This piece was first published in the Western Daily Press of Bristol, U.K. on July 6, 2000. CBS news had labelled Britain a battleground and crime had moved up in the political agenda.
Did you carry a gun when you were living in the States?
My! What a question. I was gobsmacked.
Six friends had been sitting in our hosts’ garden on a luscious summer day when three of us took respite from the sun in the kitchen. We talked about chilblains, writing fiction and then, did I carry a gun when I was in the States?
Does the United States look so dangerous to the rest of the world, I wondered. Of course, it does. The most bizarre, weird and strange crimes happen there.
Mass murders, serial killings, cannibalism, school shootings, serial rapes, family homicides, gang wars, drug shoot-outs, bombings. You name it, we’ve got it.
“Yes, I carried a dainty ladies revolver which could fit into a small evening bag,” I said.
When I saw that their faces showed no hint of smiles, I confessed: “I was only kidding. No, I never carried a gun. I never considered carrying a gun.”
I didn’t carry fear.
The most crippled victims of crime often have never been robbed or attacked. They are simply afraid that “it” might happen.
Without their fear, which diminishes all of us, many burglar alarm and insurance companies would have shrivelled up and died instead of flourishing and proliferating.
These businesses feed on fear. They propagate it and, then, profit by it.
I despise the television commercials that feature a woman with a baby at home alone and a perpetrator about to break in. They are like short horror movies. When the music begins to mount, so does our anxiety.
Those damsel-in-distress advertisements are as dated as my “ladies” revolver.
They also manipulate our emotions. Most awfully, they create the prowler who, most often than not, lurks only inside our minds.
I always thought that the British talk mainly about the weather: It’s a lie – they talk about crime as much. Although those offences have not been suffered personally, they are talked about in quiet, intimate tones.
One warm day, I was walking with my teenaged niece in the woods along a steam in the West Country.
We spent the afternoon listening to the gurgling of the water, examining mosses on rocks and admiring grazing horses.
I was shocked when she said that she couldn’t go walking alone in the woods where she lived because it was dangerous.
Yet, it was no more dangerous near her home than where we walked, enjoying the tranquillity.
I doubt that any crime had happened in the woods near her home, but something had happened to someone in a wood somewhere sometime.
Some crimes become larger than life.
I have heard about a murder which occurred many years ago of a woman whose car had broken down. Is this killing why I’ve heard potential customers of a breakdown recovery company ask whether their breakdown call would be a priority as they were women often travelling alone at night?
I am embarrassed for those women. They have bought into a make-believe world where there are two kinds of men – the men who they know and, therefore protect them, and the men who are strangers and, therefore, threaten them. (In their world, women never commit crime.)
Their fear of the night seems medieval – terror of the vapors, or spirits.
I once covered a Women Take Back the Night march as a newspaper reporter. The march symbolized women breaking out of their barricade of fear.
I wrote that story 20 years ago. To hear women request priority simply because they are women travelling alone at night . . . well, it’s sad.
I didn’t carry a gun in the States. However, for many years, when I lived in San Francisco and worked nights, I carried a whistle and my house key for protection.
Once ‘round midnight,’ I waited in downtown San Francisco for a bus to take me home.
As usual, I was the only passenger there and the street was deserted. I stood under a lamppost.
After waiting awhile, I spotted a form in the distance approaching. A man in his 50s, probably homeless, stumbled along drunk.
“Hey baby. Sure looking good.”
I withdrew my hand from my pocket with my key in my fist.
The exposed inch of metal caught the light in a blinding moment. We both saw it.
“No, no, I didn’t mean you no harm,” he said, as he sobered up fast and bolted away, petrified that I had pulled a knife on him.
He was harmless; I was harmless. We both, however, were left shaking. I vowed never to pull out my key again.
To those of us who have been touched by crime, including myself, I am sorry.
But I don’t apologise to crime illusionists, to confidence men and women who have created a house of mirrors, which shows Britain to be disproportionately bloated with crime.