Cairn topping

For the women who said things

Cairn Toul from Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir

About time, right?

I wondered briefly about starting with that, wondered if it’d make what you’re about to read age badly. On balance, fuck it: if there comes a time when there is not a set of long-discussed rumours about a predatory man calcifying into hard, public evidence, then the least of my concerns will be whether what I’ve written is out of date.

Last night, I was re-reading the end of Ali Smith’s novel Girl Meets Boy, which is about, among other things, the idea that the point where gender becomes blurred is a potential point of emancipation. The novel finishes with a flashback to one character, Anthea, holding a stone. I won’t bore you with the details, but in short, we learn that it is this stone that kicked off the whole story — at least, in terms of character development — and that it is Anthea’s grandfather/grandmother who had her pick it up and throw it, mimicking his/her own suffragette stone-throwing back in the day.

As the novel is also about water and rivers, it’s particularly fitting — the stone is the thing that is going to disrupt the surface, and give us everything that has come before. There is definitely a ripple metaphor in play. But last night, it was the stone itself that fascinated me. Stones are often the weapons of the oppressed — Palestinian teenagers; cobbles in the Paris commune — because they lie everywhere. Stones are innocuous right up until the moment they’re not. They are the weapon of people to whom weapons are not provided.

Sometimes, I imagine that there are women everywhere who have had shameful, hurtful things happen to them and swallowed them, clenched them tight inside, until the shame became a rock in their stomachs. Its precise dimensions will, perhaps, never be taken, but its weight will always be locatable with a bit of searching. Occasionally, it might be set tumbling by a bellyful of wine or a sudden touch. If it goes wrong, a woman might choke on it—but she can also cough it up, hold it up, show the evidence. It was him, she can say, the stone glinting.

I wrote a few weeks ago, when all this started — although really this all started a long time ago — that a dozen imperfect witnesses makes a case. We’re way beyond a dozen now. Indeed I, personally, am beyond a dozen, counting only the women I’ve sat across tables from or sent late-night messages to; the women I’ve organised alongside. There must be hundreds of thousands of us, globally, scores in almost every industry.

You can tell it’s all going somewhere, too, because a lot of powerful men are suddenly a bit worried. “A witch hunt,” they’re calling it, as if women asking not to be touched up at work is the same as organising the round-up and burning of vulnerable individuals. (Note: not “McCarthyite”; they want the witch image in there.) They want us to believe that women are not able to tell the difference between a clumsy pass and harassment, as if we’ve not all been on the receiving end of a dozen of both by the time we turn eighteen.

There’s a lot of talk, too, about how older women never felt the need to make this fuss. There is a sense of betrayal: as if a new generation has suddenly changed all the rules, grabbed half the things in the “acceptable” box and plonked them down in “illicit”.

Well, far be it from me to tell anyone whether they should feel victimised, or how they should understand their experiences. But I can’t pretend this sudden obsession with what the grown-ups think isn’t revealing. Because what is an abusive man’s worst fear, if not that his powerless, young, compliant victims will grow up to be big angry hags, and turn out to not be so quiet after all? “This shit doesn’t happen to me the same way anymore,” a friend in her 30s remarked to me. Personally, I’ve noticed a marked reduction now the word “assistant” is no longer in my job title.

Let me tell you: it’s a real pleasure to respond to the words “witch hunt” with a cackle.

One last thing. There is a semantic slip between “rock” and “stone” that you might have noticed above. I’ve been thinking about that, too: about at what point something small becomes something bigger, where we might place the boundaries on the grain-pebble-stone-rock continuum. In mountain climbing, a pile of stones (or rocks) is called a cairn: it marks a point of significance, honouring a person or announcing a new altitude. It’s traditional for each climber passing by to pick up a stone and add it to the cairn; the continuous action of climber after climber sustaining this crude way point against the forces of erosion.

Looking outward from Smith, it seems that when cairns feature in Scottish poetry, they mark not only routes on the hillside but routes through life. Angus Peter Campbell talks about marriages taking place at cairns; Andrew Greig’s mountain poems imagine a woman on a cairn of her own, far away. And Norman MacCaig says this:

Before me, the solid cone
of Ben Stack
looks in all directions at once
without needing to turn.

I climb and climb and climb,
disliked by a peregrine,
no friend to a lizard,
shunned by a hind
With two followers.

At the cairn I turn around and scan
The jumbled wilderness
Of mountains and bogs and lochs,
South, East, North and then — West
– the sea

where a myth in full rig,
a great sailing ship, escaped
from the biggest bottle in the world,
glides grandly through the rustling water.

About time, isn’t it? It’s about time.