A brief history of low-level violence
I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Just an object. I was sitting at the table in the sixth form common room, playing cards with my friends in the gap between lessons. I’d made some disparaging remark about the radio being tuned to some godawful local commercial station and then from the corner, where the big lads sat, came this object.
I shifted my head slightly. With a satisfying thunk, a “doink” the chair – one of those newish office chairs, quite heavy, four legs, green foam, high back – bounced off my temple.
“Fucking hell, that hurt” I swore, my hand immediately on the affected area. From the corner, laughter.
I suppose it’s the smallness of the incident, as well as the cartoon incongruity of the noise it made that most that makes that incident stick in my head years later.
It wasn’t – as such – a major incident of childhood violence. I certainly suffered far worse, and I wasn’t a particular sufferer. Nah. This was nothing really serious. Had a lump on my head for a few days. Could have been far worse if it had hit me at a different angle, the chair legs hitting things like eyes, the weight of the chair impacting on my neck. But as it was, just an ow, a bruise, a hurr hurr from the corner, a scowl from me at them, shrug, move on.
It’s only in later life you think, perhaps, of the weirdness of it. Someone threw a chair at your head for a mildly sarcastic remark not even aimed at them, and it was….nothing? Not even remarked on. Not even in the top 100 acts of physical violence inflicted on me in my (reasonably pleasant) childhood, and as I say, I wasn’t really in the top league of those who suffered. A second division journeyman of suffering, at best. And yet this was normal.
This was in the dog days of the late 80s, as well. Things had got way less violent, and would get steadily less so. I remember seeing the fights the first day at school. Seeing the blood, the scars. I remember getting in a few (never intentionally, I was a runner, not a fighter).
Tiny incident. And yet in retrospect, telling because of the ubiquity it presented.
The teachers still used violence as a deterrent, up until my very early teens. There was one, a big drinker, the geography class went on a trip, Switzerland I think (I could never afford any of that, but it was another world for those that managed it), one boy got drunk and challenged him verbally, gave him some lip, the teacher was already drunk, and so the boy was beaten quite seriously.
The teacher managed to serve his last 18 months in post before retirement. Trying to imagine that today. Him being allowed to do that. Imagining walking down the corridor and the teachers reaching out and smacking the back of your head with a book. Something that probably happened on a daily basis. Or the chemistry teacher who would use the Bunsen burner tube in place of the cane on the palm of your hand.
And then there were pubs. From about the age of 11 or 12, you’d be given license to be out with your gang of mates around the times they were open. Not around closing times, just the early evening drinking shift.
And there were a couple you learned to avoid because there’d be fights outside – already, at that time of night. Or lads sitting there, bovver booted up, the late 70s skins (quite a lot of swastika action still going on from them). they’d throw pint glasses across the road at you which would smash on the wall just by your head and laugh as you ran.
Closing time – the few times I experienced it at that age – were of course far worse. Always someone getting lairy with their fists, someone thinking themselves handy. Always a fight.
There were rough pubs where trouble would always kick off. And then there were less rough pubs, where trouble *could* kick off.
There really weren’t family pubs, they came later. You’d encounter something similar maybe on holiday. Some small village pub with a beer garden, already ahead of the trend, catering for holiday makers. You wouldn’t find the equivalent in the centre of any decent sized town.
Not just the pubs.
I used to go to the Co-Op for my mother from about the age of 7 or 8. Was a proper old school affair, right in the centre of town. Big old deli counter with the cheese and the wire to cut it and staff wore those white suits and hats (now it’s just a big fridge with pre-packaged cheese. Better cheese now though, must be said).
I’d be standing in line – at least once a week this would happen – waiting to get my dad his “meat for his box” (ox-tongue, usually. Ham. Liked his basic white bread sandwiches for his lunch in work, dad did).
There’d be a kid with their parents in the queue. At least once a week. Kid would kick off. Not nasty, or whiny, just a bit of the old maaaaam, I’m boooooored. Smack.
Sometimes just a small thing, one or two smacks, but there was a spectrum of violence at play, and once or twice I saw parents give their kids a real leathering. Right there. I thought at that age it was some sort of tradition. Take your kids to the deli counter to smack them. Wasn’t though. It was just….normal.
I don’t think I’ve seen a kid smacked in public for fifteen years or so now. No doubt it still happens. But at some point the norm shifted. What was acceptable shifted.
And then there were places you just didn’t go. Estates or streets. Not social housing, although there was often some correlation. You’d feel sorry for the vast majority of people living there, decent and normal people, all it took was a half dozen families or individuals to really throw the dynamic. Give any place a bad reputation. People would sneer at them, and it wouldn’t be the fault of anyone bar that tiny minority.
One time I walked to my friend’s house to play computer games – early comprehensive school, thirteen or fourteen – he lived on one of the notorious estates, couple of towns away. To get there, I had to walk through *the* notorious estate – long since knocked down.
I’m happily walking along, late summer, whistling, world of my own, when I feel a presence behind me. Look over my shoulder and there’s a gang of about ten kids.
None of them over about eight or nine. Just standing there, watching me.
Fine. Turn. Carry on walking. Next thing I know there’s this avalanche of stones. They are pelting me with them. Chasing me. A mob of pre-teens pelting me with stones because i was a stranger and I’d stepped on their turf.
Again, tiny thing. Hardly compares to the crips and the bloods, does it? Just a bunch of urchins – like some cut price Children of the Corn – chasing a nerd boy who only wanted to go play Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum, pelting him like he’s some blasphemer against Jehovah.
But again, as with the first incident, that first little vignette, its the smallness that makes it.
I’m giving you small examples, rather than the half dozen or so genuinely worrying, genuinely violent incidents directly involving me, or the dozens and and dozens I bore witness to, regularly, because I’m trying to explain the air. The feel. The tang of a society where violence was a given.
And then there were the dads. The dads who went out all night, or all day and night on the weekend, and would come home and knock hell out of their wives. In a society where violence is normal, domestic violence itself will be normalised.
You knew them, of course. Pretty soon, you knew which Dad was guilty of this. There were a few in walking distance of my house, that I was aware of. The bruised cheeks and the black eyes gave that away. At first, when I first became aware of it, in very early youth, this wasn’t even hidden. Not only was it in plain sight, it was normal. Police didn’t do much about it. Domestics, they used to call them. Think on the revealing nature of that phrasing. Just something that happened around the home. It was joked about. It was accepted.
“What do you say to a woman with two black eyes?”
“Nothing. You’ve already told her twice”
It changed slowly. Visibly. The black eyes and bruises became less common-place. You can track the change culturally, in how we talk of these things – what in the 60s and 70s what would be a “fiery celebrity relationship” had within a few decades become “abusive”. The “hellraisers” became what they were all along, no longer shielded by language, abusive drunks (of course, how much of this is now hidden, and how much a problem there still remains is a matter of discussion, and I’m not for one moment suggesting that we should rest on our laurels, but the feeling that this is normal, how the world should be, that has changed). But I saw the change in real time. I saw how rarer kids coming to school with bruises, or wives barely hiding black eyes were.
And one of the major drivers for this change was feminism. It feels stupid having to make this elementary point, but both our attitudes to things like domestic violence and assault, and our views on child protection, come from that era of angry women.
Whether in more general ways of shifting social norms, or more individualised ways like giving women the space, the encouragement to value themselves, their kids, instead of bowing to the little tin god of the perpetually angry, damaged man.
One of my work colleagues – late 50s, married in the early 80s – told me a story once. Her husband’s father had been a drinker and – as they used to say – handy with his fists.
Her husband, his son, veered between loathing him and an inherited emulation of him. First the drink came, then, a few months after they got married, she heavily pregnant, he came home one night from the pub and after a blazing row, hit her. Four, five times, bruises left on her face. Only her face. He wasn’t stupid or far gone enough in his anger to hit the belly, to hurt the child.
The next morning he awakes with a hangover and she’s crouching over him in bed. He feels cold on his thigh. She’s got a carving knife resting on his balls.
“That’s your one chance” she says “you ever raise your fist to me again, and I’m out of here. But before I do leave….well, you have to sleep, don’t you? I’m not leaving anything behind for my replacement”
Married 35 years since. He’s not raised his hand again. She said “I wasn’t going down the same road as his mother”. His mother. Only two decades prior.
Of course there was a shift.
And it has bled out of culture, slowly, the violence. Sometimes achingly far too slowly, don’t get me wrong. Some times it jumps, back into full view, bold as brass. It’s still *a* present today. But it’s not an ever-present, it’s not an omnipresent.
Most streets in the country you can walk down unmolested, most pubs in the country you can walk into without seeing a fist raised one month to the next, most kids now don’t know the hot shame of their dad’s belt or the burning sadness of the sight of their mother’s tears. It isn’t the same as it was. One day, I’d hope that none will suffer this. We can’t ever stop the work against it. But it isn’t the same as it was.
So, you don’t lecture some bloke – older than me – who grew up in that atmosphere and loathed it, for good, decent reasons, because he has bad memories of that time. Because he doesn’t feel comfortable in places that remind him of those times. You just show your ignorance, and privilege, that you live in a softer world, the softer world that the generation he was part of made.