James Al–Mudallal meets Stephen Gillen, a once-feared London gang boss who has written a memoir, recounting the sequence of events that led him to turn his life around.
Stephen Gillen began writing The Monkey Puzzle Tree: An Inspirational Story of Transformation and Redemption, “a really cathartic experience”, while still in prison. The book went on sale in September and is being made into a major feature film in 2021, with a preliminary budget of £27 million. Kieran Suchet, son of broadcaster John Suchet and nephew of Poirot actor David Suchet, is writing the screenplay, and, although the film is still in preproduction stage, there are rumours that Hollywood A-listers, including Tom Hardy and Johnny Depp, could be in line for the lead role.
During my recent interview with Stephen Gillen he told me something of his life and experiences.
Stephen was born on the outskirts of London but moved to Ireland in 1971, when he was just nine months old. He lived in Belfast with his aunt and uncle at the height of ‘The Troubles’, until the age of nine when he moved back to London. He described himself as an anxious child but also a rebellious one. Involvement in street crime began when he was very young and he was first put into care when he was only 12 years old.
In 1992, aged just 22, Stephen was arrested and convicted of armed robbery and spent the next 11 years and nine months as a category A prisoner. Classed as “one of the most dangerous prisoners in the UK”, he spent three years locked up next to Charles Bronson, said to be Britain’s most violent prisoner. Most of his sentence was spent in special secure units with some of Britain’s most notorious inmates “inside prison within prisons”.
“I really did not believe I would get out of that prison. It took some time but, thankfully, I realised in the last few years of my prison sentence that I was only destroying myself,” he said. Stephen was released in 2004 and came home to Bethnal Green, but after only 20 months of freedom he was arrested for possession of a firearm and served another two and a half years in prison.
His release in 2009 was the start of his transformation. From working as a labourer, then as a supervisor, Stephen moved on to running a contract on the Isle of Wight with 25 men. Within only 18 months, aged 39, he was starting his own first business. Six years ago, he completed a business degree at the London School of Business.
Alongside a successful career as entrepreneur and businessman, Stephen Gillen became a public speaker and humanitarian, going back into prisons and speaking to prisoners with the aim of improving the futures for those who had travelled down the wrong path in life.
Stephen has now become an awarded Peace Ambassador and was recently nominated by the Universal Peace Federation for the ‘Sunhak’ International Peace Prize in South Korea.
“I’ve done unbelievable things. We learn in life by falling down and getting back up again,” he explained.
The Monkey Puzzle Tree, Filament Publishing (September 2020), available from major book stores and from www.stephengillen.com
Images courtesy of Stephen Gillen
James Al-Mudallal is a freelance writer, DJ and journalist for East London Radio. He’s also a massive creative and motion picture addict who is always interested in film news from Britain to Hollywood.