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Philosophy of hope

14 July 2017


A FREUDIAN slip, as the old joke goes, is when you are thinking about one thing and talking about a mother. In this respect, In the Criminologist’s Chair (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) was one long Freudian slip: a con­versation between the psychologist David Wilson and the convicted murderer turned writer Erwin James, which purported to be about crime and redemption, but whose strong subtext was the quest for Mother.

The story begins with the death of James’s mother in a car accident when he was seven: the booze-fuelled guilt of James’s father made for an abusive adolescence. Children’s homes, Bor­stals, and life on the street followed, accompanied by crime, culminating in two murders, committed with an equally dysfunctional associate.

Wilson’s description in terms of the classic folie á deux sounds, at best, euphemistic for crimes of such viol­ence, and James still finds the notion that he might ever be forgiven for such offences almost too difficult to bear.

The path to self-knowledge was opened up to him by a prison psy­chologist, Joan, and it is this substitute mother who became James’s con­science during his incarceration. In the midst of the riots at Long Lartin prison, he was asking himself how Joan would expect him to behave. One of his greatest regrets was not visiting her before her death to thank her for his transformation.

The blurb appeared to promise a philosophy of redemption, carved from the rock-face with the blunt instruments of experience; but this was ultimately a simpler, more tender human story. James’s philosophy, such as it is, is one of hope. His form of hope might sound somewhat des­­perate — that of a fish caught on a hook but not yet reeled in — but hope none the less.

In that they are structured, mean­ingful, and, above all, have been published, the stories that James tells have moved beyond the state of anec­dote. As we discovered on The Verb (Radio 3, Friday), the anecdote is, strictly speaking, a form of discourse which is private and, by implication, also less polished than the public version.

Never mind that great writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald are praised and damned for the quality of their anecdotes as much as for their formal output, or that humorists such as David Sedaris move between the two styles with no embarrassment.

Sedaris’s diaries were the focus of the programme; and so brimful of anecdote are they that one cannot imagine that they were penned with no eye to future publication. The one in which he feeds a bee to his pet spider has something of Aesop about it; and, in theme at least, sounded like a version, in miniature, of the story with which he opened his latest Radio 4 series, Meet David Sedaris (Tuesdays), about the anthropo­morphic relationships we establish with an­­imals — domesticated and wild.

The danger for a good writer of anecdote is balancing authenticity and artistry in the final product. Whether you are writing about your time behind bars, or the beautiful people of East Coast society, sounding real and being real are not always the same thing.

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