I consider myself to be a placid person, I don’t condone violence or wars and the like and think we’d all be better off if we simply talked out issues out or, better yet just let stuff go. Scratch the surface of my Dalai Lama-esque exterior though and I have been known to flip my lid when pushed that fraction of an inch too far. What I’ve been wondering then is this – is that simply the result of my upbringing or, given that we’re only a few evolutionary steps away from the animal world, do we all deep down have a natural propensity to rip someone’s throat out.
There is a scene in Barry’s novel where the protagonist is so savagely attacked at school, it took my breath away. This depiction of brutality is so authentic; I couldn’t help but feel slightly shameful about what might have been going on beneath my nose in schools over the last twenty odd years. There is no cruelty like the cruelty of children and, I’m sure we’ve all endured the merciless taunting when we’ve committed the odd fashion faux pas or had a dodgy hair cut but, when does that cross the line and become bullying?
In our current exam factory schools, there are layers of distance between student and teacher like never before. Primarily because the role of a teacher has transformed since I first qualified in the 1980s. Teachers are now there to get students through exams and there is a whole army of other people who do the rest, pastoral staff who at best are kind and well meaning and at worst unqualified and unsuited to their role. Over the years there have been numerous initiatives put in place to combat bullying and I have no idea how effective they have been. As we are now seeing soaring levels of teenage anxiety and a seeming epidemic of self-harming, I wonder how this correlates to incidences of bullying. One thing's for certain though, schools are too busy tallying up their potential exam results to worry about bullying statistics.
Thinking back to my own school days, I can’t really remember bullying being much of an issue. To be fair, I had an unfair advantage having eight Amazonian aunties, the youngest of whom was only five years my senior. They never had cause to intervene in my affairs but the unspoken threat was always there – start on me and they’ll batter you. It was only when reading Ultra Violence that I recalled an incident from my first week of secondary school, when I would have been eleven. Another first year girl was attacked by a classmate and beaten so badly she was hospitalised. The girl never returned to school and her attacker, a strangely unassuming girl, carried on her school life without any further episodes. It was as if the whole thing had never happened. In fact, all of the first year girls were called to a special assembly, where the head teacher warned that anyone caught gossiping about what had occurred would be punished. Bizarrely, nobody ever mentioned it again and I have no idea what happened to the injured girl as, so effectively was it brushed under the carpet I’d forgotten all about it, until now forty years later.
I may not have witnessed systematic bullying but my childhood was littered with lots of casual violence, which at the time seemed completely normal. My parents were what you would consider ordinary, well meaning people and yet the message during my formative years was – if someone hits you then you hit them back twice as hard. There was no point going home whining if you’d been the recipient of a slap or a punch, as the first question that would be asked was – did you hit them back? It’s with a mixture of disbelief and horror that I recall once being hit by a large stone thrown by another girl. I was about ten at the time and ran home with blood pouring down my leg. My dad gave me a bat and told me to go and hit the stone thrower with it as hard as I could. Suffice to say she probably had quite a headache and presumably her stone throwing days were behind her.
There were other instances where I came off the worse for wear, in fights that often blew up over something and nothing. I once limped home with my face clawed and missing clumps of hair after a girl, whose shoe I had thrown into a quagmire, wreaked her revenge. My parents never batted an eye because it was roundly accepted that I had it coming. Looking back, with our modern day sensibilities, it beggars belief but my family were no different to anyone else’s. There was no turning the other cheek round our way. Times have changed, however, and what was acceptable in the 70s is no longer the type of thing you’re inclined to mention.
Not mentioning it though doesn’t mean it’s not there, beneath the surface like a volcano waiting to erupt. We all like to pretend that we’re far too civilised to partake in scenes of violence, distancing ourselves by demonising those who end up in brawls. The idiots scrapping over Black Friday bargains or the nut cases who end up in fist fights over seats on planes, not to mention the animals rampaging around town after a few pints at the football.
How many of you though, like me, find yourselves seething in silence full of unexpressed rage? I sometimes wonder if the day will come when I actually punch the cinema phone pest in the face or stab the business man, taking up 4/5ths of the train seat, in the eye with my teaspoon rather than just think about it. We live in stressful times and, as the pressure rises, maybe that bubbling lava of violence buried so deep we pretend it’s not there, will rise to the surface like a toxic cloud.
There’s no doubt that violence is a bit of a dirty word but it’s an interesting concept none the less. Whether we like it or not, it’s all around us and maybe a little bit closer to home than we want to admit. Maybe it’s part of the human condition, maybe it’s learned or maybe it’s a response to feelings of powerlessness and alienation. I don’t have any answers but maybe we need to start asking some questions.