I’m not sure if I am really qualified to write this essay for I’ve never been a victim of a major violent incident. Nor committed a very violent act. Even as a spectator of real violence (as opposed to the ‘violence’ of books, films, art, the media etc) my experience is limited. I suspect that for the vast majority of people living in Britain this is also true (That’s of course a generalisation open to be challenged.)
I don’t want to analyse English crime culture and statistics. What I want is to sketch out my own ‘low key’ encounters with violence. The shock, surprise, everyday intimacy (even routine) of violence and how it has made me more human. I’ve not been physically and mentally damaged by violence. I consider myself to be a sensitive person affected by violent behaviour. Mostly during childhood, adolescence and my thirties. Hardly in middle age, not at all after sixty.
This is a mundane list of violent moments in my life, divided into two parts.
(1) Violence as victim/perpetrator
Aged four and being hit hard, repeatedly on my head, by an older child, with a tin bucket, whilst playing in a sand pit in the park. My mother comforted me. Whilst the attacker was spanked by his Mum.
Aged thirteen and being verbally abused by a boy in the playground. We got into a fist fight where I nearly broke my thumb – for I stupidly clenched my fist so that my fingers shielded the thumb of my right hand. My fist struck his jaw. And his mine. Not hard pain. More dreamlike amazement that this was happening.
Aged fourteen and suffering an arbitrary attack by an unknown teenager. He got of his bike, accused me of being the ‘bastard’ who had beaten up his brother and then hit me hard, several times, in the stomach. He was bigger than me and demanded money. I gave him a shilling and he sped of on his bike.
Aged thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. Being caned at school for only talking in class. I learnt not to pull my hand back, for instead of hitting your palm the cane struck the tips of your fingers. And that really hurt.
Aged twenty and being horribly sarcastic to an ex-school friend I met in a pub. He’d been my closest mate. Very bright but too angry and rebellious. Had abandoned all that ‘exam crap’ and also me. I was drunk and taunting too such a pitch that he almost struck me.
Aged thirty. The breakup of a relationship. A big argument, with my girlfriend, concerning a flat tenancy. Fighting over who would stay put and who would move out. We began smashing cups and saucers in the kitchen. We never hit each another, just forcefully pushed, shoved and then made love (non-violently.)
(2) Witnessing Violence
My mother tapping my father with a cold poker on his knee. Not fiercely hard but enough to make him moan. She was crying about his meanness. I woke up from sleeping on the sofa. Father shrank back as Mother kept saying ‘divorce.’ They stopped when they realised I was watching. It never occurred again. I was eight.
Witnessing two women fighting in the street. They were brawling over some malicious gossip. One woman held the others hair and dragged her across the pavement. A small crowd gathered round. When it got too rough a man intervened. It was comic, then unpleasant and finally frightening. The women began to fight with the man. Throats were pinned tight against a lamppost. Another man broke things up. I was eleven.
My brother taking me to a boxing match at a sports stadium in Liverpool. It was smelly, sweaty and a bit seedy. The boxers looked so young and skinny. I found the shouting and screaming of the crowd (mainly men but a few older peroxide blonde haired women) more disturbing than the fight. I was fourteen.
A sense of dark street alleys containing the cries and shouts of guys being attacked. You never ever went to investigate. Just hurried on home. Between the age of ten to eighteen.
Hearing my bandaged up uncle John describing, to the family, his beating up. He was a taxi driver for three years who regularly showed us his injuries over Sunday evening tea at my aunt’s house. Thirteen to sixteen.
My aunt and my mother having a go at my Dad again for being mean and secretive. I think he was hit on the shoulder by a saucepan. Then we had dinner and Father laughed a lot. In these occasional scenes of domestic violence my Dad never fought back nor started a fight himself. His ‘violence’ was, according to mother a provocative ‘mental cruelty.’ Undiagnosed his condition was probably a form of autism. His own, highly disciplinarian, father frequently locked him in a broom cupboard. Such parental control gave my Dad low self-esteem, inertia, stubbornness, timidity and great deal of humour. His constant deflecting stream of jokes couldn’t prevent my older brother slapping his face one day, over lunch. Such blows were cathartic, even necessary. We carried on. Mostly eleven to fifteen.
Waking up, at two in the morning, to violent sounds in the street. I looked out the bedroom window to see a man being tightly held, against the bonnet of a car, whilst another man beat him with a chain. Someone, inside the car, laughed and chanted, ‘We want our money, man! Our rightful money!’ The victim was then thrown into the back seat and driven away. I couldn’t get the window open to shout at them. To late to ring the police. Anyway the phone, in the dilapidated house, a St. John’s Wood squat, with half the upper floor missing, had recently been disconnected. Aged thirty-one.
Working in a children’s home in North London. A disturbed teenager had locked himself in a window-less room. He had a knife and threatened self-harm. My colleagues and I took turns in watching him through the key-hole, and speaking to him from behind the door, until he opened it and handed over the knife. I was forty.
I have never been horribly beaten up. Nor have I physically, or verbally, attacked anyone with the intension of beating them up. I hate violence. It is a last, and usually futile resort when reason and tolerance has broken down. I forgive my Mum for sometimes attacking my Dad. In her sad, and highly prolonged situation, of loneliness, frustration and emotional neglect, I cannot blame her.
Violence is a cruel and disconcerting aspect of being alive. It’s inextricably bound up with anger. And anger is a difficult emotion to control. Yet it can be responsibly expressed (Hard though that seems in the passion of the moment.) I witnessed mental cruelty in old people’s care homes, single person hostels, bullying in schools and shouted loudly at the perpetrators to stop. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. The world around me appearing frighteningly indifferent.
I will not moralize about the supposed harmful effects of watching and reading about violence through social media, TV, film and newspapers. The evidence is never completely conclusive. No one thing makes a person violent. There are many complex, often deeply unconscious, as well as social, reasons for destructive behaviour.
This essay is a sharing of violent happenings in my life. I don’t want anymore. There may be. Violence is small fine seam in my life, and other lives too, that makes up identity. I’d prefer it to be not apparent. That love, empathy, reason and respect should always have the upper-hand.