Harnessed to a Shark

Alison Light

In the 1960s we used to sing a music-hall song in the pub whose rousing refrain began, ‘Two lovely black eyes – Oh, what a surprise!’ and went on: ‘Only for tellin’ a man he was wrong – two lovely black eyes!’ It took me a while to realise that the singer was a woman who’d been beaten up by her bloke because the song made me laugh so much, especially when we all whooped in chorus on the ‘Oh’, raising our eyebrows melodramatically. Stories of men given to hitting their women weren’t unheard of in my family, but I associated them with my grandparents’ generation, like chenille tablecloths or mangles or the music hall itself. ‘In the old days’ there were men who liked their drink a bit too much and ‘took it out’ on the wife. Wife-beating, in theory at least, belonged to the dark ages. Hitting children, however, was commonplace; a mother slapping a toddler round the legs was a familiar sight in public, though hitting one across the face wasn’t. Corporal punishment at school was routine (in Penhale Road Infants’ we were rapped across the knuckles with a ruler) and in the course of his growing up my brother got thrashed with a belt, caned and slippered. There were limits, even so. When a sports-master at the grammar hit him so hard with a hockey stick that his back broke out in raw, crescent-shaped welts, my mother went in a fury to the headmaster. She got an apology but the teacher kept his job.

I grew up with a colourful language of aggression, much of it centuries old, like the threats of a ‘whopping’ or a ‘walloping’, a ‘good hiding’ or a ‘tanning’ (or, less frequently, ‘a leathering’, which also harked back to the treatment of animal skins). Mostly it suspended violence over our heads like the sword of Damocles. Everybody menaced children all the time: parents, neighbours, shopkeepers, bus-conductors, you name it. ‘I’ll wring your neck!’, ‘I’ll knock you to kingdom come!’ (or, one of my favourite variations, ‘into next week!’) and ‘I’ll murder you!’ were heard so frequently as to suggest a society of psychopaths. Taken more seriously were the quieter forms of intimidation, as when your mother asked, ‘would you like to see the back of my hand?’ or offered to ‘give you something to cry about’ (or, more ominously, ‘something to remember’). ‘Wait till your father gets home’ was the ultimate deterrent. An afternoon spent in anticipation could feel like a lifetime.

I was rarely smacked and, of course, I knew the difference between a threat and a blow. A smack, when it came, was meant to relieve tension and to draw a line. But anger does not always go through all its stages like a kettle coming slowly to the boil. In my childhood a foul temper was treated with respect, as if it were a force of nature, like a hurricane or volcano, and more fool you if you put yourself in its path (‘you know what his temper’s like’). Adults were always seeing red or blowing their tops; they lashed out or got ‘carried away’. Men who were ‘too fond of their hands’ – this was usually meant as an apology after the fact – ‘didn’t know their own strength’. It hurt to be smacked (and it was never, not once, fair), but I dreaded people getting angry: the shouting, the red faces, the raised fists, the fact that anything might happen in the heat of the moment. In the bullying culture typical of many English childhoods, you are meant to stand up for yourself and to fight back. Being punished and being ‘brave’ also entitles you to a certain amount of esteem. Being afraid, on the other hand, has nothing going for it.

I begin in this way because Virginia Woolf calls Three Guineas, her anti-war book, an ‘enquiry into the nature of fear’. Three Guineas finds a kinship among fear’s victims, a move which many readers thought wrong-headed or downright foolish when the book was published in 1938, and which is still hard to take. Woolf argues that until recently women of her class – ‘the daughters of educated men’ – had been utterly dependent: they had no claim to nationality, no right of citizenship; they could not own property; they were not able to travel or mix without a chaperone; they were excluded from education and they could not earn their own living; nor could they divorce their husband or limit the number of children they had. Theirs may have been a gilded cage, but they were nevertheless imprisoned and silenced by fear – ‘the fear that forbids freedom in the private house’. They were afraid of the male aggression that surfaced in the angry opposition with which the majority of men met every stage of the struggle for equality. Woolf suggests that this fear, though it might seem ‘small and insignificant’, is connected to the fear at large in Hitler and Mussolini’s Europe. She identifies the experience of those being persecuted under Fascism with that of her mother’s generation: ‘You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion.’ For Woolf fear is the controlling force, and is as destructive and as violating, to those who live in its grip, as physical aggression.

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