The Smiler with the Knife
Abi Frost

What with one thing and another, what with murder and missiles in the papers, and TS Eliot my bedside reading, my head is full of sinister horrors.

Is Eliot's Sweeney murderer, victim, witness, or accessory after the fact? Is he the same person, or playing the same role, in each of the poems? Is the victim in The Waste Land a woman drowned, or a man knifed in a dusty attic? If a man, was he the protagonist's father, was a woman killed at the same time, or a man, or no-one, and if so who was he/she?

What is the appeal of Dennis Nilson? No, that's easy to answer; he's the first murderer in ages with a few good black jokes in him. But what's the appeal of the Famous Murderer? Why do I spend good money on tatty encyclopedias of murder, for god's sake?. Vulgar morbidity, or a search for something real?


Am I going to be battered to death in a cellar? Or will I be denied the chance, being fried by a quite impersonal missile instead? Is my obsessive attempt to tease out of Sweeney among the Nightingales and The Waste Land narratives that manifestly aren't really there simply a matter of finding something worse to meditate on?

Negative thinking, negative thinking. All one can do, of course, is get on with the ordinary pleasures and labours of life. Unfortunately, for me that includes reading about real and fictional violence. When I was 11 I had already read all the Sherlock Holmes stories except Study in Scarlet and Valley of Fear. I was about to start on the Father Brown stories; the best of these, I think, are still my favourites among crime stories. Chesterton tells his stories in a way that brings light out of darkness; first the chaos of horror, the head with no body, the skull with no fillings in the teeth; then the sinister general statements ('Where does a wise man hide a leaf?' 'In a forest'), then the clarification, the reasoning that includes the irrational among its data, the relief, or sometimes the discovery of a more fundamental horror. Chandler, too, in The Big Sleep, replaces chaotic violence with systematic evil; the ending is one of the great statements of the fearful absurdity of human effort.

I'm sorry, but that's the way I'm thinking right now.

No room for a colophon at the back, so THE SMILER WITH THE KNIFE comes to you from Abigail Frost, in the house of horrors at 69 Robin Hood Gardens, Cotton Street, E14. Woe unto the land.


Chris A: Welcome back. I was beginning to think yr offspring had decided to re-enact some primal mythic something by eating you. I agree whole-heartedly about the need for a rule-changing procedure; the lack of one was the reason I held my one-issue election campaign. I can see the sense in making the proposer distribute ballot forms, from the admin point of view, but some allowance ought to be made for amendment of any original proposal. For example, one person might propose limiting membership to 35; others might think the apa should limit membership but could stretch to 45; still others might think that the damn thing's too big already, and we should accept no more new people until we've shrunk, down to below 25. It would obviously make much more sense if the original proposal were announced in one issue, amendments in the next, and they were all voted for on the same ballot sheet. This does, I'm afraid, imply the existence of a central Constitutional Overlady, not necessarily the Administrator, to handle it all. I'll be happy to take that task on if people like.

I also think that, on balance, motions should have a proposer and a seconder, though if anyone feels strongly against I wouldn't go to the stake for it. I do feel strongly, though, that time should be allowed for discussion within the group; thus, if a motion is proposed in issue 10, then voting should take place at issue 12 or 13, not 11. There should be time for arguments for, against, and in-between. Could we perhaps institute a sort of AGM; I don't mean a real meeting, but simply an agreement that votes on constitutional matters are taken at an agreed time, say half-way through the Administrator's term? If this were to be say issue 14, then people could announce what they'd like to see on the 'agenda' in 12, others could put their views in 13, and votes could be collected with copy for 14, to be counted and results announced in 14, to take effect from 15.

The only rule that I can see might need clarifying is 2; 'basis in British fandom'. (A tribute to your drafting, this!) The problem is to do with the general definition of fandom, not the apa in particular. At the moment, the rule seems to operate like the old rule for art school dances - if you know enough to know it's happening, you must bo ok enough to come in. I'm happy with that, but I can see that the rule could be used to keep out neos, media fans or anyone else people chose to gang up against. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

O my anarchist soul! This is getting like a Somerville JCR meeting. I liked the idea of the thing as a stage in personal development; you mean we can all look down on those beasts who never get it?

Lisa: You've got it all wrong, Lisa me deario, jest you lissen to yur Auntie Aybe. Women aren't afraid of groups of men; if they're so clever why aren't they Prime Minister? Kerb-crawlers? Half-educated cretins who can't read the semiology right. Whistles from building sites? Ritual deference to the superior being. Pubs? Places set up so that men can buy women drinks. Walking home at night? A tedious necessity -- one should of course be carried in a sedan chair, but scary? Rubbish.

No, what women are really afraid of is dogs. O the terror when one goes out to dispatch the rubbish, only to find the neighbour's mongrel sniffing round the chute, ready to transfer his attention to one's own smelly bag. O the trembling and shaking when, having crossed the road to avoid an alsatian 100 yards further up, one glances unobtrusively over one's shoulder to see an evil wolfish form crossing over to join one. O the physical and emotional humiliation when an airedale sinks his fangs into one's Wellingtons. O the hot flush of shame and fear on a crowded tube station in a heatwave, as one's stockingless thigh feels the damp slurp of a slavering canine tongue.

Then, of course, women are afraid of the sounds in and around their own homes in the middle of the night, especially when they are forced by male violence to live in echo-crazy concrete blocks arranged round a garden in a horseshoe pattern which has roughly the acoustic effect of a Greek amphitheatre without the clarity, as of course most women are. Was that a taxi-door in Woolmore Street or BURGLARS? Is that some cats screwing on the balcony or my cats fighting to the death in the loo? Is that a coaster signalling in the fog round Blackwall Reach or NUCLEAR WAR? Is that clicking sound a flying beetle against the ceiling or Lovecraftian Things scratching their way up through the floor? Is that just a riot outside or is it the dole snoopers Come to Get Me? Why is the television whistling?

But the scariest thing for women, is of course, Coming Home at Night. Not, you understand, Going Home; that, as stated above, is a piece of cake. The night is cold and windy, there are strange shadows in the underpass, the man behind us in the bus queue stinks of Evostick: poof, c'est normal. But as All Saints spire comes into view, we women feel the beginning of a mounting terror. We know, we just know, that in a minute we will see Robin Hood Gardens and it will be a smouldering ruin, topped by the roasted corpses of our own dear Charles and Emily Cat; and that we will meet a fireman who says 'That was all caused by an iron left plugged in at no 69, and THE GLC ARE SUEING.' Saved, on this occasion, from this particular disaster, we enter the lift-lobby. We notice with relief the huge and villainous-looking skinhead with the knife sticking out of his belt and the strongly bulging trousers; he will be something to fall on when the lift, exhausted by its slow climb to the 5th floor via the basement, the 2nd, and the ground again, crashes down through its shaft, breaking through the weak concrete foundations, and lands in front of a speeding, juggernaut in the Blackwall Tunnel, But the skinhead decides we're not worth raping and leaves us to our fate at the 2nd. Somehow the lift makes it to the 5th and we just get out through the doors in time ... and then there is the horrible agonizing trek down the access balcony, and the search for the key in six pockets and four different bits of the handbag, and women just know all the time that it would be better not to open the door at all, because as it opens they know that they will find ...

'Look, shut up, you two, mummy's been to the Griffin and she's got to have a pee and for heaven's sake have you finished all that Go-Cat already she only went out at eight, all right I'll give you some afterwards ...'

And as women sit on the lavatory (why does Guinness always take twice as long?) they wonder whether it was at three or at five that they got the silly obsession that one day they would open the loo door and there, sitting on the lavatory (and when did it finally go away? Nine? Eighteen? Thirty?), sitting on the lavatory, waiting to Get them, there would be a SKELLINGTON?

At any rate, we all have these, fears, and they are all largely irrational. If a substantial proportion of women at any one time are really afraid to go out alone at night, then I would guess there are two causes. The first would be an atavistic, half-conscious manifestation of the ancient, and once perfectly justified, human fear of the dark. Once, after all, we were a rather unusual daytime predator; we didn't have anything special in the way of strength, speed, or sharpness of sense, but we were able to devise traps and weapons which made us stronger than the animals. At night, the animals got their chance; with our poor night vision and lousy senses of hearing and smell, we were the potential victims. So nobody feels secure at night.

The other reason, more recent in origin, is the propaganda of the Women's Movement. It may suit some women, either in their quest for political power or for their working out of their own neuroses, to claim that all men are predators upon women, out to rape, rob and injure us whenever the moon is in a particular phase. But it's self-evidently not true. Old ladies have never liked going out at night, but their fear is the fear of the old and obviously weak. The condition of old age is a condition of feeling threatened; the younger generations come up below, mocking what you stand for and implicitly saying 'we want you off so we can inherit the world'. Plenty of people of all ages don't much care for wolf-whistles, mocking comments from those around of the 'where did you get that hat' variety (I always say 'same place you got yours/your tie/your socks' or whatever); but this is an aesthetic discomfort. This sort of harassment disturbs the order of the world as we see it and want to see it at the time. To go from these special cases to the point where a healthy woman in her twenties or thirties says she's afraid to walk past a pub in licensed hours is an indication of mental corruption. Either Lisa in claiming to have this fear is hysterically over-stating the, aesthetic distaste she may legitimately have for drunks, or she's been got at by the loonie feminists to the extent where she can't think straight. (Or of course, she is lying, I hate to make this suggestion, but in logic it's a possible option.)

Hysterical over-statement debases and trivializes real fears and the people who hold them; the old, for example, and those groups within our society who know, as a matter of fact, that there are people who want to hurt them simply for being themselves. Two examples spring to mind, well enough known, but worth re-stating. Down here, gangs of boys go out Paki-bashing. There's a case in the local paper at least once a week. Where I used to live, similarly, teenage boys would quite openly say they were off to Putney Towpath or Wimbledon Common for a night's queer-bashing. This was before the 1967 act, when it was more necessary than it is now for homosexuals to meet in dark, secret, dangerous places; and of course impossible for them to ask for help from the police. If I were a 'Paki' (actually, round here, a Bengali), or a homosexual, I would find the idea that women as women are under that sort of threat either laughable or actually insulting.

Much the same goes if the 'fear' is simply a result of feminist brainwashing. Here, though, someone is actually culpable. Lisa herself, only in so far as she should look at what she's told by these people more critically; they have something to gain by filling her head with these pernicious lies, and that something is POWER. Power over her mind and every other woman's, they hope. When I come to power they will all be lined up against a wall and shot, of course, but till then:

Watch and pray. There is danger at the door. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Always ask yourself why someone wants to make you afraid, why she wants to create division and disturbance. Don't take their benevolence for granted, and keep asking questions. Never judge anything by whether it's good for the cause, without first being sure what the cause is.

(Yes, of course this goes for what I say, too.)

The Women's Periodical 10 (November 1983)