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Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

product_thumbnailI am very excited to be able to say that I have finally published my collected poems in a single volume. Like my blog, it is also called ‘Fragments and Reflections’ and is available in hard copy, under my Lone Crow Publications label, direct from Lulu and also from Amazon. For those of you who prefer an eBook, you can buy Fragments and Reflections from Amazon, Barnes & Noble (nook), iBooks and Kobo. You can download the free sampler here.

What kind of poetry is it? I would describe it as a collection of modern verse for every facet of life and for every emotion. There are poems born out of love, of dreams, of wandering in the countryside, of working in the city and of generally raging against the world. Nature, the city, love, lust, betrayal, war, death, homelessness, spaniels… You will find them all inside.

If you take a peek inside, I hope you find something that speaks to you.

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Gravestone - Robert DewarThe Battle of the Somme lasted from the 1st July 1916 until 18th November 1916. To help advance Allied objectives, on the 19th July, having postponed for 24 hours, the Australian 5th Division, under the command of Major General J. W. McCay, began their assault on the ‘Sugerloaf’ at Fromelles, a salient held by German forces. It had been identified as an objective whose capture would divert German attention from Allied troops attacking elsewhere.

Among the soldiers serving in the 5th division was 3047 Private Robert Dewar, my great, great uncle. Assigned to the 55th Battalion, which in turn was assigned to the 14th Brigade, part of the 5th Division, Fromelles was the first engagement of the war for the 55th Battalion and so the first engagement for Robert. When the 14th Brigade attacked at 6pm on the 19th, hundreds of soldiers were mown down by German machine gunners whose commanders had realised the attack was merely intended as a feint.  Robert and his comrades in the 55th Batallion were initially held in reserve, but, as the assault began to go horrifically wrong, they were ordered to provide a rearguard for the initial assault troops. The result was a catastrophic failure.

The Battle of Fromelles as been described ‘the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.’ The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, rendering it unable to engage in offensive operations for many months. 1,717 of those casualties were in the 14th Brigade. Robert was among them.

Identifying the remains of soldiers who died at Fromelles has been a priority for the Australian Army in the guise of The Fromelles Project. So far, 144 soldiers have been identified. Robert, in 2010, was one of the first, with my family providing DNA samples. On the 5th October 2014, just before dusk, Robert’s name was the eighth read out at the Tower of London in the moving Roll of Honour.

Tim Lycett’s book Fromelles: The Final Chapter contains a fascinating few paragraphs about Robert, describing how he came to be at Fromelles as well as his last moments. Over sixteen million people perished in World War One. Lycett reminds us that each one of those deaths was a tragedy, a life ripped out of a fabric of family, friends and ambitions:

Robert Dewar was born in London to a family with a long international maritime history. His father, also called Robert, was a very capable ship’s chief engineer of forty years’ experience and had been fortunate to survive the Volturno disaster in 1913, when a ship caught fire in the middle of a storm as it conveyed passengers – mostly immigrants – from Rotterdam to the United States. (Although several ships came to its rescue, the gale was too fierce and they were helpless to reach the stricken vessel until the sea had calmed. By then, approximately 135 people had died.)

  The young Robert left England for Australia in 1907 as an unassisted immigrant and upon arrival took up a position as a tramway conductor in Sydney. Enlisting in late 1915, he embarked for Egypt just before Christmas. At the same time, Robert’s father was serving on troop transports in the Mediterranean. In June 1916, a few days before Robert sailed for France, father and son had a chance encounter at Port Said. They had not seen each other for nearly nine years, and the surprise reunion may have seemed like a good omen.

  It’s highly likely that Robert Dewar Snr was the last parent of all the Australians killed at Fromelles to see his son alive.

  On the night of 19th July, Private Robert Dewar was attached to the 55th Battalion’s prisoner guard, but when the situation became desperate, he was ordered forward to support the weakening Australian line. As reinforcements for the battered 53rd Battalion, Dewar and the 55th fought hard to repel German counter-attacks, even conducting a bayonet charge. Unfortunately, they were not able to restrain the Germans for long.

  It was approaching morning when they finally realised their position was untenable and that withdrawal was the only option. As Dewar was returning to the Australian line, a shell burst close to him and, according to a witness, he was ‘knocked about a lot’ and killed.

  Identifying Robert’s descendants was astonishingly simple. A Google search of his name yielded a website about the Volturno disaster. At that stage we weren’t sure what we were looking at, but we were delighted to discover it contained a great deal of information about Robert’s father and a relatively detailed biography. All we had to do then was email the website creator, who graciously forwarded our message of introduction, and in no time at all we had made contact with a living descendant in England who was more than happy to help.

  It was our first search, but compared to many searches to come it was also, unfortunately, an exception to the rule.

One man who survived the Battle of Fromelles and indeed the whole war, returning to Australia in 1919, was Herbert Henry Harris, another private in the 55th Battalion. I wonder if Henry and Robert knew each other, perhaps sharing stories of back home, wondering what on earth they were doing in the mud and horror of France. Henry’s diary has been transcribed. His entries for the 17th to 21st July 1916 make for particularly poignant reading for me, knowing that it was when Robert died (the text is as written, the layout edited to make it easier to read and to remove non-chronological entries):

July 17/16
off to night to big battle Trust to God that I come through all right.

have not been paid since last entry so amount owing to me now is £2-9-1 to date with defferred pay 10.7-0. making £12-16.1 all told so I hope the wife gets it if I pass out. It promises to be worse than the other night.

was out there this morning carrying ammunitions. 5 miles out & 5 back & about 1 mile to Trenches did two trips

feel tired & hardly fit for what is in front of us, but its no use not being fit you have just got to do it

Good Bye Nell & Boys, Viv, Jean Syd Arthur Mary & Walter & Kate & all Friends hope it is only Au revoir.

A lot of the Boys have promised to send this diary on if I get knocked, am sure you will get something interesting out of it besides knowing that my thoughts have been with You & the Boys in every situation I have found myself. Write or get Tony to do so to Auntie Lucy & give her a summary of my adventures as well as Vivs, who bye the way has not joined us yet
9. p.m. Flaubeux is the name of the place where we were bombarded.

July 18/16
am writing this not 100 yds from our guns which are shelling the germs. & they are sending them in wholesale, its wonderful how any thing can live under them when the burst.

am on munition carrying again & it is a dangerous game, not knowing any minute when a shell will burst here.

The big thing did not come off last night as expected & dont know when it will.

July 19/16
Got letter from Willie Stewart last night

was out carrying munitions all day 60 lb Bombs etc am now out here again & the shells are flying round like ants its awful this is the big day & God knows how many of us will come out of it alive.

July 20/16
Thank god I am still alive and not wounded except for slight Bang on the finger from splinter of shell. My Steel Helmet saved me five times & how many escapes I had could not be counted
& if any man was thankful for his safety from such a hell I am he.

Nearly all our officers are dead or wounded & the Batallion is about half a company Batallion now.

the sights I saw will never be forgotten it was like a butchers shop the 53rd lost their Colonel, Major & Adjutant nearly all our Lieutenants are gone also our Sergeants & corporals
could you see the remnants of the Brigade eating Bread & cheese etc on the road side it would make you cry

of the 54th Batallion about 200 are left & they died like heroes every one of them. There are some Prisoners but we took about 200 germans so equalised that way.
We look a sorry crowd covered with mud from head to foot arms, legs, eyes, noses, fingers bound up. Yes by hell we caught it & those who think this war is nearly over are in for some surprises I give it another 2 years at the least.

One narrow escape I had. 3 of us were taking shelter from shells with our backs against a Trench island when a shell plumped right into the island shoving the dirt up against our backs but did not explode, if that was not Providence I dont know what is for had it exploded the 3 of us would be just about ready for cemertry by now.

It was a ghastly night stepping over the dead men in the trenches some of them being only half there a lot of my chums are gone & I can only account for 3 out of my section of 12.
We were highly complimented on the way in which we charged & fought & the Colonel said we were magnificent

the General was awfully pleased & said that the attack was done just as it was desired & that it was a feint to draw the Germans from the Somme front.
it succeeded alright & we took 200 Prisoners, some of the Boys got helmets & all sorts of things

We are away from the firing line & all done up & going to bed I dont want such an awful experience again & dread another battle, all our nerves are unstrung & the roar of the guns has deafened a lot of us, again Thanks to God for bringing me threw such a shambles.

We have hardly any officers left so have to be reorganised. I cant help the feeling that mother is interseeding for me, when the shells are bursting all around me & over me I get this thought into my brain, how I wish I could be the man she wanted me to be.

have not been paid yet so they owe me £2-12-1. & the amount to date now with deferred pay is £13-2-1.

July 21/16
7. am. all around me sleeping exhausted men, some moaning & others talking, the events of the last two days seem like some bad nightmare, if it hadn’t been for their marvellous Artillery we would have gone through the huns like a dose of salts when we got amongst them with the Bayonette they threw up their hands & howled for mercy or cleared for their lives & its certain that if we could only get them on the run it would soon be over they had with them 3 regiments of the Prussian guards but that made no difference to us. Our fellows went right through them & had they been supported would now hold their trenches & have taken thousands of prisoners. This is the third time these Trenches have been assaulted. The Tommies & Indians, & the Canadians & New Zers tried to take them but could do nothing

we took them but could not hold them a great feather in our cap.

now that I can calmly look back on the affair it seems simply a miracle that any of us came out of it unwounded.

The huns have been here two years & know our trenches as well as they know their own so could shell us when they liked.

I suppose there is some small report in the papers about it this morning it wont be much I’ll bet.

Just got two letters from Nell & Jack they still think am in Egypt wish I was. Shall answer Nells to day may be the last.

had a Roll call just now. I am the only one in 9 section & there are 9 in the Platoon we muster about ½ of a Company all told in A. the others likewise.

All my chums are dead or wounded & the guns are still Booming about 1 ½ miles away.

We are shifting again this morning farther away

should see Viv today or Tomorrow as the reinforcements are coming up.

Our poor Lieutenant Mendleson must have felt some premonition of being killed so he left a case of comforts to us 3 Platoon in case of his death & they are dividing it out now as we are only a handful & are sharing it with the rest

Just having tea & the shells are flying over our heads you dont know when you are out of danger here, the Planes are flying about & the enemy guns are firing at him, how long I wonder will this continue. A Hun Prisoner says the war will be over in August I hope he is not a liar.

We are all scattered about in little groups discussing the event & telling one another about this one gone and that one wounded its almost unbelievable to think of fellows with us a day ago & now, in the cemetry.

Expect to go back into the firing line Tomorrow night.

Below is a picture of Robert Dewar. His parents were Robert and Kate Dewar, who lived in a very ordinary suburban house at 700 Barking Road, Plaistow, London, England. I imagine Robert growing up there, playing in the garden, dreaming of adventures on the other side of the world. I imagine, too, that neither he nor his parents imagined that one day he would die in France in the most terrifying of circumstances.

Robert Dewar

Triptych

A triptych is a work of art usually divided into three pieces. Typically, in a painting, the central panel is larger and flanked by two smaller, related panels. I wrote the following three poems inspired by the memory of Robert Dewar, those like him who gave their lives – and those they left behind.

The Solider

He left her with a kiss,
Whistling Roses of Picardy,
And telling her he would be
Home by Christmas.
Before he climbed aboard
The clanking train, in
Swirls of coal smoke
And hissing steam,
He damped her eyes, his
Hanky soaked with tears,
Not blood, not yet,
And brushed her hair with
Hands that tilled earth,
That tied corn in sheaves,
That loosed rabbits from
Snares and made bread.
Young love, they agreed,
Proud and defiant,
Would win out and, in
Years to come, they would
tell their children the
Old tales of foreign lands,
Recalling the camaraderie
Of war and the ache
They shared in those
Brief months of parting.

The Fallen

They lie entombed in clay, cold and still,
Six feet under Belgian fields or
Broken-limbed beneath French meadows.
They kept no portrait in the attic,
But the years grind on without them,
Their worm-chewed bones tangled in
The roots of snowdrops and celandine.
They fell and not once since have known
That caress of soft sea breezes, nor
The bright slant of morning light that
Cuts its angles in the dust of books,
Nor the chill kiss of November’s dusk.

They were young men, mostly, fine
Sons and brothers ripped from time,
Dropped with holes in their skulls
In the darkest, loneliest hells.
Butchers, bakers, farmers, teachers,
Doctors, farriers, clerks, sweeps,
Blacksmiths, shipwrights, thieves,
Husbands, lovers, all the same,
Levelled by serge wool tunics and
Brass buttons and puttees strapped
To hobnailed ammunition boots procured
By flat-footed clerks in Woolwich.

Now, still rotting in a foreign soil,
Some as yet unknown or lost,
We remember men who laughed
On Sunday afternoons, who drank
Beer with friends and hoped for
Fine things on their wedding day.
And those we knew who loved them
Now rest, too, in gentler graves,
Freed from their empty years,
From that pain born on the day
That love was stolen with bullets
Made in Essen by girls with dreams.

The Lover

She watched him leave,
Remembering strong arms
That lifted her from
The apple tree and held
Her tight when night
Gnawed her fingers
With cold teeth.
She had never heard of
Picardy, but she knew
Roses and the thorns
Lying hidden beneath
Beauty’s velvet folds,
The prick that draws
A bloody tear and lays
A pain far greater than
Might be thought fair
Or even possible.
The letter came as
He had attested,
Regrets and honour –
The deepest sympathy;
And when his watch and
buttons arrived, she wept,
And left them on the
Mantelpiece: a plain
Memorial to love now lost.

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There was a form of TV show that, from an early age, accompanied my Saturday afternoon escapades chasing criminals through the living room, out into the garden and through into the field. Whether a shoot out in the bank (the chicken run) or defending a village under siege from evil gangsters (the camp we made in the hedge down by the ditch), an afternoon of heroics was not complete without suitable imaginary action music accompanying our antics.

Without further ado, here are my top ten cop/action sound tracks.

10. Juliet Bravo

 

For some, their first police drama was Z-Cars. for others, Dixon of Dock Green. For me it was Juliet Bravo.

9. CHiPs

 

It had motorbikes, cops and California. Oh yeah!

8. T.J. Hooker

 

Even though it had Captain Kirk in it, I wanted to be Adrian Zmed. And my first TV crush (Penelope Pitstop aside): Heather Locklear!

7. Airwolf

 

How the hell we ever pretended to be Archangel, Stringfellow Hawke and Santini without a helicopter I have no idea, but we did…

6. The Professionals

Guns and Mullets Part I. It was rough and tough and British.

5. Knight Rider

This is here in tribute to my cool bro Seth, who had a real thing for KITT. And David Hasselhof.

4. Dempsey and Makepeace

Guns and Mullets Part II. I was absolutely and utterly in love with Glynis Barber. There’s nothing else to add.

3. Cagney and Lacey

Like Juliet Bravo, this was one of those rare things – a cop show to watch with your Mum – and one of the most memorable theme tunes of all.

2. Miami Vice

There had been nothing like this on TV when it appeared, with its glamour, guns, drugs and 80s squealing rock guitar.

1. A-Team

If there is one of these theme tunes that has stood the test of time, it is this one. 27 years after the last episode aired, you still here kids humming this one. And I was Hannibal. Seth, of course, was Face.

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From the moment we first start listening to music, we seem to take those we like particularly and build them into the story of who we are. It occurred to me in a moment of holiday reflection that actually, the tunes that were first added to the mental mix tape that is the eternal soundtrack of my life (latterly full of everything from Allegri to Lady Gaga to Heaven’s Basement) came from the cartoons that captivated me in my 70s and 80s childhood.

Whilst I loved the classics – Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny etc – there was a certain form of episodic cartoon that I looked forward to. Coming home from school, that sacred 90 minutes from 4pm to 5.30pm could throw up any one of a number of animated adventures that could enthral a young lad who spent too much time living in his head.

So here, without further ado, my run down of my top ten favourites.

10. The Perils of Penelope Pitstop 

I am sure I wasn’t the only one with a bit of a crush on Ms. Pitstop. And there was something about this tune that just stuck in the brain.

9. Scooby Doo

Daphne ran Penelope a close second. And let’s face it – this was a theme tune we all sang in the playground. Cos we were so cool.

8. Mysterious Cities of Gold

I could never get on with Mysterious Cities of Gold but somehow the tune snuck in and got stuck somewhere around the hippocampus. You have to wait a while to get past the blurb, but it’s worth it. Honest.

7. The Space Sentinels

Before we had a new-fangled Video Cassette Recorder, I remember sitting next to the telly and holding a microphone to the speaker for the duration of an episode. The mic was attached to one of those old flat tape recorders. I swore to anyone who would listen that it was as good as a video recorder (I was a deluded child) and made a point of regularly listening to that one episode over and over again. Oh yes. I was Hercules.

6. Transformers

I have always been a sci-fi geek. These were robots that became cars and planes and lorries. I mean, WTH? That was just too cool. We’d not seen the like – and that song. “Transformers! Robots in disguise…” This one’s for you, little bro.

5.  She-Ra

This one isn’t really worthy of number 5, but I remember it being a very annoying ear worm back in the day. She-Ra, Princess of Power is the sort of character you could imagine Leonard or Sheldon falling for. It also had an annoying winged pony and various cutesy animals in it (as well as lots of androcentric stereotyping of female characters in the fantasy genre). But hey… ‘She-Ra, She-Ra!’

4. Dangermouse

Just how cool was Dangermouse? It’s one of those shows that if I watched now, I am certain would be laden with cool humour and grown-up in-jokes. We’ve all worked with Baron Greenback – and we all know Penfold. Just sayin’.

3. He-Man

He-Man was the ultimate male warrior for all of us playground crusaders. Every playtime for years you would hear kids running around screaming ‘By the power of Grey Skull…’ (prob spelled ‘Gray Skull’ natch). With his cowering lion, one thrust of his sword skyward and he was transformed from the Prince of Eternia into He-Man. ‘I’ve have the powwerrr!’ None of us spotted that he was wearing pink.

2. Dogtanian and the Three Muskerhounds

As ear worms go, this one has the longevity of a cockroach. I’ve no idea when I last saw this on TV but sometimes it still gets into my head and won’t go away. Oh yes. Also, Laura fancied Dogtanian. I am not sure what that says about me. Or her.

1. Battle of the Planets

And finally, my favourite childhood theme of all time. Battle of the Planets! G-Force! Five  acting as one! Mark, Princess, Jason, Tiny and Keyop (the one that burbled)! Yep, I am sure the programme was nowhere near as good as the theme tune, which was a supremely cheesy 70s-style mash-up of action tunes, but when you hear those horns at the beginning… And as for Princess… *sigh*

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The Funeral

The Funeral

We drove through the grey mist, wordless and blank-eyed,
The windscreen cracked and split by endless rain,
Our meter the rumble of tyres on tarmac
And an occasional sad sigh of rubber on glass.

Our hours were silent hours, lost in half-memories,
Each of us reflecting on a common private guilt:
Our promises to see more of one another
So casually made and then forgotten.

Once there, in throngs of strangers, we saw at once
We could have known her better than we now pretend, 
And offered solemn nods and awkward sympathies
As we sought those few we recognised and loved.

We embraced them and wept, smiling through our sadness, 
The warm handshakes of old friendships  undiluted 
By the years between, though fewer we counted, quietly,
Some borne away on the rivers of our seasons.

Then, after we had gathered and sung our life-filled hymns,
And drank to past times of happier communion,
We renewed our promises with easy earnestness
And, lastly, bid each other fond farewell and left.

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I’ve finally decided to stop tweaking it. I wrote it a few months ago and let it lie before returning this month to make a few final edits.

If you enjoy it, please feel free to share it. Comments welcome.

EdgarCrane

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London_Evening_Standard_30_7_2013It was with a sickened sense of incredulity I read the front page story of yesterday’s Evening Standard:

“Twitter Trolls Tell MP: We’ll Rape You”

Following Stella Creasy’s support for Caroline Criado-Perez, who was herself subjected to vile rape threats on Twitter for having the temerity to suggest that our bank notes should recognise the contribution women have made to our national success, it seems Twitter’s women-hating brigade have decided attack is the best form of defence.

I hesitate to use the word “trolls” in the context of men threatening rape.

It is a word that risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of the words they choose to use. It also risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of them, the men that make such threats, by decontextualising the perpetrators. A troll means different things to different people: the quasi-comical lumbering beast of popular culture; those punk-haired childhood toys that look like Child’s Play casting rejects; the dark and monstrous creatures of myth and fantasy; or dysfunctional “saddos” that should “get a life”.

In terms of the Internet, particularly, it is too easy to latch on to this latter idea. It is too easy to suggest that such threats should be dismissed as the mindless (and harmless) ranting of sexually dispossessed indequates. That those who feel threatened (generally women) should grow a thicker skin, particularly if they wish to enter the realm of the Internet (coincidentally designed and dominated, at least in terms of its architecture and maintenance, by men).

It also creates and reinforces a perverse sense of camaraderie and community. Persecutors present as the persecuted. They seek canonisation from their peers for defying the intrusions of the amorphous entity known as “the state” into their domain. It is a domain where, despite the fact that this domain and their freedom to explore it only exists courtesy of the state of which they are citizens, and the physical security and economic infrastructure which that state provides, “the state” and all that accompanies it (such as the rule of law) is evil: only the techno-anarchic, as defined by this self-selecting twisted-moralising techno-prophet elite, can be good.

Part of the hysterical rhetoric deployed is that this sort of censorship is the preserve of “feminazis”. Anyone familiar with the etymology of that word will know it was popularised by right-wing chat show host Rush Limbaugh in his attack on supporters of the pro-choice lobby. Suddenly, it was okay to conflate the term “feminist” with “National Socialism”, a genocidal quasi-religious totalitarian ideology, in order to mock and bring down those who chose to take a public stance on critical issues of women’s health. A quick trawl of the Internet reveals casual use of this term in Internet forum debate on the issue, as well as men seeking to deny that the rape threats were even made in the first place.

I don’t suppose it will be long before Criado-Perez’s assertion that “this is not a feminist issue” will be used both to undermine her credibility with feminist colleagues and, in complete contradiction, to attack her for her feminism. My reading of her comments is that she is making clear that this is an issue that has – or should have – currency beyond those who define themselves as feminist, not that this is not an issue for feminists. It is an issue that many might well identify as a feminist issue, but that we as a society should all be concerned with. It would be regretful if a well intentioned headline, designed to broaden participation and engage those who would normally stay outside such debates – not least of all because of the way some vocal and antagonistic participants use the terms “feminist” and “feminazi” to derogate and intimidate opponents – provided unintended cover for those who would prefer to retreat entirely from uncomfortable discussions of gender, identity and security (see the quote from Professor Mark Griffiths in this BBC story on Criado-Perez’s experiences and the wider issue of cyberbullying: Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women).

We need to slay these trolls – and even the very concept of them. We need to put abusers back in context. We need to remove their self-styled outlaw identity, where they seek to aggregate the romantic pioneer legacy of the Wild West to themselves and to the exclusion of those who choose not to engage in threats to violate other human beings. Like the rapists they emulate, these abusers are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends and lovers, banal in their evil. Like the rapists they seek to emulate they have mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends and lovers. They are men, real human beings who have lost touch with the qualities that make them human – at least, such qualities as make them functional members of a liberal and democratic society in which all should feel safe to carry on their own business without the oppression of the state or other individuals in that society.

You hope that these individuals would not talk to their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends or lovers in the language they choose to address a stranger. (I resent describing them as “men” almost as much as I am reticent about calling them “trolls”. Unfortunately, I can’t escape the fact of their gender. Perhaps I should use the term “males” as “female” and “females” seem to be the nouns of choice when men engage in the casual objectification of women.)  You also hope, perhaps forlornly, that they would be angry as hell if a man approached a woman they loved and said he was going to rape her. If it were someone I loved who was threatened in that manner, I hope I would have the guts to punch their lights out.

If anyone doubts the extent of the challenge, it is worth reading Cath Elliot’s thought-provoking Guardian piece from October 2011 and the response it provoked in comments from readers: Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it is directed at women. One particular argument provoked a storm of angry comments from indignant readers, predominantly (though not all) men:

“What Facebook and others who defend this pernicious hate speech don’t seem to get is that rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it.”

This was immediately seized upon as Elliot saying that all men are potential rapists. Comments under her article include:

“So any man will rape if he thinks he can get away with it? Is that what you’re saying Cath? That were rape to be legalised tomorrow we’d all be doing it?” [04 October 2011, 11.18am]

“Given that even using the disputed maximum figure for number of rapes committed per year you wind up with only 1 in 500 men actually being rapists I’d say that that does make them pretty different from the ‘average man’.” [04 October 2011, 11.22am]

“Oh. That’s absolutely disgusting, by the way. I hope you’ll clarify you’re not seriously suggesting the ‘average man’ would be out there, raping away, if they thought they could.” [04 October 2011, 11.33am]

At no point did Elliot make an equivalence between rapists and non-rapists. Quite the opposite in fact. She makes the distinction based on their actions. In the end she responded with her own comment:

“I didn’t say they were the ‘same as’ I said they weren’t ‘particularly different from’, and they’re not, apart from one key thing – the fact that they’re rapists!

I’m actually surprised that so many posters here seem to think rapists are some kind of special alien-like breed, easily distinguishable from everyone else. Well they’re not. As someone else has pointed out in the thread, they’re brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbours and so on, ordinary men in just about every way except for one – they’re prepared to commit this heinous crime whereas the vast majority of other, decent men are not.”  [04 October 2011 1.17pm]

She makes the point on contextualisation: that these men are like other men, enjoying the same relationships as non-rapists. They do not appear different, even though their monstrous actions set them worlds apart. If you want to get an idea of the kind of person who makes such threats, read this piece by Emma Barnett, the Telegraph’s Women’s Editor, on her radio interviews with two Internet trolls who attempt to “defend” their “right” to make rape threats online.

I wonder if those who scream “Free Speech” in defence of the right of men to threaten the rape of women on the Internet, whether to intimidate or just “for a laugh”, have really thought through what it is they are calling to protect? Before joining the chorus of indignation, anyone who is in doubt as to the vileness and impact of rape should talk to a rape survivor.

Hear them describe the fear and the sickening sense of violation and the powerlessness and the destruction of self-esteem and the ruin of identity. Hear the anger and the self-blame and the vilifications that have been caused by another man. If you are a man, wrestle uncomfortably with your instinctive sense of affront and indignation at any gender generalisations about men and male behaviour and realise they are being made by a woman who has had her identity reduced to object, a thing which a man felt entitled to violate.

To those who are critical of my gender-specific language, I am of course aware that men are raped and the horrific nature of each instance of rape is not altered by the gender of the victim. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of rape victims are women. Get your head around the fact that official UK government statistics reveal that some 85,000 women are raped on average each year. That is over 230 a day. Then realise that means the offence has been reported and recorded and so unreported offences, which are no less real to victims too terrified or ashamed or resigned to report their rape, mean the real figure is much higher.

And then think what it means when a man says the following to a woman, whether in private or in the street or in a virtual forum: “I am going to rape you.”

Rape survivor stories make for harrowing reading. It is an offence that defies our sense of what is right on every conceivable level. Those who think that we who are offended by rape threats and jokes (without even being threatened) should grow thicker skins should themselves pause to consider how desensitisation to language is a very real thing. The recent history of popular culture is testament to that.

After all, we have learned as a society to tolerate language that our parents and, even more so, our grandparents, would not. Some of us have championed that as liberating. Some of us have bemoaned a collapse in standards of manners and social etiquette. Still others, myself included, have done both, casually accepting this change in the moral value of language without real challenge, assimilating vulgarities into our own speech despite the things we believe, bemoaning that vulgarity in others, yet also unwilling to see society return to a more censorious age. We may like it, we may not like it, we may champion it, we may hate it, but no-one would seriously question that Western society today is more acclimatised to the use of certain words than a generation ago.

Prevalence of such words, through use and reuse, has, inevitably, extended social acceptability. However, there is a world of difference between the freedom to use offensive words as we choose, with no intrinsic or constructed intent, and the use of phrases that are clearly constructed to create fear through expressed intent – targeted hatred designed deliberately to impact fundamentally on identity and a sense of self, of place. And whether we are content to live in a society in which casual disregard for such intent is a socially acceptable norm is a question we all have a responsibility to answer.

For me, in this particular debate, the cry of “Free Speech” is a modern-day Chimera, a monster conjured up by techno-demonologists to strike fear into the hearts of a non-expert majority who rightly fear a censorious state that interferes with political expression and the way we choose to live our lives. It is intended to terrify liberals into feeling that common sense has no place in a liberal democracy. It seeks to drive them into knee-jerk defences against an authority that, manifested in the state, is deemed amoral by the very fact that its pronouncements could arguably bear the label “moral”. It seeks to create a false and binary choice between one particular and romanticised meme of an anarchic Internet, which is fundamentally good, and the opposite and obvious evils of a liberal totalitarianism, worthy of the worst excesses of Arendt or Orwell. To up the ante, this is often presented as an insidious precursor to the totalitarian regimes we witness and condemn in a variety of real world manifestations. Unlike for many of its inhabitants, there are no shades of grey at all in the Internet’s potential states of existence.

I wonder if we are still intimidated by technology? I wonder if for those who aren’t in on the workings of the illusion there is still something mystical about the Internet that means we are terrified it will suddenly vanish if we apply some of the ground rules to this virtual playground that we use to order our physical space? Do we regard these techno-demonologists, who function as the Internet’s high priests, in much the same manner that the inhabitants of Oz regard the Wizard in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz? One of Baum’s biographers, Rebecca Loncraine, describes the story as a critique of power that demonstrates how “easily people who lack belief in themselves can become willing participants in the deceptions practised by manipulative figures who rule over them.” [“The Real Wizard of Oz The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum”, New York, Penguin Group, 2005, p. 179.]

The same liberals that vociferously deny that the existence of a free society depends on the right of its citizens to bear automatic weapons become less sure of their ground and even mute at the thought of tweets in this virtual, “unreal” realm leading to prosecutions and imprisonment in the “real” world (I would suggest that “unreal” and “real” are increasingly unsustainable distinctions in terms of the interface between the virtual and the physical). Yet were this their mother or daughter or sister in the street, they would not hesitate to recognise the threat for what it is. For me, the fallacy of the rapist tweeters’ argument is demonstrated clearly by the way it collapses under the weight of its intrinsic illogicality: “Our right to say what we like, no matter its reception, is one to which we attach such value that it must be protected at all costs, but yet, don’t worry, because it is also so valueless that you can simply disregard it completely when we exercise it.”

If we start from the presumption that freedom of speech matters, which for me it does, and at a very fundamental level, then surely it cannot be divorced from the responsibilities I accrue as a member of the society that protects that freedom? I am free to say what I like in the United Kingdom. I am also free to understand that if I say certain things, there will be certain consequences. That is part of the social contract I enter into by participating in a society that has decided to protect its minorities from words and behaviour that may make them feel threatened for simply existing.

The social contract is in part defined by law and in part by the the informal ways in which we interact with each other socially to establish appropriate behaviours. In modern parlance we might describe these unwritten, normative rules as “crowd-sourced”. I may choose to disregard the contract, or even refuse to recognise it, but that does not change the fact of its existence. (In understanding that, it beggars belief that we have not yet recognised how some words and behaviour can make a much larger segment of the population feel threatened for simply existing. That is an argument for another day but, thankfully, at least making threats of rape carries a criminal sanction.)

Beyond grand ideas of a social contract there is a much more banal and immediate reality (evil may be banal, but so is reality). Twitter might appear to be an anarchic public space, but it is actually a privately provided platform, run by a company that must operate in the real world of rules and corporate responsibility. Users of Twitter sign up to Terms of Service. These include the following provisions:

“We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services, to suspend or terminate users, and to reclaim usernames without liability to you. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request, (ii) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof, (iii) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, (iv) respond to user support requests, or (v) protect the rights, property or safety of Twitter, its users and the public.”

Granted, users are at liberty to not read them or to read them and disregard them. However, Twitter is also perfectly entitled to remove users’ access if they are breached. Similarly, as users with equal access to this private platform, those who feel the terms of service have been breached, for instance if an “applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request” has not been complied with, are perfectly entitled to report their concerns. Whether Twitter then discharges its own contractual responsibilities appropriately is another matter entirely and a part of the focus of the current debate: the way it has been slow to act until public pressure has mounted suggests a depressing subordination of substantive concern to image.

This is not an unusual phenomena. It characterises much of the debate about the Internet and the way, particularly, that private companies who provide virtual platforms appear keen to protect profit margins by perpetuating iconic imagery, such as that of the Internet outlaw, in order to sustain associations with traditional user groups. Perhaps, ironically, it is the very fact that the Internet and social media is becoming more widely accessible to non-theists, and thus potentially more profitable, that is causing these companies pause for thought.

Whether driven by economics, a recognition of what is right and what is wrong, or simply common-sense, at least there are some signs of responsiveness. On the same day that the Evening Standard carried that headline, Twitter was reported as saying that it would install a report abuse button on every tweet, despite previously arguing that it was not necessary.

First the Bank of England and now Twitter. Caroline Criado-Perez is emerging as a very serious and inspirational force to be reckoned with. (If you still want to add your name to Kim Graham’s petition in support of Criado-Perez, calling for a Twitter abuse button, you can find it here.)

I am a liberal to my core.

I believe that the rule of law is fundamental to a prosperous and peaceful society. I believe that governments should err on the side of extreme caution in matters of intervention where it could be construed as an assault on freedom of speech. I also believe that we should put the “trolls” back in context as real individuals with abusive behaviours that demand consequences. Those who seek to hide criminality in the form of threats of rape behind something as valuable as freedom of speech place themselves at liberty of sanction. Freedom of speech matters too much for it to become the preserve of rapists and those who believe they have an unfettered right to engage in society’s private and public spaces without regard for the freedom of all of that society’s citizens.

[Updated 31.7.13]

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