Ian and Anthony Erskine: twins in life, twins in death

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Ian Irskine was found hanged last Saturday; last year his twin brother had been kicked to death as he attempted to defend his father. Jack O'Sullivan reports.

Nobody seems to have been too surprised to hear that Ian Erskine was found hanging from a tree last Saturday morning. Everyone could see that he hadn't been coping since the death of Anthony, his twin brother.

Tall and lanky, the 21-year-old would stand by his house on the dreary Clopton council estate in Stratford-upon-Avon, arms folded, staring at passers-by, at war with the world. In truth, though people felt sorry for him, he was a bit frightening. But then, he had a lot to be angry about. Anthony had died last year after a fight in that same front garden, where fierce hatred springing from years of bad blood between two families was channelled into a few moments of vicious, fatal kicks to his head.

As a result, the Erskines had become the focus of national publicity. They were a hard-working Catholic family who had bettered themselves by buying their three-bedroom house. For that, said the papers, they had been loathed as "stuck-up" snobs by the Collins family two doors down, a clan of yobbish, work-shy jailbirds. And it was the boot of their teenage son, Damian Collins, that struck the fatal blows. Anthony Erskine became the fallen hero of those who fear that Britons are in retreat from hooligans in Britain's badlands. Collins and Mark Hemmens, 22, who also took part in the brawl, were convicted of murder.

The Erskines soldiered on in their tidy home, where a solid, dark wooden front door coolly defends the respectability of home ownership. But Ian faltered. He was lost without Anthony.

"They were glued together," says Peggy Bregazzi, a 69-year-old, big, brash Liverpudlian, whose home - "Peggy's flat" - became virtually a youth club for the Erskine boys and their generation of friends. A photograph of Anthony still stands on her side cabinet, near a jar into which her gang of youngsters has this week dropped money to pay for a wreath for Ian. "The twins were inseparable," she recalls. "They stuck together through thick and thin. If one got into trouble, the other would try to cover up. But if Ian had been the one to die first, Anthony would have survived. He would have been able to hold off. Anthony was more stable. Ian was always nervous and fidgety. Anthony looked after him because he was the stronger one."

It surprised many local people that it was Anthony, not Ian, who had perished in that fight. Ian was the hothead, the "gobby" one, as they say in Stratford. At 6ft, he was tall and physically robust, with a temper his mother always warned would get him into trouble; a loner; a low achiever, who had to attend a special school and found it difficult to get a job. When he did, he lost it within weeks.

Anthony was calm, brighter and slight, even dainty beside his taller twin; he was a peacemaker, with plenty of friends. When Anthony got a holiday job at Stratford Egg Farm, Ian joined him. But when the pair left school, Ian stayed where he was and Anthony moved on to Debenhams, working his way up to be employee of the month. The Erskine children were fiercely protective of Ian, whom Peggy remembers as a child in tiny, steel-rimmed spectacles being bullied in the street. Even Natalie, his younger sister, backed him up, getting him a job at the Stratford clothes shop where she worked.

But that world fell apart when Anthony left the house last year to take on those who had been verbally abusing his father.

Hemmens and Collins were convicted of murder. But what happened was perhaps more complicated. Shakespeare would have understood. His tales are full of teenage brawling that goes wrong, as in Romeo and Juliet, when Tybalt dies as a result of the age-old feud between the Montagues and Capulets. The killing of Anthony Erskine, like the death of Tybalt, was not an assassination, but a fight among young people that got out of control.

The Clopton estate, for all its working-class residents, many of them on benefit and many of them single mothers, has an old-style rural feel about it. It is close-knit and inward-looking, a succession of roads wrapped around each other. Deborah Earl is, for example, one of five generations living within a minute's walk of each other. Mrs Earl, 39, lives with her daughter Gemma Jelf, 19, and her seven-month-old baby. Around the corner, Mrs Earl's mother cares for her own 99-year-old mother.

There is an unambitious fatalism about some residents, who tend either to work in Campbell's cannery, or to iron shirts at home at pounds 3 for a dozen. Physicality is part of life; it is not unusual for young women to be pregnant in their mid-teens. Boys fighting is just part of the landscape.

"People were always fighting, but only in scuffles," recalls Michelle Barker, 19, a long-term friend of Natalie Erskine until Anthony's death left her on the wrong side of the family feud. "All you got was a black eye. No one ever ended up in hospital before."

There is grudging admiration for David Collins, father of Damian, who, though now a crumpled man, is still feared as "the hard man of Stratford". People recall Damian, only 16 at the time of Anthony's killing, being threatened by his father if he did not take part in fights, and one occasion when father attacked son with a baseball bat.

This is also a culture in which legality is treated with a rural casualness, as if the residents are living in a land beyond the law's reach. The children are streetwise and form fiercely loyal groups. As you chat with people over tea in smoky living-rooms, the talk is of so-and-so in jail for theft or some other petty offence. There is no sense of disapproval.

It wasn't a culture in which the Erskines felt comfortable. Dorothy Erskine, Maltese-born, brought with her a fierce work ethic. She kept her children away from many of the locals. Anthony, being bright, went to St Benedict's school, some distance away. "The Erskines thought they were topper than everyone else," says Gemma Jelf, whose ex-boyfriend, Mark Hemmens, was convicted of Anthony's murder. "I think it was because they have a bought house and they are more respectable." As another neighbour said: "They thought their kids were more than borstal kids, living where the shit don't stink." Peggy Bregazzi, matron of honour at the Erskines' wedding, puts it another way: "They worked really hard for their kids and suffered from jealousy."

The killing of Anthony left this tiny community split down the middle, between those connected to the killers by kinship and friendship, and those closer to the Erskines. Even Peggy's "family" of youngsters was split.

Mrs Hemmens, mother of Mark, says she feels sympathy for Dorothy Erskine. "She has always been pleasant to me. Even after Anthony's death there was no nastiness, no threats, nothing. But I am grieving too, for my son. In the last couple of months I have found myself coming out of work crying, and you don't stop all day. I thought it was all blowing over, but now with Ian dying as well it's all started again."

Ian's death was, perhaps, the final chapter in this tragedy. He had many problems, as his sister Natalie said in statement after his death. Just before Anthony's killing, the twins' best friend, Brian Clarke, had been killed in a car accident. With his brother's death, he lost access to Anthony's friends, who tended to be alienated by Ian's abrasive manner. And, as a man who confided in women, he lost that outlet when he recently split from a girlfriend. He was devastated after she had an abortion. She had been pregnant with twins.

The moodiness of his youth began to take a bad turn in the absence of Anthony. Ian had been admitted to psychiatric care in recent years, but he was getting worse. On the Sunday before he died, he visited Peggy to bring her lunch, as the Erskines do every week. "He thought his friends had neglected him," she recalls. "He couldn't hold a job down, and I think he felt he wasn't doing as well as he should have been."

Ian Erskine disappeared last Thursday. He was finally found early on Saturday morning hanging from a tree. To kill himself, he had gone to an area of woodland called the Welcome Hills. It was where he had played with Anthony as a child.

On Monday his funeral will be at nearby St Gregory's, where Clopton's most famous twins once served Mass together.