I was hoping to write about revenge without once mentioning that it's a "dish best served cold". But I can see it's not going to happen.
Is it really true that it's a dish best served cold, though? Personally, I have my doubts. Whenever I think of cold food I automatically think of nasty food: pallid, antibiotic-dosed, farmed salmon which your hosts want you to pretend is a treat but which you know is about the cheapest, most revolting protein available; leftovers curling yellow in the fridge; chunky squares of tortilla which might be OK, except you don't know how long they've been there and how many flies have landed on them.
Which brings us to Hazel Blears. Blears has just enjoyed a cold dish of revenge – or maybe a lukewarm dish, because it wasn't all that long from planning to execution – against her betrayer Gordon Brown. Brown had made the grave mistake of singling her out for special opprobrium during the expenses claims scandal. With hindsight, Brown came to regret this. What he'd done, in his socially maladjusted way, was try to keep up with David "no tolerance" Cameron and lash out randomly at the nearest flame-haired biker chick. By the time he apologised, though, it was too late. Blears timed her resignation to cause maximum damage. Then, a couple of days later, James Purnell did something similar. Revenge was sweet.
Or was it? There's part of me – part of us all I'm sure: hence the enduring popularity of revenge tales from The Spanish Tragedy to The Count of Monte Cristo to, er, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less – which thinks a properly enacted revenge is the pinnacle of human satisfaction. It's one of the few occasions in our lives when we get to play judge, jury and executioner. When indeed, we abrogate for ourselves the power of cosmic justice normally reserved for God.
My friend X is very much of this view. I shan't give his name, for reasons which will become obvious, but he's a well-known writer, highly influential with friends in all the right places, who will one day no doubt become a powerful grandee. X and I were talking the other day – as writers do – about how intensely we hated all the people who had ever given our books bad reviews, how we remembered every word and what we were going to about it.
X's line was thrillingly uncompromising. What usually happens, he explained, is that when you bump into these reviewers next they're a bit shamefaced and apologetic. "Nothing personal, you understand. I just felt that, er..." they'll go. And what X does is to reassure them that it's water off a duck's back. Of course he hasn't been offended. And to prove how little he minds, he'll usually give their next book an absolute peach of a review. This serves the dual purpose of making them feel even guiltier and lulling them into a false sense of security. From now on they will think of X as their friend.
But he's not, not one bit. Many years hence – maybe as long as a decade, or even two – the time will come when X finds himself in a position to decide on something that really matters. A literary prize judging panel say. Or one that awards grants. Or even on some kind of honours committee. This is the point when X will strike. And of course, no one will suspect his motives, for how could they? Everything he has done up to that point will have revealed him to be a man of scrupulous objectivity. So when he goes: "Yes, Y is a delightful fellow, whose writing has a great deal of superficial charm, but are we really sure his jottings carry quite the weight for the new £10m Jeffrey Archer God Emperor of Global Literature Prize?" his fellow panellists will sit up and take notice.
That's X's view and, of course, I totally see where he's coming from. When I think of my all-time favourite plotlines from books and films, they all seem to involve terrible cosmic wrongs being righted in spectacular and deeply satisfying fashion. It's why, when I was younger, my favourite Shakespeare play wasn't any of his good ones but the comically schlocky revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus.
The key scene is the one in which Titus (who, thanks to various cruel machinations has lost both a hand and all his sons) takes revenge on the evil Goth queen Tamora by persuading her to gobble up a pie containing her two murderous, rapist sons. In that moment is the essence of almost every US action movie plotline there has ever been: It's Payback Time.
Payback time isn't there in Elizabethan revenge tragedies and Hollywood thrillers to satisfy our innate, crazed bloodlust (that's just a bonus). It's there mainly to provide us with the pleasing sense of order and justice we feel is all too often missing from real life. No matter how dreadful the atrocities the baddies manage to commit during the course of the movie – killing the pretty new wife or the ageing cop buddy on the day of his retirement or the rookie recruit on his first patrol – we know it's all going to be OK in the end because vengeance will be meted out in spades.
Well, usually. Some film-makers have now got wise to this and like to confound our expectations with a bleak-as-hell dénouement in which justice is denied. I don't want to spoil No Country for Old Men for you, so look away now if you haven't seen it, but I've yet to meet anyone who wasn't both deeply disturbed and frankly rather pissed off and cheated by the fact that Javier Bardem's vile serial killer doesn't get wasted at the end. Yeah, OK, it's novel. But it's also plain wrong and it has you leaving the cinema with a nasty taste in your mouth.
So if we thirst for revenge in our books, plays and films, why do I have reservations about its application in real life? Observation and personal experience, mainly. I know, for example, that when I last took executive action against someone who'd dissed one of my books – he was introduced to me at a party and I abused him, turned and ignored him – I didn't feel like a bold avenger of wrongs, only thin-skinned and mean-spirited.
Nor have I noticed other people being particularly edified by acts of vengeance. Remember the story about that wronged wife who cut all those holes in every one of her unfaithful husband's tailor-made suits? Maybe I'm biased because I'm a man, but it didn't make me think: "Oh dear. Poor woman." I thought: "Bunny boiler."
And what about the appalling story last month about the engagement party in south-east Turkey, 44 of whom – including the prospective bride and groom and several children – were gunned down in a blood feud? Or the dreadful retaliations that took place in countries that had been occupied during the Second World War, the collaborators who were lynched, the women who had their hair brutally shaved in the streets for having slept with the enemy (when often this was a desperate measure they'd adopted to keep their families fed)? As Francis Bacon put it: "In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior."
For the most shining example of the latter, consider Nelson Mandela. As a politician he was no great shakes, but it didn't matter, for he had already committed perhaps the single most important act in his nation's history, rescuing his country from bloodshed and inspiring the world: he forgave his enemies.
But for those of us who lack the Mandela spirit, how are we to satisfy our bloodlust and burning need for justice without ending up looking just as bad as the person who wronged us? It's a tough one, but there is a practical alternative. I got it from a rather brilliant lifestyle coach I know called Steve Wichett, who has found it especially useful when treating obsessive compulsives and sociopaths.
First, he stresses, it's absolutely essential to get the bitterness out of your system: "Resenting someone is like drinking poison yourself and hoping they die." But actually punishing them often makes you feel worse. So, the way you deal with it is this: in your imagination you construct a form of vengeance every bit as dire and elaborate as that enacted by Titus Andronicus or my friend X, adding all the necessary swear words, sound effects, gougings and weaponry. Then, once you have relished your revenge in all its full hideousness, you let the feeling go and forget all about it.
Maybe that's what Hazel Blears and James Purnell should have done: written the letters, then chucked them in the bin. All the fun with none of the cold salmon aftertaste.Reuse content