Busy London streets
I made my way out of the crowds towards my destination: The National Portrait Gallery, London.
Although this will be a time to indulge my love of Art, I’m actually here to interview rather than be an interviewee.
I arrived early and found a quiet(ish) corner of the café to collect my thoughts, helped enormously by the Earl Grey tea and slice of orange and polenta cake.
Two days previously I attended the Koestler Art exhibition on the South Bank entitled “Another Me”
I prefer to visit alone; I don’t want other people’s initial reflections to become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles of the pieces. This year I discovered “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking at?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf such variety of materials, such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I made my way up to the large information desk at the National Portrait Gallery and sat patiently awaiting my guest.
Ten minutes later, he arrived looking rather bemused at my choice of venue to interview him.
Erwin James followed me up a flight of stairs where we slowly wandered around looking at portraits of people, from HM The Queen to Zandra Rhodes and every conceivable individual in between.
Trying to get my bearings, we turned a corner and entered the Statesmen’s Gallery, lined on each side by a series of white marble busts on projecting plinths in between painted portraits. It looked outstanding.
At the far end hung a portrait painting of Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright (oil on canvas, exhibited 1909), militant Suffragette, persuasive speaker and effective strategist. Erwin and I stood and pondered.
In one of the rooms off this gallery we found a bench, sat down and started to talk. Straight ahead was a significant portrait, covering a large part of the wall, entitled:
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari
Faith Spear: When you look at that picture what does it tell you?
Erwin James: There are people who care about people that others don’t care about. This lady cared for the wounded she didn’t care about the war, she cared about people.
FS: How does it make you feel when you see that?
EJ: My experience of prison was that occasionally, more than occasionally there are people who care about people, about the wounded people in our prisons who need assistance, it’s a challenge for any community or society to think that we should care or help those that have hurt us. But she cared about everybody.
FS: Do paintings like that inspire you?
EJ: I found paintings in prison. I did an Arts degree and I was given this folder of great art; I had never had access to art or that sort of thing, ever in my life until I went to prison. I found art through the Open University.
I have never seen this painting before if I’m honest, but it tells us, “this lady, she doesn’t care who you are. She just wants to heal you.” The Onlookers: What are they thinking, should we help this person? There’s hesitance, others are standing away, observing. But you can’t hesitate or observe when people need help. My feeling about our attitudes to prisoners is that’s it’s a challenge to help people who’ve hurt us but if we don’t help them, they are going to hurt more people. When I look at that painting, I promise you some are taking advantage of the crowd.
FS: That’s interesting “taking advantage of the crowd”
EJ: We do that in our society now, longer prison sentences…we deserve a prison system that hates the crime, perhaps hates the criminal but for Christ sake give the prisoner a chance. That’s my philosophy really.
We slowly moved from room to room admiring and yet questioning the art we saw. Both of us were struck by a painting of Henrietta Maria (1635) and our hidden thoughts became open dialogue
EJ: Look how attractive we are, look how wealthy we are, look how amazing we are
FS: Always trying to prove something
FS: Is that because people can’t accept who they are?
EJ: People seem to want to portray an image that is more than what they are, that is exactly what these people did
FS: It’s not just status is it?
EJ: Status, its look at me, look at us, all the poverty in the country when she was painted.
The poor people, we always looked up to the people doing well, we always aspire to be like them
FS: Always looking down on those that are not doing so well?
EJ: I don’t know why because we are all trying to get up that ladder
FS: Do you think we fall into the trap that we don’t actually accept people for who they are?
EJ: Well we are not sure who they are, all we know is we think we know who we are we want to be better versions of ourselves come what may
There are many self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, some more obvious than others.
FS: With a self-portrait you are not necessarily portraying the real you
EJ: No, you are portraying what you want the world to know about you. As a writer I am the same, I’m exactly the same, I want the world to know me through words because the world sort of knew me through the courts through prison through prosecution
FS: So, do you think you were trying to re-invent yourself
FS: But then that is saying previously that wasn’t the true you
EJ: Yes, that wasn’t the true me
FS: Do you think that this is the true you now, what you are doing now?
EJ: Yes, before I became who I think I am, I’m not perfect by any means, but I am my own person and I think lots of people go through life thinking, well is this me? I’m born into this way of living but gradually you think did I decide this. Other people decide our lives and what prison gave me was the freedom to choose my own, if that makes any sense. But even though I am a million miles away from perfect, I am a real person
They all portray dominance over everyone else. The whole purpose of art in these ages was to say look at us, we dominate you – and then the dominated looked up and said, “we are so pleased to be dominated by you”, we didn’t know then that any of us could be dominate and dominated we didn’t realise then before mass education, we didn’t understand that we can all be people with education with skills and abilities
We walked up to level 2, not knowing what to look at first. We entered a small room.
FS: Do you see that painting over there of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with his books showing he is an educated man, well in fact, a poet?
EJ: Books for the educated people? No. books are for everyone, to me Faith, books are a great leveller. If you can read, you can be a King.
By this time, I needed to sit down; juggling bag, jacket, notebook, pen and phone was getting problematic. I found a wooden bench in one of the corridors and with phone at the ready I continued my questions as we sat down.
FS: One thing I am always amazed at in an art gallery is that everything is categorised, often by year, era or by event. Everything is numbered. And there is a lot of security. When you come into an art gallery you are watched by cameras everywhere.
Everything is numbered, everything is categorised exactly the same as it is in a prison.
How did it feel to be categorised and given a number?
EJ: That is a really good question.
Well I was categorised; I was a Cat A prisoner for 5 or 6 years. The system categorises you and gives you a number. I hated my prison number. I was in Devon driving down a lane and I saw a signpost for the B73…, arghhhhhh! That’s my prison number!
It was awful, I had forgotten it, forgotten it purposely. When you are categorised and given a number you become labelled, you’re not human you’re a prisoner. But thank god there are some amazing people that work in prisons who want you to be human. For various reasons you end up there, they work there, and they are there to help you to become like them. Thank god for that. Without those people I would never be here I would never have made it. Teachers, psychologists, probation officers some prison officers…
FS: But when people are reduced to a number do you think that is degrading?
EJ: Well I think the danger Faith, you are asking me something quite profound here, because the danger when we do that, we detach people psychologically from our community. Now prison is detaching. You did harm, you caused pain, grief etc, but what we do with that in our prison system is that we detach further psychologically so the people in prison psychologically don’t feel part of society. Don’t feel part of the community, there’s no sense of wanting to come back.
I want to do some good when I come back, but mostly we don’t want them back. But actually, there’s so many people that do come back do good but it’s the physiologically detachment that presents danger from the released prisoner.
As Erwin is a writer, I wanted to probe a little more into different aspects of his life.
FS: For someone who is setting out on a journey as a writer what advice would you give?
EJ: Well what I would say is first and foremost is tell your truth. But first, you have got to find your truth because if you don’t know your truth you will never be able to share that truth. So, there are a couple of things: have discipline, have courage because when you put your truth out there you are going to get people who hate you and your truth. You need to have courage and be bold, but as long as you know your truth you will have a significant number of people who will accept that. Whatever the obstacles whatever the challenges you just keep going.
I decided to probe a little deeper too.
FS: What makes you laugh?
EJ: You will be amazed how many people in prison laugh, it’s a funny thing in jail you laugh at the most banal things.
FS: But what makes you laugh now?
EJ: My great granddaughter she makes me laugh. “Grandad, grandad look at the chickens” she chases chickens and I run after her and I’m laughing like hell and then she catches a chicken. Then she chases the ducks.
I do laugh but I am a very serious thinker, but I laugh when she laughs, its infectious. I feel safe to laugh with my great granddaughter.
FS: Is that because you are not being judged?
EJ: In the public if I am laughing, I feel awful because there are people grieving because of me. Even in jail I was scared to laugh sometimes because it looked like I didn’t care about anything.
FS: What makes you cry, do you cry?
EJ: I cried a long time ago in prison when I came to terms with what I had done with the effects on victims’ families of my crimes. I didn’t cry before that.
What makes me cry now? A good drama where there’s an amazing writer who brings the human condition into our living rooms and shows us how weak, strong, dominant, how we are as humans.
That makes me cry.
My final question was about what others say.
FS: What is one of the most memorable statements about yourself?
EJ: The best thing that’s been said of me, that I am really proud of, I do school talks. I was in a school in Southampton a few years ago, the Headmaster said afterwards:
“It was one of the best talks we have had all year and, for some, will be an abiding memory of school.”
It was time to switch my recorder off, I took in a last view of this amazing gallery and headed outside for some air. After a refreshing drink we said goodbye and I headed for the tube.
What an interesting conversation.
Erwin James is editor-in-chief of ‘Inside Time’, the national newspaper for people in prison and the author of ‘Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’.
Photos: Copyright © FM Spear. All rights reserved.