I don’t often blog about political issues and I can’t recall ever commenting on a ‘showbiz’ story before. This is different.
My responses to those appalling photos of ‘celebrity chef’ Nigella Lawson being attacked by her ‘millionaire philanthropist and art collector’ husband Charles Saatchi have been rather different to most. ( For those of you abroad, the story is here).
I haven’t been sitting here muttering (or tweeting) ‘she should have slapped his face/punched him in the nuts’. I haven’t even been muttering ‘I would have kneed him in the nuts’. Firstly, both those responses come uncomfortably close to victim blaming as far as I am concerned. Secondly, I know exactly how difficult doing either of those things would actually be, especially from a hold like that, with both participants seated at a table. That’s setting aside the risks that a violent response from the weaker participant in a physical quarrel will simply generate more and worse violence from the stronger assailant and that’s not going to end well.
Which is not to say there aren’t things you can do in that situation. I have studied the martial art Aikido for thirty years now, which specifically enables smaller, lighter, physically weaker individuals to get the better of any sort of opponent,. So I can say with a fair degree of confidence that anyone trying to grab my throat across a dinner table will end up face down in the crockery. For someone without any such experience? That’s a very different matter indeed.
As an instructor, one of the first things we must do with new students is get them accustomed to being attacked. The ‘fright-freeze’ response is deeply ingrained and it short-circuits conscious thinking pretty much entirely. Learning not to panic under attack takes time – and that’s in a friendly, relaxed dojo atmosphere, where senior coach/my husband Steve and I have already demonstrated that however hard and fast we might launch a blow, we have the experience to make sure we won’t actually make contact, if the new student fluffs the response. Most usually by standing still, wide-eyed and mentally gibbering ‘ohshitohshitohshitI’mgoingtodie’. Incidentally, gender or physical size has nothing to do with this. The biggest, strongest chaps will respond in the exact same way, especially when they are taken by surprise. Which is something I do every so often, just to make the point. That they’re being unexpectedly menaced by a grey-haired, middle-aged woman in glasses half a foot shorter than they are, makes absolutely no difference to their instinctive response.
So one of the most important things we teach from the outset, is how NOT to get grabbed. Once your opponent has a solid hold, your options are much more limited and depending on the nature of the hold, getting free will require a higher level of skill and experience. We very rarely practise neck holds – not least because they are so dangerous. I once saw a very experienced black belt try, and fail, to get out of a strangle and end up unconscious on the mat. So primarily we teach people how to NOT get caught by the throat, and only examine escapes from dangerous holds with senior students with considerable care.
The other thing about neck holds is they often involve nerve strikes to inflict pain. We do teach more advanced students to use attacks on nerves as part of other non-neck-gripping techniques which involve controlling the freedom of movement of an attacker’s head. A good many of these nerve points are underneath and along the inside edge of the jawbone. Looking at those vile photos, I think it’s perfectly possible that Charles Saatchi could have struck one by accident. You don’t have to have martial arts skills to get lucky. When we’re training students in pins and holds that involve nerve compression, we always caution them to go slowly at first. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t get it agonisingly right by complete fluke.
The point of nerve strikes is not to inflict pain for its own sake. It’s to inflict pain in order to completely short circuit the attacker’s thought processes. To turn the tables entirely, so they’re now the one under attack, and crucially derailing their aggressive intent with a good dose of ‘ohshitohshitohshit-she’s going to rip my arm/head/leg off and club me to death with it.’
Not that we do things like that in aikido, the clubbing to death bit, I mean. The central aim of aikido is not to break your attacker’s ability to attack (by breaking their arms, legs, faces and ending up in court charged with assault) but to break their will to attack, by various means such as not letting them even make contact in the first place and thereafter, taking the initiative in the combat away from them so they end up being thrown or pinned as the aikidoka prefers. But I digress.
Learning how to do that calmly and effectively, especially when you’re caught off guard, particularly if a nerve strike is involved, takes a good deal of time and application. Advanced cookery skills will be little or no help.
So much for that. Why are we even talking about what Nigella could or should have done? Let’s talk about what Charles Saatchi actually did, as proven in those photographs. He grabbed her throat, hard. Are there any circumstances when doing this is a legitimate part of a conversation between two people, irrespective of their ages, gender or relationship? No, there are not. He assaulted her, as anyone with even passing knowledge of the law knew yesterday, even before news of his police caution broke. He assaulted her. I have no interest in Charles Saatchi’s self-serving version of events thereafter. Playful tiff? Fuck off. He assaulted her.
According to the papers, Nigella has now left home. I hope she gets all the support she needs amid all this furore and I am very glad to think that she has the money to take whatever action she sees fit, legal or otherwise.
But let’s just take a moment to consider all the victims of domestic violence who don’t have the protection of money, fame and influential family and friends. The refuges and services that have offered them quite literally a lifeline, have suffered sustained and increasing cuts in funding. Tory party thinking has long been that charities will take up this work, funded by wealthy philanthropists, the great and the good whose interests they so assiduously protect. Patrons of the arts, like, oh, Charles Saatchi for instance. Do we think that he will be donating to unglamorous causes like domestic violence charities? Well, he might well do so now, for the PR value. He is an ad-man after all.
But should vulnerable women’s lives be dependent on the capricious generosity of supremely privileged individuals like him? No. They should be protected by the society of which we are all members and by the government which is supposed to act in all our interests.