LONDON - 11 January 2002 -1, 230 words From Gangland to Promised Land by Greg Watts Ex-gangsters are in at the moment. Walk into any large bookshop and you will see books by them and books about them. Dave Courtney has even produced a video. But East Ender John Pridmore's story is one with a difference: it was finding God that led him to turn his back on crime and violence. Burly, 6ft 4 tall and thirty-seven-years of age, it's hard to imagine that at one time this quietly spoken man was involved with some of London's most vicious firms. But back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, he moved in a dark, sinister world where random violence was just part of the job. Society's rules didn't matter. Life was about power, reputation and respect. When you could earn a few thousand quid in a few minutes setting up a drug deal, people working in a 9 -5 job were laughed at as mugs. But John's life now is far removed from those underworld days. Whereas once he carried a machete and can of ammonia with him, his only weapons now are his Bible and rosary. And when he goes into schools, the kids are, understandably, open-mouthed when he tells them how God dramatically changed his life. The son of a policeman, he grew up in Walthamstow. Although he had been baptised a Catholic, religion played little part in his life. His childhood was, overall, a happy one, until he was eleven. It was then that his parents split up and subsequently divorced. The collapse of their marriage turned his world upside down, he says. "I felt angry towards my parents for breaking up our home and this anger spilled out into the classroom at the secondary school I was attending. I got into fights and was disruptive. Because I fought boys who were older than me, I got a reputation as a hard case. I reckon I got caned more than any other pupil there," he recalls. Like some of his friends, he slid into shoplifting and burglary. When he was caught, he was sentenced to three months in a detention centre. Upon release, he was soon up to his old tricks and also sniffing glue. He got a job in an electrical shop and began stealing money from the till. One night, he decided to break in to the shop, but was spotted by a passing police car and arrested. A few weeks later he was on his way to a youth prison. Prison failed to reform him and, once again, he succumbed to the temptation of crime. Following a spell doing back stage security, he graduated to working as a pub and night club bouncer. And this was when he realised how much money could be made from drug dealing. "I had good connections and never ripped people off, so lots of people would come to me to buy or sell drugs. Working as a bouncer was an easy way to get involved in the drug scene," he says, adding that he also took a variety of drugs himself, including cocaine and cannabis. Because he could handle himself, he found himself being asked to help out with various firms, settling gangland disputes and recovering unpaid debts. Some of the men he mixed with, he knew, had killed. Inevitably, his character began to be influenced by them. "I started to become very violent because of the blokes I associated with. When you are around geezers who have shot and stabbed people, you have to try and match their levels of violence to win their respect. I would be laughing with someone in a pub one minute and beating someone senseless the next" The endless supply of cash he made allowed him to rent a penthouse flat, drive a Mercedes with a personalised number plate, wear expensive suits and take the women he dated to flashy night clubs, restaurants and crack parties, which would go on for two days. One night, in 1991, while working on the door at a busy West End pub he got into a fight with a drinker who had been ejected. He lashed out with his knuckle duster and the man fell to the ground in a pool of blood. With bystanders screaming that the man was dead, John fled. As it turned out, the man survived, but coming so close to murder pulled John up sharply. Soon after this, he underwent a powerful spiritual experience while sitting alone in his flat one night in Leytonstone. "I heard what I can only describe as a voice. It told me of all the bad things I had done in my life. I felt that I was dying, that all the breath was going out of me. I was gripped by an incredible fear and I felt I was going to hell. "I fell to my knees and pleaded for another chance. I then felt as if someone's hands were on my shoulders and I was being lifted up. This incredible warmth overpowered me and the fear vanished. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I knew that God really existed." This turned out to be the defining moment in his life. He pulled away from his criminal activities and distanced himself from his associates. He also started to pray, read the Bible and go to Mass. Feeling he needed to give something back, he began working as a volunteer at a local drop-in centre and helping out with the SVP. Some time later, on the advice of his step father, he went to confession at Westminster Cathedral. "I was nervous sitting in this line of people. I didn't really know what I would to say to the priest. When I went into the confessional box, I just told him of the worst things I had ever done. At the end, he said, 'Welcome home.' "When I came out I was filled with an indescribable joy. For the first time, I understood that God was my father. I felt like the prodigal son returning home." His life has been extremely varied since coming to faith. He has been a youth worker in a youth club on a tough council estate in Hackney, north-east London, spent six months with the radical Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York's South Bronx, where he met Mother Teresa, and run youth programmes in a Catholic Parish in Liverpool. With no home, possessions or money, he now lives out of his Saab car, travelling around Britain and Ireland and speaking in schools and at retreats. He is heavily involved with Youth 2000, an international Catholic movement fostering faith among young people. "In some ways, I'm a bit like a modern St Paul, I suppose. I rely on God's providence for my needs. My message to those I speak to is that God loves each and every one of us more than we could ever imagine and that He can change your life, if only you will let Him. And in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession, we have tangible signs of his grace. Someone once asked me what was the longest prison sentence I had. I replied, 'Twenty-seven years without God.'" From Gangland to Promised Land by John Pridmore with Greg Watts is published by Darton, Longman & Todd, on February 11th 2002, priced £8.95.
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