Secretary David Blunkett as part of social experiment that followed the rehabilitation of ten offending teenagers in a programme called Banged Up. Although the series was nominated for a RTS award, it received a mixed response, most notably from ex-convict turned writer Erwin James, who called it “a sham.”

“I think that Banged Up really did work” Wilson affirms. “The medium can work, it is just those TV programmes that want to be sensationalist, populist, and exploitative programmes—which tend more often than not to get a commission—that is the problem.” While I wouldn’t call Banged Up ‘ground-breaking’, the message is an obvious and important one. I do take some issue however with Wilson’s more recent documentary Killers Behind Bars: The Untold Story, which aired on Channel 5 earlier this year.

David Wilson promotes his latest TV programme, Killers Behind Bars. Photo Credit: Channel 5

“Killers Behind Bars started out with a much more academic purpose, which was to introduce the public to real criminology as opposed to CSI criminology. In the series I’m actually using genuine profiling techniques,” he describes. “Actual offender profiling is a bottom up, data-driven approach to discovering or suggesting who the police might target the investigation towards.” While it is an incredibly interesting and compelling viewing, there is something quite uncomfortable about watching an hour- long documentary that re-opens these high profile cases in such horrific and intimate detail. Something about it just smacks of those “Never Been Seen Before!” straplines plastered all-over tabloids and ‘Real Life’ story magazines – the voyeurism of these kinds of programmes is just unavoidable.

I find myself getting frustrated that Wilson won’t acknowledge the difficulties of his own programme which doesn’t seem to have much purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity. How can we find this elusive balance between entertainment and enlightenment? “Well the balance is heavily skewed towards entertainment,” he admits, “I think there are some interesting and edgy programmes as a consequence of that imbalance. For example, Dexter springs to mind as a very interesting and edgy programme. Dexter is a serial killer who targets other serial killers, so the viewer ethically and morally is being asked to root for Dexter – I find all that very problematic, because really what we’re playing on is a stereotype of what a serial killer is like. Serial killers are not dramatic, exciting, insightful people – they don’t talk about fine foods and Florentine architecture or blood spatter patterns. They’re actually rather boring, dull, grey, everyday people who are self-obsessed, weedy and needy.”

It’s not quite the resolve or explanation I wanted, but it does characterise a man who has remained faithful to the truth and to his own experiences. David Wilson can certainly be relied on to provide a well-informed and lucid voice to the prison debate, but it’s disappointing to see the burgeoning “celebrity” rather than the academic.

With thanks to Ed Greenwood for his help and research.

Ally Swadling

Originally published by Nouse in November 2012.

Interview: Ali Ferzat

Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2012 included a man who has been kidnapped, tortured and exiled for his satirical attacks on the Assad regime. Laura Hughes meets Ali Ferzat.

Ali Ferzat’s hands stand as a screaming symbol of Syrian resistance. On Thursday 25 August 2011, masked state-sponsored militia from President Bashar Assad’s regime, beat Ali and brutally broke his hands. It was a bid to silence this caricaturist into submission. But Ali Ferzat’s hands healed. Ali is now living in exile in Kuwait where he continues to define, and redefine through his own unique medium of mass communication, the slaughtering tyranny of the Syrian Government.

Ali Ferzat’s draws his caricatures between the prescribed lines of Syrian censorship. Ali had initially struck up a friendship with Bashar al-Assad and it was the President who was responsible for initially legalizing the publishing of his drawings. Ali told me of their former friendship, “well that was more precisely a relation that started at a gallery he attended in Damascus in 1996. He had wanted to know through me and other artists and intellectuals about the corruption in the country and kept making slogans of reform, development and modernization, but those slogans evaporated when he came to power. And I was very critical of him from the moment he took power through my extremely satirical cartoons.”

“For politics is the art of deception while art is a moral stance that doesn’t change.”

Since the spring of 2011, Syrian protesters and the swathes of the poorer Sunni majority, have called for the dissolution of Assad’s Ba’ath government. The United Nations estimates 10,000 people have been killed and 100,000 forced to flee from their homes. Assad’s initial concessions have been replaced by a repressive crackdown and he has strangled Syria into subservience. The President has waged war against his own people and made a mockery of international attempts to qualm his butchery. Syrians have been detained for expressing their opinions and reporting information online.

Ali’s cartoons directly criticized Assad despite laws permitting the President to be characterised. It was a cartoon depicting the President hitch-hiking a ride with a fleeing Muamar Gadhafi which provoked the attack.

“Bashar sent his regime’s shabiha, or thugs, to assault and kidnap me in the middle of the most important public square in Damascus (Ummayyad square) and they threw me out of their car on the road to the airport thinking they could get rid of me.” The American Embassy in Damascus called it “a government-sponsored, targeted, brutal attack.” Ali talked of how he had left Syria for Kuwait a month after the incident in search of medical treatment that was unavailable in Syria. Secret service agents were arresting patients in hospitals whose wounds were received during protests.

Ali first had his first cartoons published at just 14, on the front pages of al-Ayyam newspaper, before the publication was banned by Assad’s father. Since then he has created more than 15,000 caricatures. In December 2000 Ali was granted permission to publish al-Domari, the first independent periodical allowed in Syria since 1963. In 2003, however, frequent censorship meant Ali was forced to shut the paper down. It was a cartoon depicting a General offering out military decorations instead of food to a hungry citizen that stirred the most discontent amongst Arab leaders. One cartoon includes an image of a gun with a razor blade for a trigger and a severed fingertip; a recent cartoon shows a small sprouting flower lifting a tank.

In 2012, Time magazine named Ali Ferzat one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Ali has received the 2011 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought by the European Parliament and been honoured as one of the leading figures in the Arab spring. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders 2011 Prize for Press Freedom and the Cartoonists Rights Network’s 2012 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award.

He has been blacklisted from Libya, Jordan and Iraq, and received death threats from Saddam Hussein. Yet still Ali serves as the head of the Arab Cartoonists’ Association and cartoonists from across the world drew their own cartoons in response to Ali’s attack.

I asked if satire and humour were really a means of procuring reform. “Yes satirical humor can be used to turn the tables on dictatorship and injustice. When it stems from the pain of the people and is bold, when it shatters the barrier of silence and the fear of the people. The proof of that could be seen with the Syrian revolutionaries who carry my cartoons during protests as a show that they relate to the drawings.” So was it possible to be an artist and a creator before a political dissident? “The creative artist is for the most part not necessarily a political activist, as is the case with me. For politics is the art of deception while art is a moral stance that doesn’t change.”

In September 2005 the Prophet Jyllands-Posten drawings shook the Muslim world. The twelve cartoons depicted the Muslim Prophet in various satirical circumstances. One cartoon depicted Muhammad with a lit bomb upon his head instead of a turban. I wanted to know if cartoons ever cross a line. Ali believes that this is to be decided by the opinions of the cartoonist and those who consume their work. But the uproar in response to these 12 cartoons could have been “overlooked if it wasn’t for the media that used them as a means for a political agenda and weren’t concerned with art or religion. If we come to my personal opinion, I think we can criticize Muslims, Christians and Jews as people but what do the heavens have to do with that?”

The Syrian protests began in the city of Deraa in March 2011. Marchers demanding the release of 14 school children were brutally silenced and government militia stormed their city. The violence triggered anti-government protests across the country. When security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrations, initial demands for greater democracy, became calls for Assad’s resignation. Protestors are asking for the immediate end to extrajudicial killings and torture, the release of political prisoners, detained protesters and the transition to a democratic, free and pluralistic society. Opposition figures have stressed that they seek a multi-national, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society.

During the Lebanese civil war Syria was quick to wield influence and interfere in the country’s politics. The Syrian military occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005. If the crisis continues to escalate, commentators fear Hezbollah could occupy the Sunni section of Beirut, as they did in May 2006. Sectarian tensions in Lebanon are agitated between government troops and rebel sympathisers. As turmoil mounts in Syria the security situation for the whole region hangs in the gallows. Condemnation has come against Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has adopted a policy to dissociate Lebanon from the repercussions of the unrest in Syria. Critics say he has taken the side of the Assad regime. The Lebanese political landscape is comprised of the Sunni-based alliance known as March 14, and the opposition, the Shia-dominated March 8 coalition headed by Hezbollah. The latter are strong allies of the Syrian dictatorship.

Did Ali believe the Syrian conflict would continue to spill into Lebanon? “Yes the revolution could help raise the awareness of people whom will turn against the bloody governments that support the Syrian dictatorship in its suppression of the Syrian people, like Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. It can also spread in time outside the Middle East to places like Russia, China, Venezuela, Korea. States Ali described as “the countries of hell.” We talked of the consequences for Hezbollah if Assad’s regime was to fall: “Hezbollah and Syrian regime are nothing but a robot of Iran in the region, they will lose power once the Iranians drop the remote control at the hands of the Syrian revolution.”

The situation in Syria today echoes of the 1980s and of the international stagnation that fell silent in its wake. The current President’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, responded to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood by authorizing the shelling of Hama, leaving at least 10,000 Syrians for dead. Russia, China and Iran have till now supported the current regime. Russia and China came out against Western calls for intervention, on the basis of human rights concerns, and the possibility of growing Western influence in the region. If the Assad dictatorship survives it will remain largely dependant on its Iranian patron. Iran continues to sustain the regime through their supply of practical and financial assistance. This dependency could lead to what commentators have called an ‘Iranian sphere of influence,’ which would stretch from western Afghanistan to Lebanon, where Hezbollah remains a key Iranian ally.

I wanted to know what a man, who had given his life to his country’s cause, thought of the international community’s response to this gross violation of human rights and this humanitarian crisis. “The international community is currently devoid of humanity. The Syrian revolution has lifted the veil off the Syrian regime and now poses a moral dilemma for a free world which calls for freedom but will take care of itself before it can care for others.” Ali’s cartoons contend the idea that violence is the only means of achieving political ends. Students have stopped hearing, perhaps its time we start looking.

Laura Hughes

Thanks go to Noha Abdel Bary for her assistance in translation

Originally published by Nouse Novermber 2012.

Interview: Erwin James

Ex-convict, author and Guardian columnist, Erwin James speaks to Ally Swadling and Mary O’Connor about his reform and becoming a writer in prison.

“You just put my name into Google – you’ll find all sorts of crap in there.”

The very idea that before prison, Erwin James Monahan was, in his words, “a dangerous and dysfunctional individual” seemed unbelievable on meeting the mild-mannered and good-humoured gentleman sat before us.

Erwin James served 20 years in prison for his crimes. Photo Credit: David Levene

Having suffered continuous abuse from an early age, James’ life quickly spiralled downwards. With his first conviction at 11, he found himself between various care homes. By 15, he was living an equally nomadic and destructive existence on the streets. In 1982, James met his co-accused in a squat and their criminal activity eventually culminated in the murder of two men. James was released in 2004 after serving 20 years behind bars. During the final years of his sentence, he was asked to write a column in the Guardian newspaper on prison life and still writes for the paper today. Listening to James speak to us so calmly and movingly, you have to wonder how such a transition was achieved – from a “rock-bottom” life in prison to becoming a successful writer with two published books (A Life Inside and The Home Stretch).

“My whole life is an apology really. I live an apology”

James, who has a notably humble way about him, gives no pretence that he is an “exceptional” individual, but instead pays tribute to a handful of much needed “champions”. One such champion came in the figure of the prison psychologist, Joan. During a bleak moment of James’ life, it was Joan who convinced him that he had worth. “She said to me ‘none of us are thick, we are all born with potential.’ She really hammered that down my throat. She persuaded me that I had some value,” he tells us with evident emotion. Gradually, James became reacquainted with education – something he speaks passionately about. “Education is the last bastion for rehabilitation. If we believe in rehabilitation for prisoners, we’ve got to start with education.”

James unearthed his childhood penchant for writing and enrolled in an English course in prison before going on to complete an Arts degree, majoring in history. “In a few months I was top of the class,” he beams with pride, before wryly adding, “but it’s not hard to be top of the class in prison, in any subject really.” Although James claims to be unexceptional, to succeed in the “prison soup” is difficult. “Prison was all about crushing, dehabilitating, disempowering, dehumanising, all the negative things about being a human being, prison was that” he reflects. “You have to operate within a very negative hierarchy…it’s dangerous. If you say ‘Oh I’m going to read books’, you’ll get stabbed – I’m not joking. If you’re going to further yourself in prison, you have to do it in a way that is acceptable to the hierarchy […] but I decided to overcome these negatives.”

Unsurprisingly, these problems stirred when James — known on the landings for “writing a good letter” — began writing for the Guardian. “It was dangerous in one respect because of ‘the tall poppy’ syndrome – you’ve got to be subtle about your achievement,” he explains. “Suddenly the Guardian wanted me to write for them, and my heart was bursting, wanting to tell the whole world that a national newspaper wants me to write from them.” But James was discreet and after much campaigning he eventually began writing under the pen name Erwin James. “I thought, this was something worth doing. I could have just not bothered; I could have just crawled into a hole and disappeared,” he insists. “The prison didn’t want me to write for the Guardian, they told me it wasn’t going to happen – they don’t like prisoners in the media.” James recalls an incident when he was accused of criticising the home secretary in his column and was called in front of the prison governor. “He said to me, ‘I’ve been told to tell you, (I was due my parole hearing at 18 years) any more of that and when it comes to your parole hearing, we might just turn the page and let you wait a couple more years.’” We look at James wide-eyed, open-mouthed. “I swear to God that’s what he said. I said to him, ‘If you want to keep me in prison for a bad thing, you keep me in as long as you want. But you keep me in prison for a good thing… I mean, are you threatening me? I’ve never written the disparaging things I’ve could have written, I’ve just been authentic and truthful and I’m going to carry on doing that in my writing.’”

So you faced issues of censorship?

“I was self-censored”, he states definitively, describing how he avoided the governor’s bowdlerizing hand. “I used to write my copy and read it over the phone [to the Guardian], with a big long queue behind me. So I’d be whispering, because I might be talking about drugs, or an escape, or prison politics and they might think I’m a snitch. It was dangerous. I had one guy come to my cell one night and ask, “Do you work at the Times?” I said “Yes I do”. I didn’t, but I thought, that’d put them off the scent!” he laughs.

It’s these kinds of anecdotes that remind us of the significance of James’ writing as a prisoner; a convict locked away in an unknown and marginalised place. Some criticised the Guardian for giving a criminal such an outward platform, yet James wanted nothing more than to “open a little window into what it was actually like”. “I had no issue about being a prisoner – I knew I deserved all that came to me. I wasn’t innocent, I wasn’t protesting,” he explains. “But when I read that I was in a holiday camp, eating steak and lobster, I thought that’s not fair. I’ve got victims out there, family, friends, who think that people like me are inside having a great time playing pool with my mates. It’s just not true.”

James’ honesty provided a much needed human antidote to these distorted images and allowed James to be not just a convict, but a writer. On the landings he was ‘Big Jim’, and in print he was Erwin James: a name he chose as “a sort of mechanism – not revealing too much, but not hiding either.” James’ work received largely positive feedback, but the speculation of ‘Who Did Erwin James Kill?’ reached boiling point in 2009 in a Daily Mail exposé after James tweaked information in an article he wrote about his time spent in the Foreign Legion in order to conceal his identity – a decision he remains apologetic about. While hardly an exemplary moment of James’ character, his evident frustration and embarrassment underlines for us what is most striking and admirable about him – his overwhelming spirit of self-improvement: “My whole life is an apology really. I live an apology,” he finally tells. “I knew I owed it to my victims to live the best way I could. If I’d come out of prison and just gone off quietly and become a plumber, I could have put this whole thing behind me. But because I chose this path, there is always a cloud over my head – I think about my victims every day.”

Ally Swadling & Mary O’ Connor

Originally published by Nouse in June 2012.

In Transit

I am only a sound.

Easy to muffle,

Easy to stifle;

Easy to ignore

when it isn’t The note quite desired.

I am only a sound,

So easily lost

When you don’t understand

Why it is That you no longer hear me.

I am only a sound,

So easy to lose

In the hustle and bustle

Of crowded rooms With briefcases and ties.

I am only a sound;

I still echo.

Through walls, along streets

And across oceans.

My sound is welcomed by crowds.

I am only a sound.

I am only



Voice –

But I am the sound of many.


(A response to the work and plight of Angye Gaona by a member of YorkPEN)