Saturday, 25 June 2011

Torn between the love and the abuse

“THEY were on honeymoon the first time he hit her.
“It went on for years after that. In the end, he broke three of her ribs – not in one attack, but three separate occasions.
“You know the old cliché, ‘I walked into a door, mum’ – or, ‘I fell down stairs, mum’.
“It wasn’t until he started turning on the kids that she left. Even then the courts awarded him access and told him where she was living.
“So don’t say it’s easy for a woman to leave, or to speak up, or to get the help she needs. Just ask my Julia.”
Her name’s not Julia, of course. And her mum stays anonymous too after contacting me about my Evening Star column two weeks ago.
But to set the record straight, I didn’t say there was anything easy about domestic violence for a woman victim. I would never say, or mean to suggest, any such thing.
What I did mean was to point out that men can be victims too.
In trying to open up a murky subject, I seem to have touched a few raw nerves.
One male reader commented: “Back in the 90s, when I was on the receiving end of an abusive relationship, I felt like I was the only one. That this didn’t happen to men.
“I was isolated and felt no one would have believed me – to the extent I couldn’t even bring it up in a Relate session. Mind you, having her in the room at the time didn’t help.”
Another reader sees the matter from another angle.
He said: “In 14 years with the Alcohol Advisory Service and then the Samaritans I listened to many, many abused women but only about two abused men.
“My estimate is that abused women outnumber abused men by about four to one, that abused women who suffer in silence outnumber the ones who get listened to, but abused women who get listened to outnumber abused men who get listened to by about 40 to one.
“Every one of them is a real person in real distress.”
That informed view underlines the reason I wrote my original article.
The good Samaritan also adds a chilling note: “Children, of course, are often hostages.”
One of my oldest friends, Carolyn, lives now in Australia, where she has worked for several years as a counsellor in a women’s refuge.
She said: “I think domestic violence is under-reported in both males and females.
“In my experience working with women, many don’t even recognise that they are in an abusive relationship. They minimise what they are experiencing because we only tend to hear about high-end abuse in the media.
“Sometimes they are reluctant to involve the police for the same reasons mentioned in the article, sometimes because they are too afraid.
“As to women being prosecuted, this will be appropriate in some cases, but I have talked to many who are goaded into physical violence so that the man can appear to be the victim and use the legal system as yet another instrument of abuse.
“Many women retaliate after years of abuse, or are acting in self-defence.”
I don’t doubt the truth of that. But that very fact can work against men too.
Such as Dan, whose story I told, who left a long-term abusive relationship after retaliating for the first and only time.
If Irene had accused him then, who would have believed that for years it was she who had been assaulting him?
Carolyn, understandably, is most enraged by male violence. But she concludes: “Abuse is never OK, no matter who perpetrates it.
“I’ve heard one or two horror stories about men walking into a police station and being treated with contempt.
“People are rarely prosecuted unless physical violence is involved, but emotional and psychological abuse is highly damaging, and the effects can last years, if not a lifetime.
“Bruises, cuts, burns, broken limbs etc can be seen whereas emotional abuse is invisible and often not believed because the abuser is typically so charming to everyone else.
“It crushes who you are as a person and makes it very difficult to be a functioning human being.”
A disturbing conclusion with which I know Dan and Steve, my original interviewees, would wholeheartedly agree.
Cheryl, another friend from my school days, replied to my article with a tragedy.
She said: “ I lost a friend in Paris who was regularly beaten up by her partner.
“She refused to give evidence to the police while she was in hospital, where she died of her injuries.
“I also have a close family member who was abused by his wife and has now left her because the level of violence from her reached a point of no return.
“The stats mean nothing if we are unable to discuss the problem clearly and offer support to all those who find themselves in such a terrible situation, torn between the love and the abuse.”

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Do you buy it? Drugs on sale at the politics show

IS Andrew Lansley a dead politician walking? Or has the health secretary managed to wriggle out of a humiliation with face somehow intact?
Or, as his boss David Cameron cunningly spun it, is a series of apparent climbdowns a sign not of weakness but of strength?
I say “apparent” climbdowns because we haven’t actually seen the detail yet. All we’ve had so far is speeches – from Cameron, from his sidekick Nick Clegg, and from Lansley.
They want us to think things have changed for the better. That they’ve been listening to all our concerns.
That we can trust them with our lives. Maybe literally.
And you know what? All I’ve named so far is people. Three blokes in suits and ties.
Two or three inches in and I still haven’t identified my subject as the butchery – sorry, “reform” – of our National Health Service.
And isn’t that the root trouble with politics?
In a democracy, it’s supposed to be “the people” who decide what happens about crucially important things such as the NHS.
But there a couple of problems with this. Well, quite a lot of problems actually, but just a couple I want to mention now.
One is that there isn’t really any such thing as “the people”.
I’m one person with one set of thoughts and opinions. You’re another person with another set.
Are we likely to agree?
On some things, maybe. On everything… not a chance.
And that’s just two of us among millions.
Anyone who tries to tell you what “the people” thinks is trying to put over a particular view – probably their own.
The other big problem is information, or the lack of it.
For democracy to have a chance of working well, even in a perfect world (which this is far from being), “the people” needs to be well informed.
That, in theory, is what the press – papers, magazines, TV, radio, and now the internet – is supposed to provide.
And do we? Er, no, not very well.
After all, you don’t really know how the NHS (for example) works in all its detail, do you? Or the banking system. Or education. Or all the things the government is supposed to be in charge of on our behalf.
There’s more there than you or I could keep tabs on even if it was all we did.
And I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have difficulty deciding whether I fancy Marmite or marmalade on my toast in the morning.
In fact, when you stop to consider all the reasons why “the press” fails to keep “the people” fully informed on important matters all the time, the real surprise is that we do it as well as we do.
After all, there’s Ryan Giggs’s sex life, Wayne Rooney’s hair and the off-screen lives of every soap star or talent-show wannabe to keep on top of too.
After which politics can look a bit dry to many people. And difficult – not just for “the people” but for journalists too.
Which is why we usually end up treating it like another soap.
As if it was the cast – Lansley, Cameron and Clegg this week, with walk-on parts for the brothers Miliband – that mattered.
Rather than the really important stuff of policy.
Does the question of Andrew Lansley’s political future, with which I began this column, actually matter?
Not a jot, except to the Lansley family. And probably not a great deal to them either – I’m sure he’ll never go short of wonga.
Does the future of the NHS matter? Very much indeed.
Which is why the most interesting thing about Lansley’s big speech on Wednesday wasn’t anything he said. That was just another speech, another political platform.
It wasn’t even the reaction of his audience, made up of hundreds of GPs.
No, the interesting thing was where it took place – the 2011 Commissioning Show at the Kensington Olympia conference centre in West London.
And that right outside the main hall was a sea of stalls with all the big names represented – AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boots, Bosch, Capita, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, Specsavers, UnitedHealth and dozens of others you might or might not have heard of. Banks and lawyers as well as drug companies.
Proof, if any more were needed, that our national health is already about business as much as service.
It would take a far bigger politician than Lansley to put that genie back in the bottle.
Even if he wanted to. Which of course he doesn’t, being just another snake-oil medicine-seller himself.


OH the joy of getting a bit of real rain on the garden at last.
It’ll take a lot more before we shrug off all talk of drought, of course. Everywhere is still looking pretty parched.
But there are surprises and delights out there too.
Right now in Fen Meadow in Woodbridge, in a patch the council has deliberately and properly left unmown, is the finest crop of wild marsh orchids I’ve ever seen in Britain.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

I knew the end had come the day I hit her back

The number of women convicted of domestic violence in England and Wales has more than doubled in the past five years. Figures obtained from the Crown Prosecution Service by the BBC this week showed that almost 4,000 women were successfully prosecuted in the past year, compared with 1,500 in 2005. Here I speak to two male victims of domestic violence about their experiences, and the difficulty of coming forward. Names have been changed.


DAN, a professional man, lived with Irene for 16 years. She began drinking heavily before they were married but it was some years before her often erratic behaviour turned violent.
After that there were a few more bad years before he finally left, moving on his own to a job in Suffolk.
“The drink was always the problem,” he said.
“It started as a social thing, a way of getting out and meeting people while I was out at work. I’d come home and find her passed out on the sofa or the floor.
“She did get a couple of jobs over the years, but she never managed to keep them for long.
“I’d join her in the pub most evenings for a pint or two, but she took to staying when I went home.
“She got in a few fights, and got barred from a few pubs, before she ever got violent with me. But once she did, it became a sort of habit.
“I knew the end had come when I hit her back.
“Actually she was coming for me with a bottle and I just pushed her away. But she fell against the wall and hit her head, and I realised with a shock that people might think it was me who was the violent one.
“That was the only time I tried to defend myself in years of being regularly hit, scratched, kicked or having things thrown at me – mostly glasses.
“The funniest time was when she tipped a plate of spaghetti bolognaise over me in the bath.
“After that there was a period when she regularly used to throw food at me, or tip it on the floor, after I’d cooked it for her. It was always me who did the cooking.
“She’d stay in the pub until well after closing-time. When she got home she’d often wake me up, sometimes by pulling the bedclothes off and hitting me with a hairbrush.
“Once on holiday in Greece she woke me up by pushing an electric fan in my face. When I tipped away the last of the whisky she was drinking she went mad.
“She broke the bottle against the wall and filled my bed with the bits of broken glass.
“Even though it was the middle of the night I got out and went to find another hotel to sleep in.”
At one point Dan started going to meetings of Al-Anon, a group which provides support to anyone whose life is affected by someone else’s drinking.
“In lots of ways Al-Anon was great,” he said. “It’s such a relief to be able to talk to people who understand what you’re going through.
“On the other hand, all the others there were women, which made me feel a bit of a freak.
“You start wondering whether you’re the only man in the world who regularly gets assaulted by a drunken woman. Or whether you’re just the only one prepared to admit it.”


STEVE, now happily married, lived for several years with an abusive partner.
He suspects the rise in prosecutions for female domestic violence is mostly to do with an increase in reporting. But he thinks the official figures still show only the tip of the iceberg.
He said: “When you love someone, you don’t want to think badly of them.
“If their behaviour’s bad, you go on thinking they’ll get better and that you can help them to change.
“In the end it’s you that changes. You start seeing yourself as one of life’s victims. And it affects everything – friends, social life, work.
“You develop a habit of secrecy, of pretending everything’s OK. And that doesn’t just make it harder to seek help – you don’t see ‘help’ as something you can possibly ask for.
“I know it’s bad for a lot of women. But there’s a culture that allows women to admit there’s a problem and to seek help – maybe from the police, or Women’s Aid, or just friends.
“For men it’s a lot harder. That culture of help isn’t there.
“You might see it as weak to admit there’s a problem – even to yourself. You certainly don’t expect understanding or sympathy from colleagues or the police.
“Not that you’d necessarily even think of going to the police. Because apart from anything else, that would mean you were branding your wife or girlfriend as a criminal.
“And if there’s any love still there, that’s something you can’t do – any more than you can brand yourself openly as a victim.”

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Nuked by the free market

MARKETS are supposed to be good for us.
In fact, in the world we’ve lived in since the 1980s, markets seem to have taken the place once assigned to God – that of the only arbiter of goodness.
“The markets” decide what’s right, what’s good, what’s going to happen.
Which is pinning an awful lot on a vague concept. A concept which, which when it comes down to it, just means a lot of people (mostly men) trying to sell each other stuff.
Each one of those mostly men is acting more or less out of self-interest.
According to the fundamental believers, that’s how they are supposed to act. Not in some “woolly liberal” spirit of the public interest, but purely for personal gain.
The theory seems to be that if enough mostly men compete, bully, jostle and lie to each other hard enough their greed-based actions will somehow combine to produce the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people.
The fuel, and the rather blunt measuring tool, for all of this is money.
And the oil that keeps the machine turning is advertising – by another name, propaganda. Or, to use its now more acceptable, market-led title, marketing.
In the “free world” (that is, the capitalist world, or at least the wealthier parts of it), buying and selling doesn’t just rule the market. The market rules the world, from its most trivial detail to its biggest policy decisions.
Markets decide which brand of sweets is in favour in the playground this year. And whether the world cares enough about climate change to do something about it.
They determine policy – at best by negotiation with politicians, more commonly by having the politicians in their pockets.
In the end, it will be markets – mostly men trying to sell each other stuff – who decide what power sources we will rely on in the homes and factories of the future.
Those few impassioned people who truly want the best for all know that means putting all our efforts into renewable energy – wind, sun, tide. Which, if you think about it, are not just renewable but free. Use them and they’re still there.
It should be a simple choice. But that’s before you bring in the markets.
And anything that’s ultimately free doesn’t sound like a thing you can keep on selling.
Here’s a version of an eye-catching graphic that’s been doing the rounds on the internet lately that compares the safety records of three major sources of power:

It’s based on statistics that say that for every person killed by nuclear power, 4,000 die from coal-related causes.
So what does this show you?
That nuclear is the safest power source we have?
Or, perhaps, that following the disaster at Fukushima the pro-nuclear lobby has got worried and started bombarding us with fresh propaganda?
One of the places the graphic has popped up is on the blog of Seth Godin, an American author described as a “marketing guru”. A title which, when you think about, reveals the way the markets have taken on pseudo-religious status.
Being a guru, however, he is at least wise enough not to take the chart entirely at face value.
He says: “Vivid is not the same as true.
“It’s far easier to amplify sudden and horrible outcomes than it is to talk about the slow, grinding reality of day-to-day strife. That’s just human nature.
“Not included in this chart are deaths due to global political instability involving oil fields, deaths from coastal flooding and deaths due to environmental impacts yet unmeasured, all of which skew it even more if you think about it.”
Well yes, Seth – but maybe they don’t skew it in the way you seem to think.
The environmental impacts of coal are known unknowns. Whereas those of nuclear power?
The chart is based on statistics – at best a clumsy tool, more commonly a sophisticated method of lying.
So where is the lie here?
Firstly, the nuclear figure is the industry’s claim, not the truth, which is probably impossible to discover.
Stats on deaths due to nuclear power can only regarded as largely fictional – beyond those immediately killed by high doses of radiation at source.
Then, the figures include only those known to have died so far. No account is taken of the millions whose deaths could be caused in future.
And it is, surely, the future we are trying to decide here.
In any case “safer than the coal or oil industries” isn’t much recommendation of anything. They’re both disgracefully dangerous.
They could both be made much safer relatively easily. And in fact the figures are based on world averages, which include China, where the death-rate in the coal industry is 18 times higher than here or in America.
It’s interesting that the chart doesn’t show the gas industry, which produces more electricity in the UK than coal, oil, or nuclear.
According to the figures, the blob for natural gas should be one ninth the size of that for oil.
Those for solar, wind and hydro generation should be a little larger than the nuclear dot.
A little larger for now – but without the potential to grow suddenly, in one big bang, from a dot to a page-obliterating black splodge.
The fissile plutonium produced in nuclear reactors will go on being radioactive for thousands of human generations.
Can we build nuclear power-stations, and waste-dumps, to be safe that long?
Or are today’s politicians – and today’s markets – in danger of taking decisions that will be a crime against humanity to come?