Saturday, July 12, 2008

Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground

“...You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word...''

All italicised quotes are from the same play.

Some years ago, I used to work for a company that published a famous 'men's' magazine. Although the magazine's official readership figures placed the reader in his early twenties, and it was thus allowed to carry alcohol advertising, in reality we knew that the magazine primarily appealed to youths in their mid-to late-teens, who handed over their sticky pound coins to the newsagent each month, seduced not by the gung-ho articles written by middle-class graduates roughing it on expenses, but by the ever-increasing numbers of pages featuring photo-shopped, almost-naked women and the equally-thumbed over pages of other glossy desirables: mostly gadgets and games to parade as a show of alpha-male status.

I was deeply uncomfortable with that particular magazine but I kept quiet, privately despised the 'readers' and frequently myself, and got on with the job, which at the time required me to come up with tempting and creative advertising strategies which pushed the psychological buttons that would jerk an 18-24 male audience into profligately spunking their cash. I was paid pretty decent money in those days to position advertisers' products as 'cool' by producing and selling creative work across a variety of music and lifestyle platforms. Over time I grew quite adept at it. But I never felt good about it, ever.

The final straw came when I opened the men's magazine one day, to see an array of gleaming vicious knives photographed and laid out across the page as that month's must-have objects of desire. The previous issue it had been expensive cameras. The page opposite the feature was usually popular with advertisers. Aghast, I showed it to some of my colleagues.

Hardened as they were to the ever-increasing idiocies of the editorial policy, even they were shocked. I went to my boss. He was more sanguine.

'It's just a blokey thing. Blokes like looking at knives. Knives are cool.'
' Knives kill people. For God's sake, you know how old the readers are. What is this saying to them? That ipods are so two months ago and what you really need to be flashing down the pub is something that can cut someone's throat?'

He shrugged. 'All right, it's a bit near the knuckle. But it's the mag's job to be controversial'

I walked away, fuming and went to see the editor. He came up with the same weak line about knives being cool to look at and beautiful objects and added, without meeting my eyes, that 'anyway, blokes need them for fishing and stuff'.

I lost it with him. He looked genuinely surprised. Or he pretended to be. He did back down, and agree that the magazine would not do it again.

'It's a bit bloody late now', I hissed, as I walked out of his office.

I left the company a few months later. As I walked out the door for the last time, I felt relief, and shame.

This week, five young people were stabbed to death within a day. I thought again of that magazine feature, and I wanted to cry. The horrible fact is that the editor and my boss were right. Knives are cool. And if you have one, it is almost impossible not to want to touch it and to show it off, and to use it. When you hold a sharp, deadly knife, you feel an intoxicating rush of power.

My ex-boyfriend once made me a knife and a sheath as a gift, and to show off his skills he had learned from his brother, an armourer who makes weapons for film props and historical demonstrations. The knife he gave me is a five inch razor-sharp dagger, heavy, thick - it was made by adapting a metal file used to pare down horses hooves - and it fits perfectly into my hand. It is seductive. I keep it locked away, but I oil it and sharpen it twice a year. Not because I want to use it, but because it is an exquisite piece of craftsmanship, and deserves to be looked after.

I can remember what it was like to be a fifteen-year old, awash with hormones and insecurities, dreamy and silly and hyper-sensitive to the pettiest slight. I can remember how angry I was at the bullies in school, though they did not direct the full force of their venom at me. I can remember what it felt like to have no power at all, to have nobody listening, to be afraid. I wonder, if I'd had that knife then, whether I would have been able to keep it locked away, and never show it to anyone.

Years later, when I was no longer a teenager, I can remember how when I was attacked by a violent young man, my lethal knife was safely in its padlocked box, useless to me. Even if I'd had it to hand, I doubt I would have been able to hold onto it in the struggle. It would have escalated things, it would have been used against me. I would probably be dead.

But then again, maybe not. Maybe he would be dead. Sometimes, especially at this time of year, I remember; I play back what happened, and I think, if I'd had that knife to hand when that seventeen year old, high on his own rage and strength and God-knows-what-else came at me, could I have used my blade on him?

I think it is possible that I could have flown at him ( 'and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now' Romeo says, grabbing his weapon in a rage and setting off to kill his wife's cousin - who has just killed his best friend). Thundering with adrenalin and outrage, terrified beyond measure, armed with my lovely, terrible knife, would my reaction have been the other one of the three 'Crisis-reaction 'F's - 'Fight-back' - instead of 'Freeze' or 'Flee'?

I'm glad I will never know.

There is a secret arms race going on in our schools and streets and lives are being lost because of it. Yet as we hold up our hands in horror at teenagers carrying knives, we turn on the news and see Iran test-firing missiles, America saying it will not hesitate to defend Israel, Israel brandishing its military hardware, hawks circling. The old, old game of brinkmanship and bullying, the fatal human trait of aggression and self-aggrandisement, the lust we have for more territory, possessions and power is reported daily on our TV screens. And we wonder that youngsters are gripped by the same dark desires, that the same macho strutting and desire for vengeance, and - bitter irony - respect - are played out on street corners, parks and playgrounds as well as in parliaments and politicians offices? Of course they are. These are our children. They feel and do as we do.

The end result is the same, whether the one arming himself is a president or a school prefect. If people feel threatened, they are more likely to lash out - and when they collect deadly weapons to use as a deterrent, and can't stop themselves from displaying them and using them, then people get killed. Poor sacrifices of our emnity indeed.

What can we do? In Romeo and Juliet, where violence runs as a taut thread throughout the play, Prince Escalus threatens those fighting in yet another bloody, pointless brawl with 'pain of torture'; meeting violence with violence, pain with pain. Tory politicians this week suggested mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying knives. Labour dismissed it as unworkable. The prisons are full as it is. Parenting programmes, fresh police powers, and shock warnings to youngsters are mooted instead by Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary. Maybe they will work. Maybe the Government can spend enough on advertising to make knives uncool. But I doubt it.

It is not my beautiful knife that is the problem, it is what I could do with it, which is why it must stay forever locked away. It is not knives that kill, but the people wielding them, which is why we must not carry them. It is the fire-eyed fury that threatens to engulf us, our angry reactions to each other, the desire to protect ourselves from violence by threatening worse violence. Our duplicity, our fragility, our posturing, our desire for vengeance, our stupidly comforting delusion that we can be safe only by being harder and stronger and more fearsome than our the figures in our own nightmares - that is the real lethal threat.

Until we are adult enough to throw our mistempered weapons to the ground, or at least put them away and stop brandishing them for effect, what chance do our children have?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful piece, and I agree with most of what you say.

One phrase struck me though: It is not knives that kill, but the people wielding them

I agree... I think. But it's uncannily like the American 2nd amendment saying, Guns don't kill people, people kill people. I'm not sure where I stand on that either. If I was in America, I think I'd want a gun. But I'm not sure our streets would be safer if everyone carried one.

July 12, 2008 12:03 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Thank you. Hmm, re. your 2nd amendment piece - I didn't mean carry knives, I meant the exact opposite - my knife must stay forever locked away, because of what I could heoretically do with it. So I am for a no-knives policy. I have amened the piece to make it a bit more clear, hopefully.e

July 12, 2008 12:25 pm  
Blogger R said...

Brilliant post, Rachel. Thankyou. A lot of thought there.

July 12, 2008 1:09 pm  
Blogger Spartan said...

Unfortunately the current Governments reaction to the issue (as everything else) is more regulations. lt's as if the Government have no idea as to what a teenager is.

A teenager rebels ... we all know that and most of us did it. Fortunately the way for my generation to rebel was grow our hair long!

To actually give teenagers the means to rebel is complete folly. More regulations are not the answer ... l mean, it's always been illegal to attack someone with a knife! How more illegal can you make it?

The knife is not the issue, the issue is the will to use it. Take away the knives and you will get broken bottles used as weapons, steelcombs that have been sharpened ..almost anything can be used as a weapon. Taking away (or trying to) a particular type of weapon cannot solve the current issue and making the teenager a 'criminal' in the process will only make matters worse.

lf we dare to be realistic we have to accept that violence is part of our civilisation ... no matter that we wish it to be different.

That is not to say we should not try but regulating it away will never happen.

Have l the answer? ... no, but l do know what won't work

July 12, 2008 2:42 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

It is indeed true that it is already illegal to carry offensive weapons and to murder or stab people.

Agh. I don't see what the Government can do really but the seem to feel that they have to be seen to be doing something.

July 12, 2008 2:59 pm  
Blogger Spartan said...

Maybe if we made it really really illegal to carry Teddybears?

Teenagers marauding the streets brandishing Teddybears sends a shiver down my spine! ;-)

July 12, 2008 3:03 pm  
Blogger NML/Natalie said...

I saw this in my feed and became curious. Brilliant read. I know of several people whose lives have been pulled apart by knives. My friends brother was stabbed to death when he intervened on a man beating up his girlfriend. Without thought, he rushed to this strangers aid, to protect her from her boyfriend and now he's dead. Another friend was stabbed in the heart at a nightclub because some guy thought he was looking at him funny... Magazines like the one you worked for certainly have their part to play because there is a culture of glamourising knives. I have no interest in knives and I think that from the moment people take an interest in them, or have one for 'safe keeping', it's a weapon waiting to be used. I have no purpose for a knife other than cutting up food. I only wish it was like that for more people...As a mother to a one year old, I am nervous of what the future holds for her.

July 12, 2008 3:07 pm  
Blogger anticant said...

It's not the kids who are the problem. It's the adults. As you rightly point out, their idea of 'law and order' is "Do as we say, not as we do". Teenagers - and much younger children - can smell hypocrisy a mile off, and that's why they have no respect for anyone [including themselves].

Spartan says this government has no idea of what a teenager is. Unfortunately, this government are themselves a pack of retarded adolescents. Yes - violence is endemic in our sick society and even sicker world, and it will remain so until we take positive action to reduce it. One small step would be to sign the Global Petition Against Violence:

July 12, 2008 5:36 pm  
Blogger Spartan said...

l'm sorry anticant but l see no point at all in the petition other than it's message is what everybody who is sane would like to aspire to.

July 12, 2008 10:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do understand very much what you are saying about knives. I used to have a beautiful German made flick knife with a stiletto blade. In the end I grew out of it.

While we are waiting to know exactly what these crimes were about, and also for the present generation to grow up, I would like to hear that the Met is to be re-constituted into the kind of police we used to be proud of. Its time to drop the equal opportunities rubbish that brought us the fat pimply desk-driving shorties. I think the police, form whatever background they come from should all have to 6 feet tall without their helmets if male and visibly fit. The strongest, smartest best people our young men ever meet: (and meet them they should, regularly in schools from an early age,) should be people who uphold the law and be physically worthy of respect, not the gangsters.

In the shorter term, Walthamstow needs to be flooded with PCs with full power of arrest and every single law enforced to actively disrupt the organized criminal gangs which exist. Criminals rapidly need to be given a hugely diminished social and economic status. The local police station has row after row of petty crooks and wanted people who have often been free to roam the neighbourhood with apparent impunity. That has got to stop, and even laws that are currently 'low priority' should be enforced fully for a few months. I do not think youngsters should be specifically targeted just because of their age- the whole neighbourhood, young and old alike needs period of returning to a lifestyle of abiding by society's rules. Maybe then we will see the benefits of a period of low crime and being able to interact without fear.

July 13, 2008 1:20 am  
Blogger asquith said...

Confession alert, I used to read these magazines, between 15 & 17. Apart from the women, I got a thrill from the fact that my parents were against it. I well remember sneaking them into the house & hiding them.

Then, like most, I grew up & realised they are total bollocks... when I learnt how much pleasure a real women can give, & how she should be treated with respect & admiration. Yes, I fell into the category you've identified, & by 18 I wouldn't have touched them, the same going for most of my schoolmates.

I can see the contempt you have for the "readership", like the upper-middle-class graduates who write for the Scum & the Daily Hell, would never in their lives go near such bilge themselves, & move seamlessly onto respected publications (cf: Sarah Sands, who can't have actually meant one word of what she "wrote" about "emo"... which as any half-sensible person knows is very tame compared to earlier trends).

You are also correct in saying that media hype fuels it all. People start thinking knives are edgy & cool, & carrying them is an act of defiance against the Daily Mail. Now, normally standing against the Daily Mail is good, I do it myself, but not in these circumstances.

They are fearmongering to sell. They are stoking crime: as well as what I just said, people live in generally unfounded fear of crime so they start carrying knives themselves (I can see this spreading to middle-class areas for this reason).

They also have no idea whatsoever how to cut crime, & if they have any influence it will make matters worse in terms of law enforcement, as their half-baked authoritarianism never works (you can confirm to that).

People have got to realise that they can't take things in isolation, jumping on people with knives is worse than useless if you don't take a long, hard look at society.

Let me add that I admire you for your stance & for your flaying alive of Akehurst, & you are an excellent blogger, even if you are a bit socialist for my liking ;)

July 13, 2008 11:14 am  
Blogger anticant said...

The point about the petition, Spartan, is that if "it's message is what everybody who is sane would like to aspire to", and everybody who is sane - or a lot of them - signed it, politicians [including terrorist groups] would be obliged to take notice and trim their activities accordingly.

If you look at some of the other petitions on that site, and notice that the one against whaling in the Pacific has now got well over 1 million signatures [or is it 2 million?], while ours against violence has only attracted just over 50 in a year, this does say something interesting about public priorities.

Anyway, if you really believe that it articulates what all sane people aspire to, why don't you sign it? That can't do any harm, even if it doesn't do much good.....

July 13, 2008 12:58 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

A friend of mine in Germany makes knives, the kind that cost an awful lot of money. They are beautiful objects. A good knife is a work of art, but I only use mine for cooking and gardening. There used to be a lot of knife attacks in the centre of Amsterdam years ago, but the cops got really heavy and now the same streets are relatively safe. Britain does seem in a state these days. Has everyone gone bonkers? Knives are messy in combat unless you know how to use them. The thought of kids stabbing each other is very scary.

July 13, 2008 5:56 pm  
Blogger ian said...

Very thought provoking article Rachael.

I am completely horrified by the thought of some of our youth being armed whether for offence or defence. I cant relate to this considering that as a youth living in Europe during the early 70s and the UK during the latter half of the 70s I had a fascination for pen knives/boy scout camping knives and never saw them as weapons of offence. The difference between me then and some similarly aged youth of today is that I had a stable working class family with a steady income from parents who provided a half decent upbringing earned from the benefits of the post war society built in the UK.

The parents of todays youth, especially those who experienced the unemployment of the 80s and
90s or the feed the debt/ work all hours culture of the last 11 years might have not provided the stability and guidance a 40ish bloke like me had.

Yes I know, Im saying society is to blame but I still think its a better reason than blaming knife crime on Gangsta rap and Grand Theft Auto like the tabloids do.

Just my opinion for what its worth.

I like your blog .

I will link if thats ok.



July 13, 2008 9:33 pm  
Blogger Sage said...

Rachel - that was a very good and thoughtful post; as you say on their own knives are not the problem, it's in the wrong hands they are dangerous.. I have my dad's knives (some of which I brought him for hunting/gutting purposes) and they are securely locked away out of reach of hands not sensible enough to handle them as I don't want to hand them over to be destroyed..

It can take 5 mins to ruin two lives with one knife, it can take a lifetime or more to heal the scars left by those actions.

July 14, 2008 10:51 am  
Blogger Deborah said...

Another fantastic post Rachel.

I too have a beautiful knife, the type known as 'butterfly' because it folds up like a fan so you can't see the blade when it is closed. A martial arts friend showed me how to do some cool flicky stuff with it. I like having it around because the knife is really the weapon of my nightmares, and having a tangible, beautiful version of it (which is totally blunt and only ever used in the same way I might use a Rubik's Cube) offsets the 'shock' value of the knife for me a little. Plus it has flowers on the handle :)

totally TOTALLY agree with you about the magazine though. It's a really appalling story.

July 14, 2008 11:51 am  
Blogger The Poet Laura-eate said...

If we lived somewhere sensible (like say Canada)where they are all armed to the hilt yet there is practically no violence, I'd have to disagree with you Rachel, but since we live in a country with pretty well the worst drug abuse, the worst drunkenness, the worst parenting, rocketing levels of mental health problems (mostly due to drugs) and the most useless Police force (unless of course you lie that a knife fight is actually an Animal Rights demo in which case 1000 officers will descend within minutes!), I have to agree that glamourising knives is bad and the only knifework should happen in kitchens.

But even in this country it is not so long ago that every boy scout got given a Swiss army knife by their parents and often kept it throughout his lifetime for whittling bits out of horses hooves, cutting up apples etc.

It is not really the knife, but how sane and responsible the youngster who possesses it.

July 14, 2008 5:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give me a bow of Burning Gold and arrows of desire

July 14, 2008 6:28 pm  
Blogger HelenMWalters said...

Hi Rachel

Just found you via a comment left on my blog, by Caroline, on a post where I was talking about 'The Angels of Edgeware Road'. Fascinating blog - I'll definitely be back to visit again.

July 16, 2008 1:09 pm  
Blogger Debi said...

The person I've heard with the best perspective on this (and who lives her life according to the principles she advocates) is Camilla Batmanghelidjh who founded Kids Co. You can also Google her for more re her work and theories.

The wonderful thing about Camilla is that she goes beyond the hand-wringing and 'what can we do about it?' that we all do and gives concrete proposals based on her direct everyday experiences.

In that respect, she holds a candle of hope to lighten what is a very dark world for many young people. Now we just have to get the government to listen to her!

July 17, 2008 12:57 pm  
Blogger Henry North London 2.0 said...

Sounds like Nuts Magazine

Anyway I have kitchen knives that are works of art but I would never use them in anger

Hope your week is better than mine

Henry x

July 17, 2008 7:07 pm  
Blogger STAG said...

Knives are a symbol of power.

Same as a sword.

Thats why people like them.

Power need not be bad... what is required is power under control. Inner control.

It used to be called chivalry.
Power without chivalry is ugly.

September 22, 2008 5:08 am  

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