Violence and Everyday Life

Did you know that “journal”, a weekly or monthly publication, actually means a day-book? However, there is a sense in which its customary misuse can be justified. Journalism, even the weighty theoretical stuff, comes from what is seen and heard in day-to-day living. The prosaic experience and the passing remark present social questions which require analysis or should be more widely seen. Capitalism is not an abstract category but our daily existence.

So there was this lady at a dinner-party. We were talking about the world in the way you do at dinner-parties, i.e. keeping on the surface and remembering the expression of strong opinions is in bad taste. And she said she and her husband would not like to come back to England to live because of all the violence there is today, the mugging and the football hooliganism. Nice lady, how mistaken you are. Where were you all my life?

One morning in 1936 that shopkeeper never served me. There was a crowd down the road, and he dashed out to join it saying: “That’s old Lil, she can’t half fight”—watching the two aproned women flailing and clawing all over the pavement. You could see men fighting practically any day, but fights between women were less frequent. However, the Whatsaname brothers who were all boxers paid homage to their aunt Alice as the best fighter in the family. One Saturday night she knocked her husband through the front-room window. In the morning she hung a gaudy curtain over the hole, and that afternoon the priest heading the Corpus Christi procession blessed this apparent decoration whereupon Alice flew out and threatened him for taking the mickey.

Violence was endemic. There were streets in every town that respectable people dared not walk along at night. One evening a man sent me to fetch the local copper because of a fierce male fight outside the pub, I found him and told him. He said: “If I were you, son, I’d go and get a policeman” — and turned and went the other way. But apart from the continual street-corner violence, its use in the home was taken for granted. Men kept their wives in order that way. In a divorce case for cruelty just before the war, a judge refused the wife’s plea on the ground that knocking-about was the marital norm in East London.

Children could be, and were, knocked about by practically any adult: that was part of childhood. At school, from the infants’ upwards, you were thrashed and clouted automatically. At home it was the foundation of parents’ rule — father’s belt, or a strap kept behind the door, or one of the canes sold for a penny in oil-shops. For petty larcenies and pilferings, the policeman did not charge you but thrashed you. Friends, neighbours, strangers, if there of mature years were licensed to hit children for any reason at all.

But there was more than just fighting and beating. It was by no means unknown for a murder to be successfully concealed. I remember the hated foreman in an industrial yard of whom it was said that a crane-load would one day fall on him; and one day it did. We knew a house where thirty-two people lived upstairs, and when a new baby arrived they buried it in the backyard. The activities of gangs like the Krays and Richardsons are horrifying, but less so than those of the race-track and protection gangs of between the wars. “The Sabini boys” represented a reign of terror; and the Glasgow razor-gangs were the subject of a book called No Mean City. 

We have heard of “political violence” at demonstrations in recent years. Compared with the nineteen-thirties, it is urchins’ stuff. Fascists and Communists carried home-made weapons to demonstrations, and you could be slashed by a razor without much difficulty. What is now called “police brutality” raised no protests at all; it was what working people expected. As an instance, in the 1933 novel Love on the Dole the hero, Larry Meath, dies after being beaten by policemen at an unemployed men’s march. Published today, it would bring controversy and indignation that such a thing could be envisaged. Then, its validity was taken for granted.                                                                 

There is not the violence in everyday life that existed in the past. Why, then, do some people think there is? To an extent, it is because the poor as individuals did not exist then: only as a mass, in the eyes of the State and the well-to-do. Individually, many had no recorded existence — it was only the second world war with identity cards, and the transition from them to the processed data of the Welfare State, that made their presence or absence and what happened to them official.

But, more than that, the essence of capitalist democracy is for rulers to tell people they are to blame. Every economic problem is, inevitably, the population’s fault: too greedy, too lazy, irresponsible, perversely wrong in its choice of governments. Indeed, there is nothing else rulers can tell people — the only alternative would be the truth, that they and their system are incapable of running the world decently. And people are aggressive, full of desire to oust and hurt. The point was bitterly made by the cartoonist Low before the war, in a drawing of crocodile-headed rulers on the steps of their Peace Palace saying to blank-faced masses: “Friends, we have failed. We couldn’t control your war-like instincts.”

The violence of the past is not proof that aggression is always ready to burst out when it gets a chance. What it proves is the degrading effect of extreme poverty and squalor: two starving men will fight for a crust, or kill another who comes along. That is not their pleasure but their necessity — given enough to eat, they will all live in amity. The over-riding fact is that despite the necessities history has imposed, if man had not a fundamental tendency to co-operation and order we should not be here today.

The class division in society opposes that tendency, and by forcing appalling lives on huge numbers of people promotes ferocity. As soon as people’s circumstances improve only a little, this is something they want to be without. (The decay of boxing as a sport is an interesting pointer. Its star performers have always come from specially victimized sections of society: in the past Jews and Irishmen, now black men.)  But while social violence declines, rulers will have none of that. Like hellfire preachers whose bread-and-butter is sin, they denounce our innate aggression and frame laws to check it.

Curiously enough, those who believe violence is rife never see the outstanding things about it. One is that while the classic cure for misbehaviour is Christian “love”, the areas in Britain where violence remains strongest are those with large Catholic populations — simply because those are also the areas of poverty at its old-fashioned worst.

The other is that war preparation and the development of incredibly horrifying weapons are carried on all the time by awfully respectable people. This is violence which makes a mugger or fist-fighter look puny. Why do they never notice that?

Robert Barltrop

Leave a Reply