How far do you go in the face of violence?

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The Independent Online
AT 39, Grahame Simmonds is a pillar of the Southampton suburb of Bitterne. He is 6ft tall, weighs 13st 7oz, earns enough to support his wife and two young sons in a stylish bungalow, runs a J-reg Rover and is a member of the local Conservative club. Last Tuesday, in circumstances that are becoming disturbingly familiar, the pillar was felled.

Just before 5pm he drove to a shopping precinct to buy his wife, Julie, a 14th wedding-anniversary card. The round trip, including the time it took to park and select a card should have taken less than 10 minutes. But when Mr Simmonds started to drive out of the car park, he found his way blocked by three young men. They stared at him and refused to budge. Mr Simmonds opened the car door and stepped out.

'I was about to say, 'What's the problem?' I never got time to get the words out. One of them, a big chap with short, blond hair which was streaked - as though he'd dyed it and the dye was growing out - came forward and hit me. He didn't say anything, but his eyes delivered the message, 'I'll have you]' He hit me so hard I fell down at once. They then started kicking me, though I'm not sure who kicked me where.'

The assailants were white, in their early twenties and not badly dressed. Their jeans and coloured shirts were clean. 'They weren't skinheads or druggies. They seemed . . . ordinary, really.'

He is thrice lucky. For one thing, seeing shoppers draw near, the men bolted. For another, the attack was a few yards from the local health centre, so Mr Simmonds had prompt attention. Lastly, he escaped with his life - unlike other recent victims, among them Les Reed, 45, beaten to death a week ago for challenging youthful vandals in Cardiff, and John Taylor, 48, who died when rampaging youths invaded his family barbecue in Gosport, Hants, last summer.

Mr Simmonds is familiar with the Taylor case. A work colleague was a neighbour of the Gosport victim and had relayed details of the killing, in which Mr Taylor was knocked to the ground after remonstrating with seven drunken youths who had broken his garden fence. Six are free, having served a nine-month jail sentence. The seventh is expected to leave prison in August. Mr Simmonds is bewildered. 'That was murder,' he said. 'There should have been a life sentence.'

He is bewildered also by what he and a large section of the British population see as youthful spurning of all authority. Many of the acts of violence are perpetrated by 'ordinary' youths. In Gosport, for example, last summer's rampaging teenagers were from streets as leafy and well-tended as St Francis Avenue, where Mr Simmonds lives. Their parents and siblings seem genuinely distressed by what had occurred.

Mr Simmonds is a forthright man, but does not look for trouble. As a multiple sclerosis sufferer for the past six years, he takes few risks with his health (he says weekly yoga has kept the disease in remission; he plays cricket for his Conservative club). He and Mrs Simmonds teach seven-year- old Paul and five-year-old Richard the difference between right and wrong. At first he tried to keep the children from seeing his injuries, but gave up on realising they would see him being interviewed on television.

Two evenings after the assault, police drove Mr Simmonds to the shopping precinct and to a housing estate in search of the attackers. He did not see them, but received a different kind of surprise. 'There were these kids, aged five, six, seven. They swarmed around the police car, not in the least bit intimidated, shouting 'Oi] Wot you doin' 'ere?'

'No respect whatever] No trace of fear in their eyes] I was quite shocked, but the police told me they get that attitude all the time from young people.'

Mrs Simmonds said: 'These people use the sob story about being unemployed or about coming from a broken home. But that's no reason to thump Grahame, or kick that other chap to death.'

Might responsibility lie with the Thatcher/Major era? Mr Simmonds tenderly touched his bruised eye. This is a difficult question for a thoughtful Conservative. He said: 'I think we concentrate too much on problems abroad, and, although I feel sorry for children with no food in Africa, the Government should put its own house in order.'

Some believe Mr Simmonds's chosen government has tried to run Britain like a vast business. Henry Ford, who knew about these things, once said: 'A great business is too big to be human.'

Was that the view from a nice bungalow in Southampton? 'Don't get me wrong,' Mr Simmonds said. 'It's tragic what's happening.'

(Photograph omitted)

Opinions, page 20