Men must break their conspiracy of silence

Deborah Orr `While sectarian and race hate is campaigned against... the hate which prompts a man to beat his wife remains private'
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The Independent Culture
A DISPLAY of tears at the 1990 World Cup prompted poets and intellectuals to wax lyrical about the paradigm of modern manhood that is Paul Gascoigne. The Patriarch of English verse, Ian Hamilton, wrote a book about the young, tormented athlete and called it Gazza Agonistes. Karl Miller, the grand old man of the London Review of Books, put Gascoigne on his cover in arty black and white, writing of "a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun". Or something.

Almost a decade on, tearful confessions from Gascoigne's ex-wife on a television programme provoke no reaction at all from the legions of intelligent men who have in the past felt it incumbent upon them to search for the meaning of masculinity through the actions of football's idiot savant. No agonising over Sheryl's sniffles. No comment on the perilous journey that brought Sheryl to her place in a weak and watery sun.

In her interview with Martin Bashir, screened on ITV on Wednesday night, Sheryl Gascoigne told of her violent relationship with the father of her third child, and pointed the finger of accusation squarely at football's officials, who did nothing to attempt to curb his behaviour, and even failed to let the small matter of repeated and vicious assault disqualify Gascoigne from playing for England.

The rather larger matter of a night out on the tiles with Chris Evans, and an early-morning kebab, did, of course, have a bearing on Gascoigne's selection for the 1998 World Cup. Glenn Hoddle's failure to find a place for him on the team prompted weeks of hysterical comment, and that was just from the football superstar himself.

This exclusion, the Mirror sports writer Harry Harris reminded us yesterday, the morning after Sheryl's interview was broadcast, "broke Gascoigne's heart".

It is safe to assume that this man was unaware, when he wrote his mealy- mouthed and repugnant sentences, that they would appear in print on the day designated as International Day Against Violence Against Women. The day has been launched to bring attention to statistics such as those highlighted by Sheryl Gascoigne - that two women are killed every week in Britain by their partner or ex-partner; that in 90 per cent of incidents, children are in the next room; and that one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in her life.

Harris chose to remind us of a few other, lesser-known facts: "Injury, lack of form and his excessive lifestyle have all combined to leave Gascoigne a shadow of his former self. Off the field his reputation has been further dragged through the mud by his former wife Sheryl and her allegations of domestic violence."

While Harris's use of the word "allegations" is both partisan and unnecessary - Gascoigne has admitted to beating his wife and admitted also that he is "sorry" about it - his suggestion, that the shredding of Gascoigne's reputation is somehow down to the bitter actions of a spurned ex, is pathetic. In that sense both are horribly similar to the personality of the self- destructive and troubled man they seek to defend.

Gascoigne, of course, has legions of people he can rely on to defend him, not only among footballing officials, but in the form of his lawyers. Following his ex-wife's announcement at the beginning of this week that she was spearheading a new campaign against domestic violence by Refuge, Gascoigne slapped a gagging order on her. It is an odd man who repeatedly beats the mother of children he cares about, but then will not let her speak of the matter. What does he think will have damaged these children most - his behaviour, or his ex-wife's response to it?

Sheryl says the reason she wants to talk about her experiences is because Refuge has helped her to rebuild her life. "I want to dispel all myths about it," she told Bashir, "that it only happens in poverty areas, that it only happens to women who ask for it. I want to knock this conspiracy of silence. There is no excuse at all. You can't just say `it was drink', you can't just say, `well, he was jealous'."

Strangely enough, though, that was exactly what a woman was saying in court a few days ago in defence of her husband and the father of her children. Sam Holdsworth, wife of the football star Dean Holdsworth, asked a court to show leniency to her husband because she had "provoked" him into hitting her. Just as Sheryl forgave Gascoigne again and again, until she realised that unless she got away, it would never stop.

In admitting to violence against his wife, Dean Holdsworth joined a roll- call of woman-beaters that has recently included Stan Collymore and Paul Merson, as well as Gascoigne and George Best. But, even though these men admit to their crimes, still the conspiracy of silence of which Sheryl Gascoigne has spoken continues.

None of these men has been suspended from playing for his team because of domestic violence, even when a court case has been pending or when, as in the case of Stan Collymore, a beating has been captured on film for all the world to see. It is not just football clubs and other soccer governing bodies who consider that they should not censure such behaviour. Even the broadsheet papers rarely carry commentary about these aspects of sporting lives within their sports pages. Attitudes such as those expressed by Harry Harris yesterday seem to pervade all of our cultural debate around football.

While sectarian and race hate is campaigned against by clubs in the north and south, as is man-on-man violence in the form of football hooliganism, the kind of hate that prompts a man to beat his wife or girlfriend remains a "private" issue, considered to be no one else's business.

In the wake of Sheryl Gascoigne's revelations, the actress Amanda Redman was moved to support her by making public her own experience of domestic violence, even describing how one of the two lovers who beat her did it "skilfully" to avoid damaging a face that was becoming famous. Glenda Jackson, too, has admitted that she has never been out with a man who has not raised his fist to her.

It would be a wonderful thing if another famous face could be enlisted in the fight against domestic violence against women. That face is Paul Gascoigne's. If only he, and other men who know they are guilty of such actions and regret them as much as they say they do, will themselves start to break the conspiracy of silence, then perhaps we shall get somewhere.

Paul Gascoigne is still committing violence and abuse against the mother of his child. He abused her by taking out a gagging order, when the brave thing to do, for himself and the children he says he wants to protect, would have been to join with his former punch-bag and ask that men such as he be given help in facing and curbing their violence, instead of retreating into the conspiracy of silence and relying on like-minded lads in every layer of society to belittle and smear the women who dare to fight back.

And if the Gascoignes of this world are not man enough to do that, let's hear instead from his former - perhaps current - admirers, the Karl Millers and Ian Hamiltons, who were so keen to speak out in the days when Gascoigne could still be celebrated as a soaringly gifted and waywardly amiable buffoon.