Nearly forty years ago I met the Westminster flasher.
I had been teaching an evening class at Kilburn Poly and was walking home from Victoria station to the tiny flat where I lived.
When someone said “Excuse me, can you help me?” I was in helpful teacher mode so I said “yes”.
“Do you know where I can find another one like this?” he said, waving something limp and pink at me.
What do you think to yourself? Is he a desperate person needing some extreme medical intervention?
You reassure yourself with the mantra that flashers don’t touch, they just want to shock etc and you are actually in a public space, a big London shopping street, admittedly empty at 9pm. Ten years later it would be full of rough sleepers in most shop doorways but Thatcher’s Britain had not yet got into full swing so Victoria Street was empty.
It was raining. I had an umbrella and a PVC coat so when he pressed himself up against me I thought well at least the coat wipes clean….. because I still couldn’t understand why he’d broken the flasher rule of not touching …. He pushed me against a shop window. My open umbrella slid down the window and hit his head. I took the chance to run. I still could in those days. I think I shouted something pathetic like Go Away!!!
The nearest police station was just round the corner. Scotland Yard was only over the road but I chose my neighbourhood friendly cop shop where I’d reported a lost dog a week before. (Closed long ago now.)
I panted in trying to keep my dignity – still in teacher mode – and reported what happened, hoping they’d rush out and catch him as he was really nearby. But no. They had to take details first and that took ages.
“So you accidentally hit him over the head with your umbrella?” the cop asked – patronising middle-aged man. And the whole room burst out laughing! I joined in, a bit feebly, but I was still trying to feel like someone in charge of my life.
“We’ll send a patrol car to have a look. Are you OK going home on your own?” I said I was as I lived a very short distance away. But I didn’t feel safe and I saw no patrol cars circulating. That was the last I heard of it from the police.
I got home, phoned my flatmate who was working away from home, and wept uncontrollably for about five minutes. Then tried to forget about it. Like most young women, meeting the odd sex pest wasn’t unusual. I never bothered with the police again and I never told my mother.
And I never forgot. Today I hope that if women are attacked, police take them seriously.
But what is also on my mind now are the students I’d been teaching.
My class was in Kilburn, a poor area of north London, young adults doing O level English. I had three bright Asian girls in the class who knocked off homework brilliantly and regularly but didn’t seem bothered about practising for the exam. Eventually they confessed to me that they had done the exam the year before, got good passes, but hadn’t told their parents. My class was their excuse for having an evening away from home. Otherwise, they didn’t go out. Their brothers collected them from college so it wasn’t an excuse for them to go off clubbing after the class. But to those girls a tiny taste of independence was more important than anything else.
If their brothers had known about my experiences as a “free” woman they would have felt completely justified in protecting those girls from the dangerous streets.
I hope things are different now and I would love to know what happened to those girls.
Are our streets safer now? As a disabled older person I’m now more at danger from falling over in the street than being pursued by some sad flasher.
Are the pavements going to trip me up, is there a pothole where I cross the road, are there steps? More significantly, who would pick me up if I fell over?
The answer to me is to make our streets good places to spend time, busy with people, full of cafes and sociability, there will be people around to watch out for sex pests – or the old person falling over.
Reclaim the streets for everyone!
Christine Tongue is a Broadstairs resident and former Labour Party member. She now does not belong to a political party but does represent disability campaign group Access Thanet