Fight club

It's the time of year when violence in Britain is at its terrifying peak. But could our society ever become more peaceful? Will Self reports on an extraordinary organisation that helps people put their bloodiest instincts behind them
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The Independent Online

April may be the cruellest month in the natural world, but in the world of humanity, January is when the fists start to fly. Christmas means putting on a show for the family, repressing feelings with food, alcohol and consumption, but once you head back to the real world there it all is staring you in the face: the debts you've racked up putting on the show; the cracks in your relationships you've papered over with wrapping; the raw wound of inadequacy just waiting for everyday salt to be rubbed in it.

For the majority January may be downbeat, but for the minority who've come to use violence the way that addicts use drugs, January can be when they beat up on family, friends and even strangers in the street who look at them the wrong way. Statistics bear this out: in the Metropolitan Police area, January rated as the month with the highest number of reported incidents of domestic violence in 2002. This can be set in the context of a society that seems to be moving ineluctably towards being more violent. In the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, the number of violent crimes reported increased enormously: wounding with intent to murder went up fourfold; rape sevenfold; and actual bodily harm doubled according to the Home Office.

In Middle England such statistics are readily converted into appeals to harshen penalties and generally crack down, while urbane liberals call for greater understanding. Even if a growing violence problem is acknowledged, neither party seems able to formulate a strategy which deals with it as an entity in its own right. While the conservatives see violence as indicative of a personal evil, the liberals take it as evidence of social ones. While the conservatives want to beat the violence out of its perpetrators, the liberals wish to locate its genesis somewhere outside of them: in social disadvantage; drug or alcohol problems; racism and cultural conflict.

There is one organisation, however, that takes as its very bread and butter the cold, unpalatable reality of violent individuals, and works with them to address their problem head on. At the Violence Initiative (TVI), they too have noticed what a cruel month January can be, but their evidence comes not through the distorting lens of statistics, it comes from the perpetrators themselves.

Started up on a shoestring in 1997 by Neil Watson, himself a former "user of violence" - as he styles it - TVI has since helped over 1,000 people towards living a violence-free life. Twelve per cent of TVI's clients are women, and they aim to address the taboo issue of female perpetrators as well as males. TVI takes no referrals from other agencies or practitioners unless the person is committed to change; its aim is to help the user of violence who wants to quit and is prepared to take the initiative themselves. In the first three months of the last three years, TVI has recorded a doubling in enquiries, as against the last three months of the preceding years. The message is clear: come January the users of violence want to do something about their behaviour.

Neil Watson, whose brainchild TVI is, is the fourth of five children of a Thames lighterman from Shoeburyness, while his principle benefactor, Mark Moody-Stuart, is the scion of plantation owners in the West Indies, who rose through the corporate ladder to become chairman first of Shell and now of Anglo-American. Watson was an abused child who was disruptive at school and ended up in care, from where he absconded to the Merchant Navy at the age of 16. Moody-Stuart qualified as a geologist and has a knighthood. Watson spent his 18th and 21st birthdays in jail - Moody-Stuart enjoys yachting. But what the two men now share is a vision of how to address one of the most intractable and damaging of social, moral and spiritual ills.

Neil Watson is a nervy, charismatic man in early middle age. His sparse, swept-back hair and wire-rimmed glasses add to the impression of intensity and commitment, but despite the fact that in talking he often alludes to his own violent past, there is no hint of aggression about him. "The thing is," he told me, "if this thing doesn't warrant growing, then I don't want it to grow. I don't want Government money, or money from any other source if it compromises what we're doing, and nor do I want to build up a kind of false professionalism about the organisation, so that the people working for it have a vested interest. I view it as a self-help group."

Watson's own recovery began in jail. He was in his late 20s, a habitual petty criminal and violent offender, who, in between short sentences, had blagged his way into professional catering: "I could organise a kitchen, and my capacity for aggression meant people would jump when I said so; basically my personality was useful, so long as I didn't bash anyone, but I'd never last longer than six months in a job before I'd fuck it off."

However, during an unhappy sojourn back with his parents in Essex, Watson burgled a neighbour's home. "I didn't have a place in the family - well, I did, but it was the place I'd had as a child." A childhood during which his mother would "lose the plot and whack you around the room with whatever came to hand", and his father would apply "more regulated punishment. I'd be told to go to my room and wait for him to get home from work. And I'd wait for three hours - it was mental torture - then I'd get the belt, and he was a big man."

Watson acknowledges that he gained a perverse kind of security from this negative role - as well as the crude means to survive. But in jail he had an epiphany. "A man came in on a visit one day and he knew my story, he said to me, 'Look, if you want to spend the rest of your life in prison why don't you just go over and kill that guard, it'll save you a lot of hassle.'" That hit home, as did Watson's reading of Robert Tressell's novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. "It gave me a political perspective to hang things on to - a formal structure. I began to think, 'I'm better than this, I'm better than prison'. When I came out, f my sister let me stay with her - if it hadn't been for her I would've been sunk. I decided to get an education."

Watson also decided that he wanted to work with young men like he'd been, to help them out of the trap he'd fallen into. It was perhaps this further and more spiritual revelation - although he himself would undoubtedly disdain the term - that ensured Watson's own recovery from violence. But that still lay some years in the future, the other side of an unhappy and abbreviated experience of higher education, a failed relationship, and increasingly disillusioned political involvement: "I still wasn't averse to kicking off and thumping somebody, and my politics were getting more and more extreme. I'd say, 'Let's rip this up and destroy everything', - but at the same time I began to realise: you won't get anything out of this, you won't get peace of mind. I was mixed up in Class War, but I knew that come the revolution it'd be the same old story, they would have used us as weapons and then they'd discard us - and I knew what it was like to be terrorised.

"At the Poll Tax riots, I kicked a few coppers and I didn't enjoy it. Up until then fighting wasn't exactly an enjoyment, but I never got anything negative out of it. Now I knew it wasn't what I wanted any more; I wanted normality." Some kind of normality came for Watson through an advertisement in Time Out magazine offering training for youth work. The training turned out to be in creative conflict resolution. "It spoke to me, after all I'd come from a life of complete conflict, I understood it intuitively, and I found it interesting looking at conflicts through a neutral pair of eyes rather than those of the protagonist. I was able to use it to resolve my own issues, to find out the pattern."

Watson did a voluntary work-placement for six months, and then after further training went to run leadership workshops in the notorious Feltham Young Offenders' Unit. "They were short-staffed there, and there was no one to talk to these people in their own language." He went on from Feltham to a peer education project and to obtain still more youth work training, and somewhere along the way he came across a Quaker initiative called Alternatives to Violence.

"I thought the Quakers were good people, but I had a problem with their idea that God would help you to change. I resolved that I would eradicate any mention of God from the work I would do. So far as I could see the work they did helped people to open all this stuff up, to find out what was making them violent, but it didn't make it possible for them to close it down. There was also something patronising and false about the Quaker line: I'm a Quaker and I don't get angry'. I tell you, you can give me anybody for an hour and I can make them fucking angry."

Nevertheless, Watson continued doing work with the Quakers for several years, until "It came to a head. One of the women I worked with took some trouble over me, invited me over for dinner and told me I wasn't going to get any further if I didn't complete my degree. I ripped her head off - I was very volatile."

A year of sitting on his hands ensued, but Watson was still doing some voluntary work in Sussex. One of his colleagues knew a wealthy couple through the local Friends Meeting House, and thought that they might be able to help him out. "At this point I was £5,000 in debt - that's what I needed. I went to see them over dinner at their flat in Wapping. When I got there I discovered they had the penthouse - and things are going off in my head. By the time I'd gone up in the private lift and entered their living room I'd decided I couldn't ask for the five thousand. The project I now run I started creating over that dinner table - I made it up on the spot. I was buzzing a bit - I'd had a couple of beers before I arrived.

"They sounded interested and said put something on paper, so I went away; I didn't get excited, I sat on it for a month and then I came up with a name for it and wrote the whole idea down. By return of post there came a cheque for £12,000. If it'd been £25,000 I'm sure I would've fucked off, but I thought, 'You've said you're going to do it, so you'd better do it.'" Watson got a phone line, put a simple advert in the Big Issue, and "the rest is history. Within a few weeks I had 12 people on the books and was going around trying to rent rooms. 'Course the minute I said the word 'violence' doors would shut in my face. But in 1999 we got our own room and from then on it's been madness."

The mysterious couple with the penthouse in Wapping were the Moody-Stuarts, and it was across their dinner table that Neil Watson improvised what was to become TVI. Whatever his notoriety in the corporate world, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart was keen to play down his involvement in TVI when I went to see him. Sitting in his small but opulently formed office on the top floor of Anglo-American's HQ off Park Lane, he presented the very picture of ruddy urbanity: tall, well-built, with those vast, out-of-control eyebrows you only ever see in the upper echelons of the British establishment. Yet, as we listened to the cries of rugby fans cheering their homecoming heroes below, Sir Mark revealed himself to be a most unorthodox philanthropist, who fully shared Watson's view of the way to tackle violence.

"As far as we were concerned, Neil needed help with his rent," Sir Mark explained. "We heard about him through a Quaker friend - my wife's a Quaker, although my religion is more established - but when we met him he explained this idea to us. I agreed already, that while a lot of charities address the victims of violence - and rightly so - no one was properly addressing the cause. It's also difficult for someone like Neil to get funding.

"Initially we thought he would be the sole beneficiary, that we could give him a start in something worthwhile, but his idea was much bigger than this. And I have a belief in what you can call social-entrepreneurial start-ups; that there's a need to provide funds to establish initiatives, before they can give any necessary proof of concept."

The Moody-Stuarts' faith in Neil Watson and the virtue of venturing capital on charity has not been mealy-mouthed. To date they have committed around half a million pounds of their own money to TVI, and while Sir Mark stressed that they had no intention of cutting funding off, they are now accelerating it, in part so as to attract other benefactors. "We need to find a core group of people prepared to put money in. The problem is that it's not endowed at all, so if we drop dead that's it. TVI needs untied funding, because of the unique and innovative character of its work."

Sir Mark outlined his own view of philanthropy in a calm methodical way: "If people are fortunate enough to have some money, they should at least look at ways in which they can help people who are less fortunate. One problem is that remuneration has changed so rapidly that people haven't realised it in relation to charity. They still think that putting a pound in the church collection is sufficient, when really they should be adding a couple of noughts. In the US they tend to be more generous - both individually and corporately - but they also favour end-of-the-pipe solutions. They don't tend to look at the social processes involved in charity."

Sir Mark's Quaker-influenced view of the perpetrators of violence had led him to consider them as humans: "When they're not being violent these people are often full of remorse. But I don't think TVI is offering a soft solution, the violent person has to take responsibility for changing, and that can be tough, especially when they come from very violent places. One of the TVI graduates, Dave, spoke to the Trustees and he conveyed something to me that should've been blindingly obvious; namely that prison is a society designed to make you feel good about whatever it is you did - unless you're a sex offender - and in that sense the experience is a positive reinforcer for violent behaviour."

ANOTHER POSITIVE reinforcer is a tough upbringing. Harry Harris, a therapist who conducts one-to-one sessions for TVI , comes from a background where a certain level of violence was considered the norm. It wasn't until during his second year of psychotherapy training, when he met Dr Bob Johnson (who himself ran a revolutionary programme for violent offenders at HMP Parkhurst), that Harris saw it in a different light: "Bob said to me, 'I hear your story a lot, but it's normally from people doing life sentences, not out and about in society.'"

Harris views violence as a maladaptive response to what he describes as "frozen terror". "The violent person," he told me "is acting from a place of stunted emotional growth, he fears being attacked and attacks first. It's a coping mechanism - like drugs or alcohol - but they don't have to be like that, they can live in the same way that people live without drugs, and that's a powerful message."

Harris himself was led into becoming a therapist by his own experience of suffering from rage: "I'd cleaned up from drug and alcohol addiction in a 12-step programme, but I found myself depressed and couldn't get any help on the NHS. A psychiatrist put me on antidepressants, which helped in the short term, but what I needed was to talk and for someone to hear me. I was full of suppressed anger - that's why I was so depressed." This is the role Harris now undertakes for TVI's clients, all of whom are offered 12 one-to-one sessions before moving on to the group work which is at the core of the Watson method.

"I'm not a magician," Harris says, "I tell them I can't wave a magic wand and stop them being violent." What he does instead is to listen, "I listen, I try not to form opinions, I convey the idea that change is a lifelong process. Therapy is a strange beast, and I find what's most fluid is what works. I can model a healthy citizen, but it's they that do the work.

"A lot of my clients ask me: 'Am I violent enough to do this programme?' Then they tell me that only punch their girlfriend every three months, but I have to get across that violence isn't just about hitting people." Harris was keen to stress that he hadn't come across psychopaths in TVI either, and indeed it's difficult to think of them volunteering for profound behavioural change. Nor is TVI indifferent to the possible actions of its clients: "If they're fantasising about stuff, they might not tell me, because I make it clear that we will inform the authorities."

Harris is in many ways the ideal therapist for TVI, because like Watson he comes from a working-class background where psychobabble of any kind is an anathema. "I never thought I'd end up as a therapist. I did the Knowledge and worked as a cabbie for years. I always assumed that when I stopped driving I'd buy a pub - that's what people like me do."

He shares Watson's view of TVI as a hybrid model, part counselling service, part self-help group; and because of the nature of the clients it's important that the therapy be free of jargon, even to the extent of not using the term "therapy". There remains behind Watson's vision a powerful sense of violence - particularly in working-class men - as not just a means of coping with emotional problems, but also as a reaction to their sense of political and economic disenfranchisement.

It was time to meet a couple of TVI clients. Dave, who'd had such a powerful effect on Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, came to visit me at my house. He's a tall, lanky, middle-aged man with a lantern jaw and collar-length, nicotine-coloured hair. "As long as I can remember I've been violent," he told me, "to family, neighbours, friends ... well," he gave a self-deprecating cough, "I didn't actually have any friends because of my violence."

Dave saw the TVI ad in the Big Issue, but it was a year before he contacted them. "I had an argument with a bus driver, and if I'd had a brick in my hand I would haveve stuck it in his head. It was like an eruption, and the funny thing is this guy had probably forgotten about me within seconds."

This was the final incident that allowed him to locate the problem within himself: "I realised I wasn't right." Up until that moment he'd had plenty of other things to blame; a latchkey kid from a dysfunctional family, he'd become involved with drugs at an early age: "I always blamed the drugs because I was always out of my head, but when I cleaned up I began to realise it f all stemmed from the same place. I started thieving early as well, I saw teachers and the police as corrupt and the only honest people as criminals. It sounds strange, but I didn't see myself as violent - I thought I was a rebel. I thought all the other people were responsible for the violence because they were winding me up. People said I was mad - and I liked that. I carried weapons the whole time."

Dave ended up doing a total of six years in prison for violent offences. He served his last sentence following an assault on a family member, from there he went to rehab. But once he was clean, the toll his use of violence was taking became more obvious: "I was so tired all the time because of the rows I was having with people every day. If I was walking down the road and someone didn't get out of my way I'd perceive them as being rude to me and I'd want to hit them. It's a bit hard to explain, but when I'm angry I get this adrenaline rush, and of course when it's gone I get a terrible guilt trip. The thing was I saw that as I was getting older it was getting worse."

Dave called Neil Watson and was to begin with very suspicious of TVI's offer of free help: "I thought, 'What's in it for him? What's his ulterior motive: did he want to fuck me or fight me?'" However, when they met, "we clicked straight away. I knew he'd been there, he had the same issues, he understood."

Dave did the 12 one-to-one sessions and found immediate improvements in his life. "I began to talk to my wife about it when I felt angry, before that I'd just go out and dump on a stranger at random. I learnt to understand that it wasn't just hitting my wife that was terrorising her, but all the smashing things about the house. We hardly had a stick of furniture or a cup in the place." Then Dave moved on to the group work, and it was here, while using role play to dramatise the conflicts in his life, that he found out what it was that was making him so very angry.

"I'd been sexually abused as a child, and I thought I'd dealt with it, but now I realised how important it was and that I hadn't resolved it. The crux was that I was angry with myself, blaming myself for the abuse that I couldn't prevent. It was this anger I was projecting on to other people. I got into fights not because I was brave, but because I was scared."

The six weekends of intensive group work spread over six months allowed Dave to heal: "You're not just opened up and left to get on with it - you're patched up as well." The combination of discovering the problem and learning simple techniques to deal with the trigger points for his rage has transformed Dave's life. A 20-year marriage that was on the rocks has been saved, his relationships with his two children have begun to be repaired. He keeps in contact with Neil Watson by phone, and feels that the people he went through the group with "will be lifelong friends. We did a lot of trusting, we were all being honest and there were a lot of tears. I tell you what - it works." The final confirmation of TVI's effect on Dave's life is a material one: his household now has cups, in the plural.

Brian, who I went to visit in his flat near London's prestigious Barbican development, was a rather different kind of person. If Dave fulfilled some of the stereotypes we have of violent men - a manual worker, mixed up in drugs and crime - Brian matched few of them. A high-flying professional with experience of working both in the City and with his own companies, he's highly articulate, well-read and an impassioned speaker. Brian came to TVI only a few months ago. His girlfriend had given him an ultimatum after one too many street altercations: change or the relationship is over.

From a mixed-race background, Brian was placed in care at young age, but managed to pass his eleven-plus and go to grammar school. In his 20s, after time abroad, he completed a university career, but throughout his life he has been dogged by a flashpoint temper leading to the same violent confrontations that Dave described. Brian told me about one incident at a London Tube station that ended up with another man severely injured, and all this because, as far as Brian was concerned, the man had pushed in front of a girl.

Brian always located some of his problems with life in his race: "There were no black people where I grew up, I didn't even know I was black until I was almost grown up." And though he didn't understand it at the time, looking back he realises he experienced a great deal of racism. He also, like Dave, experienced sexual abuse, a fact that he all but forgot until beginning to work with TVI. When he came to London and fell in with a tough crowd, Brian seized on an interpretation of blackness as badness: "Being black was sucking on a spliff, drinking a Special Brew - being bad. I didn't realise there were any good black people."

Brian is currently undergoing the rigorous weekend-long series of six group work sessions with TVI, but while his other behaviour has already changed - he's stopped drinking and smoking marijuana - and his intellectual awareness of the roots of his violence seems acute, his violent impulse is still intact: "To be honest I seem to have a ruck whenever I come out of the groups," he told me. But perhaps for Brian - like Dave - the painful puzzle of his violence will fall into place at the end of the course.

Like Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, I was introduced to the work of TVI by chance, but like him, in the process of getting acquainted with Neil Watson's ideas, I began to view them as a necessity. Addressing the needs of the perpetrators of violence may be unpopular, and no one is pretending that these are people who excite the greatest sympathy, but purely at a utilitarian level it has to be conceded that by helping one perpetrator you may be saving many more. January may have been a cruel month, but with TVI set to expand, the coming year may be a kinder one. E

The names and appearances of the TVI clients interviewed for this article have been changed to protect them and their families. You can contact TVI on 020-8365 8220, or by mail at 260 Langham Road, London N15 3NP, or visit their website: