So I look for self-defence classes in the Yellow Pages; there is nothing listed. I know you can't buy or carry Mace (an irritant gas) or pepper in aerosol cans in Britain, and my friend Mary-Anne had it taken away from her when she came from South Africa. (So too, I later discover, did the carriers of the 2,700 other cans confiscated at Heathrow alone in the past year.)
Instead I go out to try to buy an attack alarm. But they are not easy to come by - which might explain why no one I know possesses one. You can't buy them in Boots or W H Smith, or in most locksmiths or hardware stores. I call them rape alarms, but shopkeepers don't seem to know what I'm talking about. Someone tells me British Home Stores stock them, but only at Christmas.
I have only an hour for lunch. Someone else says alarms are available at Texas Homecare, but no one knows for sure and, anyway, there isn't one near where I live or work, so I give up.
Next I call the Metropolitan Police for advice, but they take so long to answer that some mechanism within British Telecom intervenes to cut off my call. I repeat this 14 times before I am told the crime prevention unit at Kentish Town, near where I live, is out at lunch. Could I ring back? When I do, it's to be told that I can't make an appointment to go to see them; they have to see me in my home, to advise about keeping myself (and my property) secure. Fair enough. But when? Well, we can't say right now. The person you need isn't here. Someone will call you back. They don't. At least not for more than 24 hours.
Meanwhile, still in search of protection - I go back to the Yellow Pages for security firms. My walking fingers stop at Guns. See Arms and Ammunition. There are 27 entries. I choose the first.
M J BRODIE Ltd is a small, dusty shop among the flophouses behind Paddington Station. In the front, a chap called Ron sells golf clubs. In the back room are the bowie knives, the crossbows, the guns and plastic decoy ducks.
I discuss my self-protection problem with Ron. Would some sort of dummy pistol be a good deterrent to a potential rapist or mugger? Who knows how he views me. A mugger's victim? Or just a mug? 'What you need, young lady, is a replica.' 'A what?' 'A replica, you know, a copy.' He draws out a small red box. Inside is a pistol smaller than the palm of my hand. He says it's a copy of an 8mm baby Browning. But it looks exactly like the real thing. It weighs the same as a proper one, only it fires gunpowder blanks. It's a starting gun for sports events.
'This'll do the trick. Anyone comes near you, just fire it in the air. It makes an incredible noise. A real bang. Fire this next to someone's ear and they'll have to change their underwear. It's just the job for you.'
Ron tells me he sells 20 of these a month, to collectors and ladies like myself. I don't believe him, especially when he brings the price down from pounds 75 to pounds 30, and pounds 2 extra for six blank cartridges.
'Just the job, young lady. Just the job. And it's legal.'
In my random search for protection, buying the replica gun turned out to be the easiest solution. But will it, as Ron promises, be just the job?
TWO days later, I show my little starting pistol to Shirley Tulloch, the Metropolitan Police inspector in charge of personal safety. She comes out vehemently against it. 'This is not the way to protect yourself on the streets of London. I am horrified, absolutely horrified that someone sold you this. If the police stopped you, they would investigate where this came from. And you might be arrested.
'Carrying a gun (even a fake gun) is not going to protect you. The only thing you will achieve with it is to put yourself in a much more dangerous and vulnerable position.'
Inspector Tulloch is at pains to put me straight. She is one of the toughest advocates of what the police call the Bash n' Dash tactic - hitting back as hard as you can just so you can get away. 'We are very keen on self-defence, but it must be taught by people who are properly trained. We run our own courses, which are free, and which are mostly taken up by women. The emphasis is on teaching people how to get away from an assailant. The Bash n' Dash approach is much more effective than a full-scale martial arts course.
'A woman is justified in fighting back. We don't support the use of Mace. Even if it's sold for defensive purposes, it can be used as an offensive weapon. A woman who carries a Mace canister can have it snatched out of her hand and used against her.
'You have to defend yourself with everyday items. If a woman caused injury, serious injury, by jabbing her keys into somebody's eye, she would be justified if she were fighting for her life. If it was a case of him or her. But there is no way we would recommend women to carry weapons.'
PERSONALLY, I find it very difficult to understand the state's attitude to self-defence. The law says I am forbidden to carry an offensive weapon. Guns, flick knives, crossbows, umbrellas, nail files, keys, and pointed combs are all offensive weapons. Aerosol gases, like Mace, are illegal in Britain even though they are freely available in the US and in most European countries. If I carry a gun, even a fake gun, I will probably be arrested. If I carry a crossbow I won't. And if I use a nail file or a bunch of keys to defend myself from an attacker, the law says I can be prosecuted (though Inspector Tulloch, after 16 years on the force, cannot think of a single case).
For three days I carry the fake pistol in my bag. I grew up using guns, I know how to handle them. I feel empowered by this pistol, even though it's a fake. It makes me feel very male. But I can't stop thinking about what I would do if someone grabbed me by the arm. Unless I keep it loaded all the time, and hold it in my pocket ready to snap off the safety catch, the thing wouldn't even go off. I think back to when I was mugged two years ago. I was walking alone through an underpass when a man, a foot taller than I was, rushed at me, punched me in the chest, and snatched my handbag. What would I have done with my fake gun? Would it have helped? Would it help any woman?
I decide that Inspector Tulloch is right. Weapons are not the answer. The only thing that would have saved me from being mugged was to have realised beforehand that the underpass could be dangerous. I was not alert. What I needed was not to use the gun in my hand but the brain in my head.
THE Home Office estimates that more than 180,000 women are assaulted every year in this country. Muggings, rape, robbery and murder are all on the increase. True, the statistics show that women are, in fact, more likely to be in danger inside their homes (domestic violence against women grew by 66 per cent in London last year); and they are less at risk than men between the ages of 16- 24. But the figures provide little in the way of reassurance.
About 15,000 women will have been attacked since Rachel Nickell was murdered on Wimbledon Common last month; 982 since I wrote this article on Friday. That hideous statistic notwithstanding, my experience shows that ready information about how to avoid becoming number 983 is very difficult to come by.
That's not to say it's impossible, it's just impossibly cumbersome. When I finally got through to the Met's crime prevention unit, no one told me right off the bat that the police run self-defence courses for the general public in most areas of the country, that they publish pamphlets and videos on how to take elementary precautions, and that they will even mail them to you free of charge. Nor do they suggest calling the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the highly effective national charity for personal safety, founded by Diana Lamplugh after her daughter vanished in 1986.
Most women, like me, are short of time, whether they work in an office or bring up children. Some are lazy. That doesn't mean they don't deserve or need protection. Doing something about your personal safety never seems as urgent as getting to the supermarket, the doctor or the bank. But if condoms were this hard to find, a lot more people would have Aids and we'd be considered a Third World country.
For what it's worth, here are the two most useful facts I have learned this week. The police self- defence courses are excellent and they're free. Most police stations should have information. And Diana Lamplugh has just launched a national advertising campaign to promote the use of attack alarms. The Trust is selling its own alarm for pounds 6.49 including postage, which should make them much more easily available. They are available from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, 14 East Sheen Avenue, London SW14 8AS. Telephone 081-392 1839.
HOW SAFE IS THE REST OF THE WORLD?
THE flats where I live have a big courtyard outside, and these days I get someone to escort me across it at night. Women have been attacked there. All my Russian friends are frightened to go out at night now. My Russian girlfriends don't go out at all.
There aren't any official figures, but crime of all kinds is increasing. However, there isn't the sexual element on the whole. I'm not afraid of being raped, I'm afraid of being robbed. Last year my friend Marina was stabbed and left for dead in a doorway. For 600 roubles. That sort of attack would have been inconceivable five years ago. Helen Womack
WOMEN don't really have a problem here. You rarely hear of attacks on women. You read about rapes maybe three times a year, and there is always a real fuss. But obviously a large number of cases are not reported - and there is still a typical male attitude that women were asking for it. There are a couple of areas - around the port Piraeus, and the tourist area Omonia - where I wouldn't be happy late at night, but otherwise, women who live here are not fearful of walking around at night. They rarely do so, however. Penny Marinou
THERE is a relatively low level of crime against women in Delhi as women do not go out much at night: not only because the streets are unsafe, but also because public transport is unreliable. Safety depends on your income. Women who can afford to take taxis are perfectly safe; those who have to take buses do run the risk of being molested.
I am happy in crowded market areas, but would avoid the more deserted areas of Delhi. Western women must be careful because they are often seen by Indian men as easily available. But because it is unusual to see women out at night, both Western and Indian women would be assumed to be easy game. South India is often thought to be safer for women than the North because the culture of the North is more aggressive - but this is, of course, a generalisation. Urvashi Butalia
TOKYO is a great place to be a woman. First, you're anonymous; second, you're safe. No matter how short your skirt, men are far too polite even to look at you, let alone stare or grope. Walking past a building site is not an ordeal. No one thinks twice about taking the Tube alone at midnight.
In 1991 there were 208 rapes in Tokyo, a city of nearly 12 million people. This is due largely to the high level of policing. Crime is on the increase, but for the time being, women can still enjoy wonderful freedom. Lesley Downer
IN 1990, there were 50 rapes or attempted rapes per 100,000 inhabitants in Washington, slightly higher than in New York. In this city, it's all down to the neighborhood. In parts of town, women can walk alone day or night without fear for their safety. Around Capitol Hill, they wonder whether a youth with a gun will mug then shoot them for kicks. Random shootings are rare, but many women worry about being assaulted or killed. Stephanie Slewka
DAMASCUS is extremely safe for women. I will happily walk through the streets alone at 2am, which I would be terrified to do in London. The society imposes limitations on when and how women can go out, but throughout the Arab world the incidence of rape is a great deal lower than in the West because of this protectionism. The boundaries of a woman's personal space are clearly laid out and are respected. Rape is considered an outrageous crime. For Western women the situation is more complicated. Just as the West has stereotypes of the East, our men have a stereotyped image of Western women as easy with their favours. But I think if Western women amend their behaviour to respect the cultural difference of Damascus, they would be quite safe. Rana Kabbani
Additional research: Lucy Richer