I don’t know when it started, so I don’t know where to start. I’ll leave out the unfortunate encounters, the errors and the pleasures which I had chosen and over which I had some control. I will stick to the anger and the hot resentment that I have carried for fifty years about the intrusive, aggressive, and frankly sometimes frightening assaults which interrupted my daily life for many, many years. Oh, and believe me, it’s not over. Not quite.
Here’s a couple: walking down George Street in Oxford, aged 15. Middle of the morning. Two men walk towards me. One grabs my breasts, one in each hand and turns to his friend and laughs. I shouted “The next time a man does that to me I will kick him in the balls”. Aged 19, standing at Wood Green bus station 11.30 one night, a man does exactly that and I retaliate. (I miss, but only by a few inches.) He turns and says, with real surprise, “What did you do that for?” I reply “Well, what have you just done to me?” A year or so later on an escalator, late night again, a man (drunk) lunges for my breasts. This time it’s me who says “What did you do that for?” He says, in a hurt tone, “Well you was showing everything, wasn’t you?”
It’s not all about the breasts but here’s another one: I’m a proper grown up now, 28 or 29, sunbathing in the garden in my swimsuit. (I never wore a bikini because they don’t fit and frankly it’s just asking for trouble.) There is a crash in the road outside. I quickly put my skirt on and rush out to see what’s happened. A man has fallen off his motorbike. Bike and man are sprawled on the road. I run towards him to see if I can help, and a car slows down. The driver leans out of his window, shouts at me “You have beautiful breasts!” and speeds off. (Bike rider is ok, gets up, picks his bike up and walks away.)
Oh, men in cars: beeping, shouting, banging on the window, peering into my taxi and putting their hand on the door handle (this was a well-known actor). “Do you know what a tool is?” “Cut yourself shaving?” (Me: “Something for adjusting screws, isn’t it?” and “No, I have this plaster on my face because I have cancer.” I didn’t, which makes that response extremely awkward and questionable.) I once whacked a car of four assailants with my umbrella and infuriated the occupants. And men not in cars; men on buses and trains, up ladders, on rooves. Men whistling, jostling, nudging, mumbling, calling. Young men showing off to their mates, old men pressing their thighs against mine on the bus, men flashing their willies and once a man who sits opposite me on the Piccadilly Line and wanks all the way from Barons Court to Russell Square. (I was anxious not to get my shoes splashed.)
None of this was fun. I loathed it. I could not let it go. I was incensed at not being able to walk freely. I had to gear myself up every time I went out because it would happen at least once every day. There were some potentially frightening moments. I am kerb crawled (middle of the day, Camden Town) by a man who gives me foul abuse once he realises I am not “working”. I try on some clothes in a second-hand shop and the proprietor gropes me in the dressing room. On my late-night journeys home from my job in Central London the man at the train barrier takes my ticket and makes comments about my clothes, my body, my desirability, before handing it back (and yes, I did complain to the station, and yes, they said they could not, would not, do anything.)
It was oppressive; the constant fear of footsteps behind me, the crossing of roads or changing route to avoid building sites. “Maybe it’s me” I thought, “Next time it happens I’ll try being nice. I’ll flip it around so that we are all human and happy.” Chiswick, 1985. On my way to a 24-hour Shakespeare fundraiser. Mid-morning. Ladders, couple of blokes – the usual “oy-darlin-oy-ello-darlin”. I look up, smile, say “Morning!” And I get back “You have a face like a bag full of shit.” My heart hardens. “Whatever this war is,” I thought, “I cannot begin to understand the rules of engagement, but I will carry on fighting.”
Maybe there was a glimmer of hope. A house nearby was having some work done. A few months after the Chiswick incident a man chipping paint off an upstairs window shouted as I passed “Oy, I can see your knickers” and I said “I hope you fall off your ladder” and kept walking. Couple of minutes later a young man appeared at my side. He was carrying a bucket. He was probably their apprentice. He might have been 17 or 18. He said “Why did you say that?” I told him what had been said to me. I told him I didn’t like having personal remarks like that made to me, that I found it rude and intimidating. He said “Oh, I see, sorry” and went back to the house. Oh, maybe, just maybe, he was the start of a kinder future.
This was my script for many years. I boiled and scalded, I carried heavy anger with me daily, I never felt safe. I told those stories again and again, but nobody had my back. My family’s faces shut down blankly. It was as if I was asking for this attention simply by being a woman walking about, and I had no-one to blame but myself. I told the motor bike story to a friend recently, 35 years later, and she just thought it was funny. It makes me hot and tearful even now; I have had to take a break from writing this.
Tell a lie, a really lovely woman, mother of a good friend, heard me out as I complained about the man who had knocked on his front window to get my attention as I walked passed. She thought for a moment and then said “What you have to understand is that you are an attractive young lady and you must expect it.”
It tailed off in my thirties, probably when I had my children. I can promise you that I did not miss it one bit.
There were a couple of exceptions that I found warm and affirming. A man once said “Your Mum turns you out lovely”. I felt good all day. A mounted policeman waiting at the traffic lights in Swiss Cottage looked down at me and winked. A man came back into the café where I had just served him and gave me a note telling me how much he would like to have a drink with me (“I’m not married.”). I didn’t call, but I kept that note for years. But last summer, I am walking down the road to buy milk. Three boys at the bus stop on the other side of the road cat-call and gesticulate in my direction. They are either short sighted or just practising. I stop and stare at them long enough for them to realise I am 62 years old. They cool it. But when I cross the road to the shop, I turn the other way and go to a different shop so that I don’t have to pass by right next to them.