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Monday, 12 July 2010

Domestic Violence

This is autobiography

I am reading Maggie Gee's My Animal Life (Telegram 2010). It's an autobiography by someone my age and who in the past was a visiting lecturer on an MA course on which I taught. It's very readable, there is a fine chapter about What Children Need and in that chapter there is a hilarious paragraph (page 83) about over-anxious parenting. As with all autobiographies, it works best as a memoir of childhood; trying to write about your adult life and the people who are still sharing it rarely works and I don't think it works here.

You are some way into the book before Maggie Gee discloses that her father, a headmaster, was violent both towards her mother, and on one occasion, quite seriously, towards his teenage daughter. Such violence is not without its consequences, often complex, which the book explores, in an understated way, bit by bit.

I thought back to an incident in my early life which provides one of my earliest framed memories. It's fading now but I have always had the memory. We - my mother, my father and me - are in the downstairs back living room of the house at 79 Lincoln Road - the house I lived in until I was seven. My parents are arguing about who should poke the fire. My father must have been shouting (he always did, my mother was always subdued). They wrestle for the poker and my mother falls into her chair and hurts her back (She may well have been wearing a surgical corset for a slipped disc). This distresses me and though I want to stay with her my father takes my hand and pulls me unwillingly out of the house and into the garden to feed a pet rabbit. I must have protested. I think I was three or four years old.

Who should poke the fire. It's good Freudian stuff. I cannot recall witnessing any other scene of domestic violence - my father in my presence confined himself to shouting at my mother but it was crude and nasty stuff which often homed in on her history of mental illness. Towards the end of the marriage, when I was thirteen, my mother took herself down to the police station to show them the bruises but I don't recall seeing any of them inflicted. At night, she slept in my bedroom with the door barricaded.

At school, I rarely if ever fought anyone, but I was never bullied. I can recall only one proper stand up fight with a friend, with other boys watching. I don't think it lasted more than a few moments and I am sure I wasn't the winner. I must have been eleven or twelve.

On the handful of occasions when I have been in a situation where someone might easily have hit me, I have generally had no emotional response or I have responded with an emotion which could have made matters worse. A few years ago, confronted rather amateurishly by three men in a foreign city - pretend policemen flashing ID who wanted to snatch my wallet when I pulled it out to produce the Passport they demanded - I laughed outright, turned round and walked away from them. Later, I realised that this was probably not the best thing to have done. They might have responded to the offence by jumping me from behind.

Just once I can recall being frightened, a more appropriate response. I was running a Youth Club on Reading's Whitley Estate. I called a boy - sixteen or seventeen years old - into my office for a telling off. His older and rather chilling friend came in with him and found something I said to his mate offensive. So he bent down and picked up a chair leg (this was a youth club where things often got broken) and gave me the choice of withdrawing my remark or .... I was frightened. I knew he meant it and I knew I couldn't snatch the chair leg. I withdrew my remark with as much dignity as I could manage and engaged them for a few minutes before letting them go. But I didn't like it one bit.

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