British Men Need to Stop Resolving Their Problems with Violence
Small-town vendettas and hardwired masculine aggression aren't just physically damaging – they're creating a mental health epidemic.
The feel of Stan against me. His yielding skin. Our flesh connected. Back then I couldn't get him out of my head. It sounds like teenage obsession, but at 15 I knew it was deeper than that. We weren't lovers; in fact, we violently hated each other for no other reason than juvenile macho bullshit.
Our relationship, which at times has verged upon the murderous – I'll get to that later – was not a particularly unusual one. According to a 2013 study carried out by the UN, more than half of the world's murder victims are under 30. 79 percent are male, as are 95 percent of perpetrators. Essentially, when one young man has a problem with another young man, the stats show he's much more likely to resort to violence than any other type of person in a similar situation.
Death and serious injury aren't the only fruits of male-on-male conflict. The psychological effects of interpersonal violence, whether in the home or in the street, take a heavy toll; violence has the potential to really fuck with your head. I kept dreaming of the things I'd say when I met Stan again, before passion inevitably forced our hands. He would creep into my mind at innocuous moments and unsteady me.
I've done my best to move on from the vendettas and feuds I was subject to as a teenager. The easiest part of that process was getting the hell out of where I grew up. More difficult was acknowledging that fighting during my youth had been traumatic. It would be mentioned only in the context of boastful boozy late-night tales. The idea of talking about hurt, regret, shame and worry was inconceivable.
The charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) released a study this November stating that there was a "crisis in modern masculinity", exactly because of such bottled up attitudes. At the extreme end, this has led to a 15-year-high in male suicides. CALM chief executive Jane Powell said: "Outmoded, incorrect and misplaced male self-beliefs are proving lethal, and the traditional strong, silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves."
Since returning home six months ago to take a bigger role in raising my five-year-old daughter, concerns I thought I'd buried bother me again. The hate I experienced as a teenager runs deep, and I worry the very same childhood issues that affected me have the potential to reach her.§
Stan was my first real proper enemy. We'd been school friends until an incident at a fun fair, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, whose ragtag bunch of gypsy merchants and entertainers have been visiting the area where I grew up every year for seven centuries. I was with my mates and Stan was with his. We bumped into each other outside some waltzers and Stan challenged me to a boxing match. There was a ring inside a tent and anyone who fought got paid a fiver. It was two quid to watch. Even by local standards, the place was an anachronism.
I agreed to a friendly bout. There were probably 50 people in the audience but it felt like more. Most of my friends, betting that he was harder than me, stood on Stan's side of the ring. We were the first of three fights, one of which included a match against a professional wrestler. As I climbed into the ring, a gypsy kid a few years older than me said: "You're not playing in there. Make sure you go in and fight."
I went in and paggered Stan. It was a big surprise to everyone. Stan took it bad – despite it being a sporting event – and stopped going to school. His mates started saying he was after me. I pretended I didn't care, but I was shitting myself. Stan was dark-side: in woodwork class once he'd shown me a ring he'd made for punching people. There were ragged bits of sharp metal sticking out of it. One day I was told he would be waiting for me outside school. There was nothing I could do. Everybody knew about it and there was no way I was chickening out.
He was outside a Next store near the school. A big group surrounded us. I dodged his first punch and uppercutted him. My knuckle hit his bottom lip, his lip went into his teeth and my knuckle followed. I pulled my fist free from his face and drove him as hard as I could into the Next window, which bounced inwards and then shook back into place. The security guard came out and split it up.
I CONSIDERED DRIVING MY PINT GLASS INTO HIS FACE AND STAMPING ON HIS HEAD – IT WAS EITHER THAT OR GET HURT
We made our separate ways to hospital – me to get my hand stitched up and him to get his face fixed. Stan caught me by surprise as I was sitting in the children's A&E and knocked a tooth out with his knee. I could hear his dad encouraging him. I wasn't going to fight in a hospital so I got up and left. We didn't see each other for a long time after that, but he played on my mind for the next few years. It felt like love, but it wasn't.
Stan got out of jail when I was 20. He was in there for arson after setting his own house on fire. I'd just got back from India and saw him in a nightclub. The school friend I was with would soon go to jail himself for breaking a guy's ankle and wrist in a drunken fight. I don't know if he knew we were going to run into Stan, but I suspect he might have done.
The first thing Stan said to me was: "Every time I look in the mirror I see this scar and I'm reminded of you." He was pointing to the one beneath his lip. The same jagged line runs across my knuckles. I considered driving my pint glass into his face and stamping on his head – it was that or get hurt. Either way, it was going to get worse. So I tried something else.
"Mate, you can hit me if you like, but I've already got a death sentence. I've got a life-threatening disease and not a lot of time left on the clock."
It worked. He gave me a hug and bought me a drink. He told me he knew what it was like to be an outcast. I spent a quarter of an hour laying a heavy trip on him about how he could turn his life around, but that it was too late for me, and then I left. Stan was a laughing stock when he started telling people I was dying. By the time I saw him again years later he was a broken man and no longer a threat.
I scarred someone else during my youth, who also vowed vengeance against me. Resolving the situation without employing the sort of violence that lands you in custody is not an option. I don't even know the guy's name, but after more than a decade we would recognise each other in an instant.
He appeared near where I lived when I was 16 and would threaten me because I was wearing the wrong school uniform. He's a couple of years older than me, heavy set with eyes that are too close together. The sort of person who moves in his own little world of shit and whose only contact with wider society is as an alarming and unpleasant envoy from a place people would rather not visit.
One day, the guy was standing with his friends around a car at the end of a long row of terraced houses. As I walked past he called me names again. I told him where to go and kept walking. He pulled the thick end of a pool cue out of the trunk of the car and followed me. I kept walking until he was a few feet behind me. Then I turned and head-butted him. He fell down and I grabbed the cue out of his hand. I smashed his face in with it. I didn't know how much damage I'd done but there was a lot of blood. I dropped the cue and ran.
A few weeks later I was talking to girl on a corner nearby when he jumped out of a car with a hammer. Before I ran, I noticed a large ugly line of stitches running down the middle of his forehead. Another time a car stopped in the middle of a main road. I thought it had broken down and was crossing to see if I could lend a hand. He jumped out of the car with the hammer again. We played cat and mouse like this for months until one time I noticed a long, thick piece of metal left fortuitously in a front garden. I picked it up and turned to face him. He stopped and looked at my new weapon. Then, absurdly, I started chasing him, until the Tom and Jerry nature of the situation hit me and I desisted.
During the remaining time I lived in that area I made sure I was armed, aware and incognito. I adopted a sort of nu-metal uniform; baggy jeans held together at the bottom with safety pins, a duffel coat and a beanie. I smoked king-size spliffs in the street and carried a football sock filled with half a brick in my pocket. I never made enquiries into who he was and only my close friends knew of the situation. I used alleys and cycle paths to navigate the area. Still sometimes he would spot me, pulling his car up onto the pavement and jumping out with some implement or other. Once he tried to run me over.
The last time I saw him was four years ago in Tesco when I was home for a short visit. Up until that point I thought I didn't have to worry any more – it had been ten years since that first incident. He confronted me down the meat aisle and I tried to deny knowledge of him at first, but he knew it was me. We could smell it on each other. It was too public for anything drastic to happen there and then, but we each had a good look at our respective enemy. He even took a picture of me on his mobile. I couldn't help but take it personally when he told me I'd "filled out".
His malevolent piggy eyes were still located directly above each nostril and the scar was as prominent as ever. He reminded me of some twisted Batman, lusting after his own personal Joker. That upset me, because I don't consider myself to be evil incarnate. Still, he looks like he has a disfigured vagina grafted onto his face. A badge I gave him forever. Every time he meets someone new, every time he walks down the street. So what does that make me?
I didn't want to follow him out of the supermarket to a showdown where one of us (and I was determined it wouldn't be me) ended up with life-changing injuries and the other in jail. However, he wouldn't leave unless I did. Finally, the security guard called the police and he walked out.
My daughter was a year old then, and it worried me that she would be with me the day my very own Frankenstein's monster turned up. Before she was born it didn't concern me in the same way. Now I'm back permanently my anxiety has increased. In moments of worry I check the smoke alarm works, just in case. I weigh up the capabilities of his limited intelligence and attempt to fathom the depths of his hatred. I run though the possibilities of him coming into contact with us.
Gradually, I calm myself because, as long I avoid certain districts, the chances are slim; there's no need to uproot my family.
After my paranoia passes I'm aware that my concern represents something larger. The most vicious fights I've been in have been about status. That type of violence is the primitive root of patriarchy. There was an atavism at work where I was raised; a place that suffered at the decline of our industrial base and traditional roles. But it was fucked up even before those things disintegrated. The values I came into contact with were old and well established, despite being degraded and fragmented.
Watered down versions of those values led my girlfriend's parents to pay private school fees for her brother but dump her in the local comprehensive. They led my mother to view men as economic stepping stones because the domestic was the only choice she ever really had. They are present in the million miserable ways "traditional" masculine logic can and does enforce its hierarchies.§
I worry that my little girl will grow up in a world built of that mess, and a thousand other messes like it. But then I look at her and I realise that she is free and that I'm here to make sure she stays that way. To help provide her with the knowledge and the tools to avoid the bad stuff and be strong.
Part of that responsibility is to understand what strength is not. I grew up thinking that strength was being able to fight my corner, drink people under the table and take risks. I'd do things like climb out onto the very end of a crane when I was pissed for a laugh. If you were a bully and you started on me, I'd do my best to knock you out, rather than just avoid the situation completely like a normal person. The same beliefs prevented me – and probably many others like me – from acknowledging to myself that I had been hurt. The Campaign Against Living Miserably says these sorts of behaviours correlate directly with depression, which I can believe.
People like my Batman nemesis exist, and despite coming to terms with my feelings and altering my coping mechanisms there will always be a part of me that watches out. If I could go back in time and steer clear of him that day, I would. Instead of a time machine, I have a survival instinct. Despite hating the fact I've had to develop it, I'm grateful I possess it. I've also been lucky to have spent years having fantastic adventures across the world and meeting a brilliant brigade of unusual people. I'm torn between whether I did that because of the things I've experienced or in spite of them.
What never helped me was not talking to people when I was feeling bad. Sitting in morose silence while my girlfriend worried herself sick didn't help anyone. Deciding to slam tequila and be belligerent at a work party instead of admit that I was lonely and confused and frustrated didn't produce a damn thing. Instead of a friendly ear (and there were a few around) I was peeled off the pavement by the police and woke up in a drunk tank.
If this sort of behaviour sounds familiar, it's because there is an epidemic of misguided British men pressure cooking themselves. It's time they started to communicate. Maybe if that happened fewer people would end up with hideous scars all over their face.
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