Das Mobbing

Is Priti Patel a bully?

Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s independent advisor on ministerial standards, thinks so.  He found her conduct – shouting and swearing at civil servants – had broken the ministerial code.  The Prime Minister thought otherwise.  There was no need for the Home Secretary to resign.   In the end, it was Sir Alex who resigned.  And this has all occurred, ironically, during anti-bullying week.     

Does this mean that the Prime Minister does not think the Home Secretary is a bully, or does it mean that he does not think badly of her for being a bully?  The Prime Minister’s great hero is Winston Churchill, and there can be little doubt that Churchill could be a bully.  Clemmie wrote to him about it, gave him a sharp reprimand, and told him to stop being “Hunnish”.  He duly modified his behaviour; he probably wouldn’t have taken the advice from anybody else.          

What exactly is a bully?

Chambers:  bully n. a cruel oppressor of the weak: a blustering, noisy, overbearing fellow: a ruffian hired to beat or intimidate anyone…

Well, we’ve all met them.  I can remember a classmate of mine complaining to a teacher that he was being harassed by an older, bigger boy.  The teacher advised him to ignore it.  “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  That is manifestly untrue.  People have been driven to suicide by relentless name-calling.  The “sticks and stones” mantra lets the authorities off the hook.  It means they don’t have to intervene in the persecutions that occur in the school playground. 

Sink or swim.  I think that is what characterised all of my educational life.  School, the University Air Squadron, undergraduate medicine… indoctrination by humiliation and intimidation.  We were all pushed around. If you could stand the pressure and hold out, then after a while they would cut you some slack.  If you went under, well, too bad.  Does that mean we were all bullied?  No.  The essence of being bullied is not that you are in agony, but that you are alone. 

A handful of images from school, the RAF, and medicine:  I can remember a boy with a calliper, a great, rusting, clunking fetter – I guess he’d had polio.  He always stood alone in a remote corner of the playground.  We wouldn’t have considered playing with him.  It wasn’t that he was ostracised or sent to Coventry.  He was just invisible.  Occasionally, in the playground, a fight would break out.  A large, seething surging mob would surround the combatants.

“Ow – ow – ow –ow –ow…”

Then a teacher would wander out unhurriedly from the Old Building and break it up.

We were taught parsing and trigonometry but I don’t recall we were taught how to care for one another.

Towards the end of my two years in the University Air Squadron I spent two weeks at RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire.  I got a lift down from Glasgow in an MGC sports car.  The journey took four and a half hours.  130 mph on the M1; when I think of it, my skin crawls.  I remember one morning attending a met briefing.  The expression “KAV-OK” came up.  At the end, the commanding officer said briskly, “Any questions?”  There were no questions.  Then he asked us, “What does KAV-OK mean?”  If memory serves me right, it means that visibility exceeds ten kilometres.  None of us knew.  We all got the traditional RAF bollocking.

I shared a room with a wide-eyed callow youth with floppy ears.  He was trying to jog my memory about something and asked, “Does that ring a ding-ding?”


I thought, you poor bastard.  I knew then that he was a member of what Graham Greene called “the torturable classes”.  Sure enough, one day half a dozen of the guys came in, pushed him around, trashed his gear, and completely soaked his bed with gallons of water.  The German for bullying is das Mobbing.  Well, this guy was well and truly mobbed.  I said to him, “You okay?” 

“Fine!”  He was on the verge of tears.  “Don’t worry.  Happens all the time.”  I helped him clear up and change his bedding.  It would never have occurred to me (nor I guess to him) to go to the Squadron Leader and seek help.  That would surely have shown a lack of moral fibre.  What would the CO have done? 

“At ease, gentlemen.  It has been brought to my attention that somebody is being picked on.  I don’t care what you think about this, one way or another.  But it will stop.  That’s all.”  I’m pretty sure that would have been it, because while we were at Abingdon a British European Airways jet crashed at Staines coming out of Heathrow.  Some of the guys drove up for a look.  There was a lot of bad feeling about it.  Was this mere professional interest, or ghoulish behaviour?  The CO dropped by.  We all stood up.

“I understand some of you chaps went up to Staines.  Now you may think that’s fine, or you may not.  Whatever you think, keep it to yourself.  There will be no more discussion of the matter.  Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

My last sortie at Abingdon was an hour solo doing circuits and bumps.  I shared the circuit with a friend of mine, Craig.  Craig was crazy.  He would take a chipmunk and carry out verboten landings on disused wartime RAF airstrips.  I had to persuade him not to fly under the Severn Bridge.  Anyway there we were in the circuit.  I came round on to finals and Craig was on the runway.  He had called full-stop and he was dawdling.  I was at 300 feet.  Come on Craig, taxi left.  Expedite.  200 feet.  Get off the runway Craig.  100 feet.  Still not clear.  I was right down on the deck and he was still on the runway.  I applied full power, shimmied dead side, and “went round”, did another circuit, radioed “full stop complete”, and landed.  An instructor walked out to my plane as I shut it down, looking furious.

“What’s the minimum height to mandate a ‘go around’?”

“250 feet.”

“What height were you?”

I smirked and pouted, as if estimating heights and distances.  “Half an inch?”

He stared stonily at me and then suddenly burst out laughing, turned, and walked off. 

I worked for some crazy people in medicine – surgeons who would throw huge tantrums and cast instruments about the operating theatre, or have fits of apoplexy during a ward round because of some perceived minor mismanagement.  I remember as a medical student assisting an orthopod who was giving his anaesthetist, an attractive young lady, a hell of a time.  I thought, what’s going on?  In retrospect I think it must have been a kind of subliminal sexual abuse.  The consultant ward round could be an ordeal of terror for the medical students.  You would be summoned to the bedside to examine an abdomen and pronounce your diagnosis to a huge retinue.  Or a tricky question would be fired at you at random.

“What’s Foster Kennedy Syndrome?”

By some miracle I had read about it that morning.  “Optic atrophy in one eye, and papilloedema in the other, in patients with frontal lobe tumours.”  That particular consultant said nothing, but he never bothered me again.  In an entire career, I never once saw an instance of Foster Kennedy Syndrome.

The thing is, stress, pressure, and intimidation have been built into the structure and fabric of British society for as long as I can remember.  If things are changing, that must surely be for the better.  The events of last week suggest that the British Government are the last people to have noticed.       

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