In the 1960s we used to sing a music-hall song in the pub whose rousing refrain began, 'Two lovely black eyes - Oh, what a surprise!' and went on: 'Only for tellin' a man he was wrong - two lovely black eyes!' It took me a while to realise that the singer was a woman who'd been beaten up by her bloke because the song made me laugh so much, especially when we all whooped in chorus on the 'Oh', raising our eyebrows melodramatically. Stories of men given to hitting their women weren't unheard of in my family, but I associated them with my grandparents' generation, like chenille tablecloths or mangles or the music hall itself. 'In the old days' there were men who liked their drink a bit too much and 'took it out' on the wife. Wife-beating, in theory at least, belonged to the dark ages. Hitting children, however, was commonplace; a mother slapping a toddler round the legs was a familiar sight in public, though hitting one across the face wasn't. Corporal punishment at school was routine (in Penhale Road Infants' we were rapped across the knuckles with a ruler) and in the course of his growing up my brother got thrashed with a belt, caned and slippered. There were limits, even so. When a sports-master at the grammar hit him so hard with a hockey stick that his back broke out in raw, crescent-shaped welts, my mother went in a fury to the headmaster. She got an apology but the teacher kept his job.
LRB 21 March 2002 | PDF Download