Nigella and I go back a long way. By way of explanation, my Dad bore a striking resemblance to Nigel Lawson and my Mum decided that Nigella, back when she wasn’t that famous, was a good role model for me. She used to ring me at University to tell me when she was doing the paper review. Nigella’s first husband, John Diamond, had cancer at around the same time as my Dad and I would regularly read his column, desperate to hear the things my Dad had never been able to say out loud. Her book Feast, was released just after my mother died and, I must confess, I repeatedly read her chapter on funerals and grief, before turning to my own ‘gin and carbohydrates’ therapy of choice.
And then she sorted out her eyebrows and started licking spoons and we grew apart. However she has remained my fantasy big sister who would, one day, invite me round for a massive crumble.
Still, I’ve have always associated her with frailty and stoicism in the face of adversity. Therefore I felt a fierce and familial sense of protectiveness when the pictures were published over the weekend. The calculated callousness of his actions, her apparent attempts to placate him and his subsequent dismissal of what happened are shocking. I would like to think that if I were on the next table, I would have intervened, would have asked if she was alright, maybe I wouldn’t. The reaction to them has also been revealing. There has been the fair share of apologists and all round cretins looking for a cheap laugh (none of whom I shall link to here). There has been consternation that this attractive, successful, confidant woman, could be treated in such a way. Cries of ‘leave the bastard’ fight against others who claim that it may not be that bad. Saatchi himself says that it was ‘a playful tiff’.
There are others who feel that discussion of someone’s very private pain is inappropriate and intrusive. Accusations fly that someone’s suffering is being used to sell newspapers and is grubby. Like the people on nearby tables, the instinct is to look away as it is none our business.
Now I don’t actually know Nigella, or any facts about her relationship and it’s not my place to speculate. (maybe it was just friendly banter, but it didn’t look like it). However how human beings treat other human beings is everybody’s business. I wonder how many would have said that if it had been the waiter he had attacked. There should be no closed doors to hide behind. As a society, we have a responsibility to shout very loudly that such behaviour will not be stood for.
I’ve written about this subject before but what this story proves is that the issue of domestic abuse is not a simple one. It is not confined to drunken men beating their wives on council estates, nor is it the domain of mousey women at home who can’t stand up for themselves. The recent cases of Rihanna or Justin Lee Collins should have proved this already.
I have several friends who have suffered from domestic abuse at some point in their lives. What links them all is that they are all successful, outgoing, confident women. Or at least they looked like it at the time. All of them thought that they were strong enough to handle it, did not want to admit defeat. Very few of them ever made public the exact reasons they left or aggression they suffered. Their ex-partners continue, untainted and untroubled, possibly treating all the women that followed exactly the same way.
Why people choose the relationships they do is a complicated business and nobody goes looking for one. The fact that it is someone you love who inflicts such pain or control doesn’t make it less painful, it makes it worse. It is difficult, when you’re in a relationship, to see the line between protective and controlling, between ‘passionate’ and violent. Where does ‘powerful’ turn into bullying. Romantic literature is full of dark, brooding men who are terribly complicated and flawed and we turn them into heroes, desperately searching for the one strong capable woman who will rescue them. In real life, knights don’t have shining armour and very few get to ride off into the sunset.
The reason men and women find themselves in abusive or destructive relationships, or remain in them, is not something I can answer. However the statistics are horrifying.
Just last week, Parliament voted against a clause in the Children and Families Bill to introduce discussion of healthy relationships into the national curriculum. These are the same MPs who have cut funding for refuges and removed Legal Aid from people leaving abusive relationships.
Whether MPs felt that it wasn’t a real issue or that it was appropriate for schools to discuss is anybody’s guess.
For the rest of us, it is important to call it when we see it and to not look the other way. To say, very loudly and often, that it is not OK to treat another fellow member of the public like that, especially when you are married to them. That putting your hands to someone’s throat is not getting your point across, neither is putting your hand over their mouth playful, it’s being a violent and intimidating bully (Daily Mail link which now makes for disturbing reading for all sorts of reasons). The fact that your partner doesn’t immediately leave you is not proof that it was OK.
It is not simply a question of teaching victims to stand up for themselves, just as teaching women how to avoid being raped reinforces myths and prejudices and puts the responsibility in the wrong place. All too often the emphasis is on the victim, not the perpetrator. It is not a feminist issue, it is a societal one. Just as with racism or child abuse, standards of behaviour in society need to be crystal clear. Boys and men must be shown, by everybody, that, no matter how rich, powerful and successful they are, violence and intimidation will not be tolerated, laughed away or swept under the carpet. It’s not big or clever and they must be held to account.
So, even if she would rather we didn’t, we need everybody to talk about Nigella.
*** If you are worried about a friend, or indeed your own relationship, this information could be useful ***