Disproportion.

hammer nut

 

(Note: This story contains some mild descriptions of violence).

When I was a young teenager I was playing football on the playground at school in my dinner break with my friends. Not for the first time, a thug from our year came up and took the ball from us and started kicking it around to his mates. My friends and I were generally pretty meek people and had to put up this kind of thing.

This time, however, I decided to try and tackle the bully to get the ball back. When I did he fell over as a result and got his shiny new coat wet. I hadn’t intended to knock him over, that’s just what happened as he tried to shield the ball from me and I put a leg out to get at it. As I walked away holding the ball, I knew what I had let myself in for. This guy had a reputation for being pretty vicious. I’m not talking about ruffled hair or tipped out bags, I’m talking about violence.

I rolled the ball back to my friend and prepared to face up to the inevitable. He was approaching, red in the face, swearing and threatening me. Already a crowd had gathered. ‘Fight!’ they shouted, as usual. The bully was my height, but twice my build, with a shaved head and his fists clenched. I’d never been in a fight before, so in the few seconds I had to think about it, I decided I needed to do something.

I tried to punch him. It probably wasn’t the best decision, but it felt like the only possible way I could avoid it happening to me. I missed, having never thrown a punch before with the intention of actually hitting someone. He recoiled from my feeble swing, which was further impeded by my school bag falling off my shoulder and dragging down my arm. The next thing I saw was his knuckles coming towards my face. He didn’t miss. He didn’t miss the first time, but I didn’t go down. He didn’t miss the second time, but I didn’t go down. He didn’t miss the third time when my nose exploded in a cloud of scarlet and still I stood. I should have gone down.

After this he got me in a tight headlock. He was strong. His boasts and reputation were not unfounded. As I was held there, dripping from my nose onto his black trousers, he said to me, “We better calm this down now, there’s a dinner lady watching.”

At this I became angry. Up until that point it had just been a series of sharp pains and confusion, but that statement brought it into focus. How could I calm down the complete beating I was getting? I hadn’t started it. It had started long ago across all the stolen footballs, threats, beatings and taunts that most other people had to put up with at the whim of people like him on a daily basis.

I tried to act, but I don’t know how to fight. I tried to lift his knee to get him off me and topple him backwards. Instead, he brought it to my face, three times, further smashing my already popped nose. Then he let go, and I went to the office to get myself cleaned up. The next day I had concussion and couldn’t come to school.

Nothing of any real consequence happened to the lad. In theory I had started it with my  feeble attempt at a punch. Before that is was just playground squabbling. I had incited the violence that followed by my desperate attempt at pre-emptive defence.

What interests me with this memory, is whether this was a fair decision? Did I deserve the level of violence that I incurred because I tried to stand up for myself? My instinct tells me no, but the bare facts of the matter sound different. Consider this version of events:

Today at school someone tried to steal my football. I knocked him over and then tried to punch him. He defended himself and I came off worse.

It’s so easy to twist facts around to make the situation sound more two sided than it was, to try and engender sympathy for the disproportional response by glossing over the history and context of the matter. You may disagree with me and think I should of stayed my hand and waited till I was hit first, or gone down after the first punch and curled up in a little ball. You may think that I sacrificed any right to blame or victim status because I tried to do something rather than wait passively for something to happen that all reason and experience told me was certain.

You may think that, but it doesn’t feel right to me.

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Pride and realism do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This week my home town, Stoke-on-Trent, had the rather dubious honour of sliding in at number 10 in  a poll of the countries ‘crap towns’ – as voted for, well it seems, as voted for by the whims of the misguided writers.

I say this because, I know that Stoke-on-Trent has its problems, like all the other locations mentioned, but it also has its positives, its aspirations, and what else? Oh yeah, it’s full of actual real, living people who rely on the image of the town to attract business investment, create jobs, and so enable them to earn a living. (over half a million people, swept aside in one picture of one part of Hanley, one small part of a bigger whole)

So when these writers talk about towns, I’m sure they purely mean the bricks & mortar, the traffic planning, the lack of services and the economic outlook. I’m sure they intend those of us who live there to pick up the book and laugh heartily to ourselves as we agree, “Oh yes! This is so true! I do live in a crap town! If only it wasn’t so crap, but look at just how crap it is! Thanks Mr Author living in Oxford for your portrayal of my home to the rest of the country – thus further entrenching the idea in people’s minds that where I live, where my family and friends live, work and love, is just crap! We must be idiots to live here, mustn’t we?”

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but then, I have a peer group of people who’ve not only carved out their livings from Stoke-on-Trent, but are actively trying to make the place better through their work. It’s not easy, the easy thing would be for us to all move away and forget where we come from, and never mention it again, but we don’t. Even those I know who have left the area, have strong roots here, return here, support each other and have love for the place. So this book just smacks of pissy negativity that really doesn’t help anyone (other than the authors to make a few coins).

It’s not even like we don’t know that elements of Stoke leave a little to be desired, but then, we live here, so I think it’s okay really for us to say that. I will happily discuss how I think the 6 towns (do the writers know that Stoke in actually six towns?) are not working as a connected whole, and how the City itself seems to be getting surrounded by business parks, resembling a small village of indomitable Stokies, surrounded by the forces of Tesco. I understand that we have been beset by council failings, corruption, starved funding from the South (which makes books like this from Oxford writers even more bitter), closed shops and over-grown brown spaces.  We have some bad areas and some bad people. But this is not it! This is, just like everywhere in the world, something we are trying to resolve, trying to overcome, against the odds of a central government who seeks to starve out opposition politics by slashing funding. Christ, at one point they even wanted to dump London’s poor on us!

So, I imagine the natural response from the writers of this book, this ‘poll’, would be that it is ‘just a bit of fun’, and we can’t deny them that in a world of free speech. It’s just a shame that some people, given the freedom afforded to us from thousands of years of human evolution, the rise and fall of civilizations, at the very pinnacle of human existence and understanding, choose to use that honour to go round slagging off other people’s towns for a quick profit. You’d just think they might have something better to do with their time, talent and obvious connections in the media.

Hark at me! Trying to appeal for positivity in the world. How very droll. I re-read this and I can almost feel the sniggers should the authors of the poll stumble upon this humble blog. My reaction will have justified their tease. But you know, if you don’t stick up for your own town, who will?!  Who knows, maybe the writers are actually really clever social scientists, using this publication as a rallying call for the areas represented to rise to the challenge – maybe I am falling into their devious, yet ultimately positive, trap? I don’t think so somehow, but then, if it has that affect, then who cares if they intended it?

It shouldn’t matter though, I hardly think “Top ten crap towns” will go down in history as one of the literary greats, rather something someone else buys you for Christmas and you half-read while having a shit, basically. Aim high guys. Aim high! Thanks for the publicity.