By Martin Leggatt
I’m talking to Swanny over the telephone – he’s in the corner of a bar enjoying a cold drink and the Wi-Fi connection while escaping the sweltering heat of his Turkish holiday. I’m in a slightly cooler West Sussex. His enthusiasm and obvious sincerity strike rich as we talk about his book Prison Without Bars, which has attracted rave reviews on Amazon, giving it a five-star rating. The first thing that strikes me is how friendly and talkative Swanny is; he’s just a normal bloke – the kind of man you’d enjoy a chat with over a pint in your local. And, boy, does he chat! Where I thought I might run out of questions, Swanny talks for a good 30 minutes before asking if I have any, and then resumes chatting with the same enthusiastic energy. Never mind that I’m interrupting his 50th birthday celebrations.
First interviewed by our editor, Steve Legg, at men’s event The Gathering, Swanny was taking time out from running his tattoo and body piercing parlour in Loughborough to tell his story. Swanny’s life had been transformed from a childhood of being bullied (which is putting it mildly; he endured the type of torture that we’d normal associate with the worst of war criminals), prolonged sexual abuse, through to a young adulthood of drink and gang violence. As is often the case, ‘the hurt go on hurting’ and by the time he turned 17 he was a father, “Not a dad,” he emphasises, and in prison.
By the time he turned 26, Swanny was living on the streets and met a girl, Rachel, who would later become his wife. Still consumed by anger and unable to let go of his horrible past, Swanny would seek solace in drink, pain and self-pity. He was clinically depressed and haunted by his past, but never revealed any of what had happened to Rachel. Throughout this period, Swanny, who would never have professed to being a Christian or having any belief, never once blamed God, as some people do in a “Why are you letting this happen to me?” kind of way. There was no bitterness, just an immense amount of pain. As he says in the book, “The child I had been haunted the man I became.”
Then when he turned 40, Swanny met a man who told him all about Jesus, about how we are all separated from our God and that this creates a loneliness in all of us until we are reunited with God’s perfect love. Suddenly Swanny understood. Things made sense and he became a Christian, started to go to church and, as he puts it, “Perfect love drove away fear.” It was an amazing time. He recalls that he spent a lot of time crying and things inside him changed dramatically, although circumstances around him were not changing. He started to react to things differently; where before he would get angry and seek comfort in drink, he no longer needed to. His explanation: “Jesus fulfilled in a way booze couldn’t.”
When he was 45, another turning point came in Swanny’s life. While praying one day, he believes he distinctly heard from God: “Swanny, write a book. Thousands will be saved by this book.” His initial reaction was, “How can I?” After all, his school years had been ravaged by bullying and abuse; he’d had no education to speak of. It was at this point that David Shearman, a Nottingham-based minister, approached him and told him that he’d had a message from God that Swanny should write a book. Swanny prayed again, “God, I can’t write.” Then he saw a vision of a little boy crying, and that little boy was him. God told him, “Write for that little boy.” That confirmed it, and he started the four-year process of writing Prison Without Bars.
Since publication, countless people have been impacted by reading his book. People travel vast distances to his tattoo parlour just to meet with him and thank him for the book and the freedom that it has released in their own lives, from things such as self-harming, anger and forgiveness. It is, he rightly says, “Amazing stuff” – although Swanny takes no credit for this, all glory is to God. It’s an experience he says he finds “very humbling” and it’s just getting bigger, travelling further afield to places such as Canada, South Africa, America – “people can find anyone in this day and age” – and he gets thousands of random letters and emails of thanks from people impacted.
I ask him what is different about his story among an extensive field of similar books. It was something that he himself was very conscious of when writing the book, and he just wrote it as if chatting over a pint. His publisher, Tim Pettingale, had never handled this kind of book before, but fell in love with its message the first time he read the manuscript. He told Swanny that “God is going to move mountains” with this book, and published it.
A lot of that has to do not only with the heart-breaking honesty of his story, but also the formula that he adopted to write it: “A lot of these testimonies have nine chapters of the writer telling you about the awful things that have happened to them and then the tenth ends abruptly when God saves them.” For him, the structure was always going to be a 50% split, with the first half talking about his old life and the second half about the effect faith has had on him. Swanny isn’t knocking the other books or their authors; it’s just that for him the second part of the story needs telling most. He pauses and emphasises: “I’m transformed, not changed. If you change, then you can change back. I’ve been transformed, me and my family.”
This is where he talks more about what forgiveness can do, and that transforming moment when you realise that we have this separation form Christ that is more painful to us than anything.
I bring up the subject of his profession of tattoo artist, and ask if he’s had any bad experiences. He tells me how he is “covered in them, on his arms, head, face neck, head, feet” and even in his mouth. This brings to mind a quote from his book where he tells his mum that when he grows up he’s “going to be like granddad and have loads of tattoos”. Many of them were done before he came to faith, and he has had all of the less conservative, shall we call them, burnt off; naked ladies and swear words. Occasionally he meets people who tell him he shouldn’t have tats, but what can he do? They are already there and an intrinsic part of who he is. He tells me how he has preached in Westminster Chapel and was greeted by senior minister Greg Haslam with the words, “Welcome, man of God – get in here and preach.”
Many of his clients are Christians who visit him for tattoos, and he’ll always ask them two questions: “What and why?” He asks them to consider what impact it will have, and if their design has any particular spiritual meaning to it. A lot of Christians opt for a gate design to symbolise passing from their old life into God’s perfect love and forgiveness. And for the people who disapprove? “The religious people who quote Leviticus, you can’t argue with them, you’ll just get mixed up with words,” he tells me. Instead he’ll quietly forgive.
However, such incidents are few and far between and, as he says, at least people say it to his face. Such negative experiences are far outweighed by the amount of letters, emails and personal meetings from wives who approach him to thank him for his book, as they have experienced their husbands reading it and coming to faith. He finds this a huge blessing to see many fellow men set free, and set on fire for a new life.
Forgiveness is a huge part of Swanny’s story. For a man who had been a prisoner of such physical and emotional hurt for most of his life to be able to forgive and be free of the pain is incredible. He gets asked by people in similar circumstances, “How can you forgive when that person is dead?” and he replies that you have to; you’re not just forgiving what they have done, but setting yourself free. “If you don’t forgive, will it matter to them? No, but it will have a huge effect on you.”
Self-deprecating to the end, he admits that the book is an emotionally hard-hitting read that deliberately “hits like a left-hook”, but insists that lots of people could’ve written it; we’ve all been on the receiving end of some really bad stuff because sin is all around us all the time and affects us all. However, the book is much more than this; Tim Pettingale nicknamed it a “message of hope”.
“Any last words?” I ask him.
“Forgiveness is what it’s all about,” he replies.
Prison Without Bars by Graham ‘Swanny’ Swann (River Publishing) is available in paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon.