Indecent Exposure **content warning**

Two days ago I decided to take advantage of the warm, autumnal sunshine and take a walk along the Thames Path – the towpath that winds along the banks of the Thames river in London. I chose the south side, starting at Kew Bridge and ending at Hampton Court – a route that would be around 10 miles in length, through beautiful riverside leafiness.

It felt so good to stride out along the well-worn path, complete with dappled sunshine and smiling walkers, runners and cyclists. I came across Ham House, a 17th-century mansion owned by the National Trust, that was offering free access as part of the Open House London weekend – I decided to take a little detour and found the house and grounds enchanting. I tweeted, I Instagrammed, I Periscoped. All good.

Then about half a mile on from Ham House I became aware that I was being followed very closely behind by another walker. I didn’t look round but I knew it was a guy. After a few minutes, at 3.30pm precisely, I tweeted as I walked: “To the man walking RIGHT BEHIND ME on the Thames Path – ever thought that might be intimidating?” I figured he probably hadn’t realised so faked a photo stop on the side of the river next to a woman who was sketching. I watched him walk on – seemed like a normal guy out for a walk – and after a few minutes I carried on.

Then suddenly, there he was, flaccid cock waving in his hands, grinning at me from a spot just off the path in the woods. “Oh you f*cking dickhead,” I muttered and carried on walking, but as two guys – a father and son – cycled past me I asked them to stop. My legs had gone wobbly and I asked them to walk with me for a bit, which they did. The father was suitably horrified – not least I suppose, that this was happening in front of his son who looked about 11 – and said I should call the police immediately. “Really?” I said. I’d fully intended to carry on walking and ‘not make a fuss’ but he was insistent. “I think you should, in case this guy does it again to another woman.” He was absolutely right.

I’m still amazed at the speed and seriousness of the police response. Within fifteen minutes they were with me, further down the track, and taking a statement. They then went on to walk back along the path, using my description to track the offender. They’d offered to take me home, or at least to a station, but I was absolutely determined to carry on. I wasn’t going to let one dickhead stop me from walking freely on a public footpath.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

About half an hour later, I saw him again. He was way up ahead, and he’d turned round to carefully check out the lone woman passing him on the path going the other way. I readied myself to join her but he turned back again, leaving her be. I called the police again and they came out immediately. Not only that, but the call-centre officer insisted I stayed on the line while I waited for them, and said that I should call the police if I EVER felt threatened by a man walking too close to me, or whatever. Blimey, I thought. If I do that, I’ll be on the phone every week…

Then came the response to the incident on my social-media feeds. One young woman talked about how being flashed at by a local offender was a ‘rite of passage’ at her school and how the girls were told to tell him to ‘put it away’ and look disdainful. Another had seen a man peeing on a beach that morning, clearly after public attention, but unlike me, it hadn’t even warranted a Facebook mention.

So many women commented that it had happened to them at least once, but it was clear that we’d all been trained not to make a fuss. I am horrified that it took a man to insist I call the police on this occasion, but I’m afraid to say my initial response was to just walk on and process it, after sharing on social media, of course.

I suppose my amazement at the police reaction was as a result of being brought up on the traditional ‘Cagney and Lacey’ response to flashers. Remember that bit in the opening credits where a guy opens up his mac and Cagney just looks so ‘is that it?’ about it? That image flashed into my head on the day, and I think it sets the scene for our cultural response to a man getting his dick out in front of us. Treat it as a joke and move on, because there are bigger issues to deal with. Typically, an old lady I spoke to as the police were scoping out the area simply said, “he was obviously born with a small one.”

Cagney & Lacey opening credits - the 'flasher'

Cagney & Lacey opening credits – the ‘flasher’

I later found out that another incident had happened in the same area, half an hour before mine, involving two girls of twelve and thirteen. The guy had followed them, too, and then revealed himself. Goodness knows how many times he’d done it that day, but I’m willing to bet that only a minority of them were reported. There is some evidence that shows these relatively ‘minor’ offences can lead to greater ‘contact’ ones, when the thrill of the shock and disgust (that’s what arouses them) needs a bigger event to trigger it. We need make sure these offenders are reported and subsequently caught, because like many seemingly ‘harmless’ events, they can often build into something bigger.

People often ask me why I complain so much about wolf-whistling or Page Three – it’s because both can sometimes lead to something so much worse, whether it’s a torrent of abuse if you don’t accept the ‘compliment’ with a smile, or a rapist whispering the name of their favourite tabloid into your ear. All of these things are set on a continuum and the more we let the ‘small’ things slide, the more likely the ‘big’ things are going to happen.

The way the police dealt with my incident that day has made me realise that they are only too aware of the continuum, and the importance of taking these issues seriously. I have received two follow-up emails and a victim care card. My advice to any woman out there who experiences this would be to phone 999. Immediately. Don’t make like Cagney and walk on. These guys are preying on our ‘don’t make a fuss’ culture and they need to be stopped.

I know that there will be some people reading this thinking I’m making a fuss – hell, even I thought I was wasting police time at the start of it all. But then I heard about those two young girls and thought about the lone woman I saw, unaware of the guy scoping her out as a potential victim, and I’m so glad that guy encouraged me to call the police.

Make the fuss, ladies. Seek the attention.

It’s the only way things are going to change.

—————————————————-

(Special thanks to PC Kate Whitaker of the Metropolitan Police).

Read an interesting piece from a police officer on the non-reporting of these crimes:

“We all need to change our attitude towards indecent exposure. This is not a cheeky chappie having a bit of fun. We need to lose this ‘harmless seaside postcard’ image of a flasher that sadly all too often still seems to prevail. We’re talking about people that may go on to commit serious sexual offences.”

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The Art Of Conversation

Over the last two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about conversation. I’ve been doing it a lot, too – from Salon London‘s night presented by Theodore Zeldin in which we all had to turn to a complete stranger and ask each other a set of deep and meaningful questions, to a freelance networking event in which we had to do the same thing, but simply discover common ground with the other person as quickly as possible.

It was so interesting. The first exercise resulted in me and the woman I was talking to really connecting over shared experiences and thoughts on things, ranging from our favourite sound to what we think about family, friendship and love. We’ve been in touch since and I was delighted to find a potential new friend, not least a fascinating companion for the evening.

Theodore Zeldin's menu of questions – designed to allow two people to find their common humanity.

Theodore Zeldin’s menu of questions – designed to allow two people to find their common humanity.

The networking event took place the following night, and yet again, I found a woman whose life and interests created a Venn diagram with mine and the joy was in the discovery of the commonality, and the points of differentiation. Both nights reminded me that people are just people – it’s so easy to put barriers up, especially living in a city, but if you remove them only for a moment, there’s someone like you standing there.

I’ve had to really force myself into the art of conversation over the last six months, finding myself having to network professionally in a way that I haven’t done before. Sure, I’ve been a public figure in the UK publishing industry for some years now, but it’s largely been as a public speaker or commentator. I’ve had to generate more one-on-one conversations than ever before and I’ve really enjoyed the process of properly meeting people, not just shaking their hand and swapping a business card during a conference coffee break.

By and large I’ve found that people are generous with their time and advice, and unexpectedly supportive. It’s definitely restored my faith in people, even though I already know that the publishing community is uniquely friendly and supportive.

Whilst all of this great stuff has been going on, I’ve similarly had my faith in people diminished by being ‘ghosted‘ by someone purporting to be a friend. If you’ve not come across this yet, then lucky you, but it’s when a person cuts off all communication with you, suddenly and unexpectedly, especially easy if you’ve only really got to know them through social media. They just stop responding. They cut off the live conversation just as it’s at its zenith. They fall off the face of the earth.

I’m the first person to admit that I live a huge part of my life behind an iPhone and I socialise with people who do, so meeting a new friend through a meet-up group based on that foundation is bound to be risky. However, I do try and attain a level of authenticity – I am where my tweets or Instagram pics say I am, I am the same person in a live conversation as I am on Twitter or my blog. I want everything to be 360 degrees-me, live or on social media.

And then you meet someone who isn’t any of those things – they are not where they say they are, they are not who they tell you they are. Everything about them is virtual so to turn into a ghost is incredibly easy. They are one-dimensional, appearing only online through one medium and are uniquely obsessed with who interacts with them there. All the follows, unfollows, comments, likes – all are tracked obsessively and every bit of interaction with other people is about how they are perceived by them. It is a form of narcissism and it’s so clear to me that they are only interested in a reflection of themselves in a pool of other people.

This is a person who knows the power of a well-timed online manoeuvre and has clearly used it to great effect when ghosting before. It has to be the most cowardly and basically shitty thing to do to a person, and I say that as someone who did it once years ago, before social media was invented. Yet this is a growing trend among younger people who are used to living most of their lives online and who are less committed to the things they say and do there.

If anything, these experiences have reminded me of the importance of real-life interactions over virtual ones and I’ve never been so keen to make the former happen. I could put barriers back up again, in the wake of being ghosted, but I won’t be diminished by the experience. I won’t hide behind my iPhone or my laptop because I want to be in the world, right here, right now.

You can’t hide forever.

Who’s That Girl?

This weekend I visited my old university, twenty-three years after I last walked through its gates. Even though I live in London, mere miles away from the location, I’ve never gone near the place, so when an alumni reunion came up I thought it would be the perfect opportunity.

Roehampton University (or Institute, as it was back then) is arranged around a number of Grade I and II listed buildings in leafy west London, not far from Putney and Wimbledon (where I lived). When I first arrived there – a slightly scared and very naive 22-year-old in 1989 – the leafy beauty of Froebel college, where I did my dance and English classes was slightly lost on me, because I was from leafy beautiful North Wales.

Grove House, Froebel College

Grove House, Froebel College

Just walking through the Froebel gates two days ago made me realise I’d been so lucky to study there. Grove House, the main building, is an 18th-century villa once owned by a Parisian ballet dancer (and courtesan!) and her husband. I’d had no idea of the history of the place until this weekend’s historical tour – I just did classes there and sat in the Portrait Room for lunch (it popped up in the first episode of Strictly this weekend, when all the dancers met for the first time…)

The Portrait Room at Froebel College - used to be the bar, now saved for Strictly...

The Portrait Room at Froebel College – used to be the bar (via the little door to the right of the fireplace), now it’s hosting Strictly dancers.

I’ve known for a long time that the young woman I was at university is not the woman I am now. In fact, I barely recognise her, and there are very few pictures of me at that time. I tried to access my ‘story’ as I walked around the grounds with friends who recounted unrequited loves, Fresher’s Ball shenanigans and dorm parties, but I couldn’t really remember much of it.

I’d thrown myself wholeheartedly into studying Dance and English (it was a two-subject degree), and can remember myself sitting in lectures or at the back of class in the dance studio, but the person I was?

I’ve got no idea.

It feels like I was literally a blank page waiting to be filled in. I think that’s why I eventually got the urge to do a degree, after four years of teaching ballet. My brain was craving the experience and the information.

I didn’t drink or have boyfriends at university. I know, I know. This is the time you’re meant to do it, meant to get it all out of your system – make the mistakes, sleep with the wrong guys, wake up in someone else’s student accommodation and stumble hungover into the cafeteria for a burger and chips. But I didn’t. I was such a ‘good’ girl. I danced hard, I studied hard, I had crushes on guys at a distance, I didn’t notice the guys who were trying to make a move on me. It was only later that I realised a few of them had tried. They even tried to get me drunk and I resisted all their attempts. I seriously was No Fun At All.

That time for me was about becoming someone. Filling my brain with information and opening it up to possibility. Strengthening my body and expressing things through dance (and yes, we did run round a room and slap ourselves across the face – it was fashionable in contemporary dance back then).

It would still take some years after to actually Become Someone. I don’t really recognise my current self until around six years later, when I was living in Brighton, working in publishing and still doing dance classes. I was twenty-eight. In many ways, I’m still her.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

I often laugh with friends who were at Roehampton at the same time about our different experiences of the same university. They did all the things you’re supposed to do (well, most), I did none of them. Except study. At one point during the reunion, we listened to a lecture by Professor Nicola Humble on Modernist Fiction and food and I was transported back briefly to the Girl I Was Before, listening to Professor Humble talk to me about women in the eighteenth century.

She’d just started her teaching career at Roehampton in 1992 and I was in my final year. As she spoke so articulately and academically this weekend I remembered how I loved being in that world where thinking about things and drawing conclusions about them dominated my life. I look back at my old dissertation on Behind the Mask: Masculinity in Shakespearean Tragedy and wonder who the hell it was that wrote it. My voice is completely unrecognisable, but I sound so sure of my subject. (It makes me smile that I’m often pre-occupied with male behaviour today – this pattern of observation definitely started at university.)

I wandered around the old dance studio and remembered the young woman with a terrible body-image problem who couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, but put her heart and soul into learning contemporary dance techniques. I was fit as a fiddle, doing a two-hour class (or more) every day, but had no idea my body was so strong – I just took it for granted.

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The professor who had mentored my dissertation, Kim Reynolds, went on to found the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton and it makes me smile that I once bumped into her in the kitchen at Scholastic Children’s Books where I was the Publishing Director. It felt like a circle had been completed, but this time, Kim could meet the real me, the one who had blossomed later in life.

It was also a source of pride that author Philip Pullman had praised Roehampton so much at a dinner party I attended for The Golden Compass, when I was dreading admitting where I’d studied. And this weekend, author Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Chancellor of the University, commented on its excellence in her alumni speech.

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Wherever I go, my world circles around between children’s books and Roehampton, but I didn’t know that they would back then.

Some things are just meant to be.

Part of me wishes I could go back to Roehampton knowing what I know now, to really get the most out of it. But part of me is glad that Roehampton is where I started to become someone, even if I was a bit late to the party.

I’m making up for that now. You can’t be a good girl forever.