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Violence in Britain

During the 'Sixties and early 'Seventies, I wrote many articles for the UK & US "Underground Press." The following one has proved its staying power: a prophetic piece about the true psychological state of the English, when they were anxious to believe that all violence came from America, long before their football hoodlums and a series of their own violent crimes became known. From London's "under-ground" paper International Times (IT), Oct. 10-23, 1969.

It is customary to suppose that the British are not a violent people. Unlike certain other peoples who could be mentioned (and usually are) the British are alleged to be more gentle, restrained and tolerant than lesser breeds and hence less violent. There is no good reason for dwelling on violence for its own sake, and no one but a madman would want to see violence increase in any part of the world. But I suspect that in their belief that they are necessarily less prone to bloody physical acts than other people the English are indulging themselves in a dangerous illusion, an illusion which blinds them to what is already happening and about to happen and wil leave them less able through ignorance to deal with the growing pressure of events than they might be if prepared with a little hard knowledge.

The British are more self-controlled than other people, it is claimed. In much the same way it is often claimed that the British press, British justice, British commonsense, and an overall British fairness far exceed these qualities in other folk. In all these cases one would do well to be suspicious of any comparison that works out in favour of the person making it. One must ask if the motive behind the comparison is in fact a genuine desire for knowledge, or, as I believe to be the case, merely the desire for a gratuitous sense of superiority.

This fierce assertion of British gentleness is based upon one of the flimsiest of foundations, that of comparative statistics and on what is probably the least substantiated statistic of all, the yearly murder rate. According to Colin Wilson's "Encyclopedia of Murder," New York has a murder a day, Paris two a day, but London only one a fortnight. All these figures have probably gone up since this book was published, but what do they really mean? Do they actually signify that there are fewer murders in England than elsewhere? Government spokesmen and others were quick to deny that statistics of this nature issued this summer could possibly be accurate when they seemed to reveal what many people know is the case, that the murder and violent crime rate is rising. It was claimed that the higher figures merely revealed increased English efficiency in gathering them. But might the English figures actually err in the other direction and show far fewer murders than are actually committed here at home? I believe that they do so err.

Consider the English character, and how crimes of violence tend to be committed at home and abroad. In most of the world violence is usually direct, outright, and pointed sharply at the intended target—it takes place between members of a family, known enemies, betrayed lovers, almost always in a fit of super-charged anger which the criminal may then regret or at least overcome. In most of the world violence, like other acts and emotions, is open, clear-cut, and direct. In England, I believe, violence, like other acts and emotions, is covert, cloudy, and devious. For this reason I believe the murderer often goes undetected. It would be fairer to say that the English are better murderers than others than to say that there are fewer of them.

Consider the character of many English murders amd murderers. It is often discovered that murders in England are multiple in nature. It also happens with a fair frequency that these crimes are not discovered until many years after they have occurred. It is also true that a tendency to wall up the victims is encountered in English murder. No one would need to look very hard into psychology to know what walling up means in the conscious or unconscious mind and what it may mean in terms of English character—it is the same drive that makes the ordinary Englishman fold a letter many times more often than people abroad and put it into an incredibly tiny envelope. This tendency to wall things up means that there are no meaningful murder statistics in England because no one knows because no one wants to know.

This is why so many English want to believe violence is something that only occurs elsewhere, precisely because they do not want to know what is happening at home. This means that the most innocent-looking little old women, these lovely little characters with whom it sometimes seems England is over-populated, may not be so innocent at all, as they fraily and eccentrically eke the last years since the sudden passing of their husbands and relatives. This often turns out to be the case in the stories of Agatha Christie, who with her compatriot Conan-Doyle, shares the ambivalent honor of having invented the murder mystery, not in some violence-ridden jungle but oddly enough, here in England. Japanese schizophrenics are different from schizophrenics elsewhere in that they tend to withdraw into a corner and shred pieces of paper and bamboo into bits [for America I would have said "tatami mats," but no chance of the British knowing what those were then]—other schizophrenics tend to hit out against people and society. There is no reason to suppose that murder in England does not follow its own similarly idiosyncratic pattern.

There are one or two other points which must be considered. First of all, the fact that forensic institutes and laboratories are not so advanced or so numerous here as in other countries, so that thorough scientific investigation of crime does not take place. This would also tend to influence the murder statistics—it is assumed that these institutions are not necessary because there are fewer violent crimes, but this may merely be a case of circular reasoning—because no one is looking, no one is finding anything.

Another important factor is the growing discrepancy between the various figures available on missing persons in England. The usual figure supplied from the Salvation Army register is around 20,000 per year, but other estimates run as high as 100,000 per year, or one out of every 500 Englishmen. Thus far, no one has taken the responsibility of determining what these figures really are—local police and authorities often do not record reports on missing people, justifying themselves by claiming that a man has a right to disappear now and then as part of his privacy. This explanation is full of that wonderful English eccentric character we all like to admire, but is it a true one? Could it be that these people might be missing for weightier reasons which, once again, no one wants to know for fear of what they might discover?

The assertion of superior English gentleness and law-abiding- ness seems to grow more ferocious as conditions grow less gentle and law-abiding, which suggests that some people are merely beginning to repeat a lesson they learned in school in a growingly hysterical manner. Against this summer's assassination attempts in Wales, a race riot in Leeds (yes, it was a real race riot, and if you don't think it happened, then you are typical of what this article is about), and the current troubles in an Ireland ruled by the English for over three centuries, the English gentleness freak simply shouts out his certainty that violence only happens abroad and that the Irish are all savages anyway, and even that is happening far away in a country thirty miles [width of Irish Sea at narrowest point]—from the heart of lightness and whiteness, England.

It is also useful to consider what the English are trying to prove by repeating these assertions and to whom. Current discussions on violence rarely seek to compare England to France, for example, because it is an erroneous assumption of many English that the French are somehow more civilised. No one bothers to make comparisons with the Dutch or the Scandinavians, possibly because these might prove favorable to the foreigners. But no one is really interested in comparing the English with other Europeans, almost all direct or implied comparisons on violence in today's press centre on proving that the English are the gentlest, most responsible of beings and the Americans nothing but wild trigger-happy fiends. Why—what is the reason and what is the purpose? It is because the English have still not abandoned their imperial pretensions to be best and highest on the planet and they resent the intrusion of the Americans, all of them ultimately of lower-class origins into this realm. And this in turn is because the English have still not found some other more satisfying identity for themselves than imagining themselves rulers of the world itself or some poorly defined empire of the mind. The point here is not to trigger off love or hate of the Americans but to recognise that all countries in the world today must live, as never before, in the constant knowledge that people in other countries are real and flesh-and-blood beings with similar problems.

The comparison with America is superficial because it does not take into consideration climatic differences which are growingly seen to influence our actions—this is something that can only be resolved chemically by an anti-weather pill. But there is no doubt that Londoners could never take a New York summer without a radical alteration in the the London crime rate. New York is also a multiracial and multinational city in a way that London is not, which produces its own tensions. The English at one time claimed they had no black problem, but that was before they had any blacks. There is also no doubt that just as there are more overtly violent encounters between people in New York than in London (leaving to one side the covert, devious ones at home), so there is also a greater total number of encounters of all kinds in New York than here, which is simply to say that more people meet, talk to each other, and develop relationships there than here. This is also true of the Continent. When a gas is brought to a greater heat, there are more collisions between molecules but also more movement and more contact, and more chances for exchange.

The continued use of dubious comparisons on violence in the English press is not merely bad thinking and bad journalism, it is pernicious in effect and dangerous in its consequences. It is a remnant of clouded imperial nationalistic thinking at a time when not only England but peoples everywhere must begin to reject attitudes from the past, including nationalism itself, if the world is to survive. In the long run the only people the English are fooling by indulging in these spurious hole-ridden statistics are themselves.

This article is Copyright © 1992
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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