Matt Chorley: Rule No. 1 - Never lose it with hecklers

The PM needs jokes, says The Independent on Sunday's classroom clown

Related Topics

It was when the English teacher put a cardboard box over my head that it became obvious things had gone too far. As I do today, my 13-year-old self delighted in being the centre of attention. Unable to ignore my distracting (and obviously indefensible) behaviour, she had lost control and reacted.

This is where David Cameron went wrong, when last week he snapped and reacted to the taunts of Ed Balls, labelling the Shadow Chancellor a "muttering idiot". As the PM gave his trademark smirk to his guffawing backbenchers behind him, George Osborne almost exploded in delight. But the most telling reaction came from Balls himself. He gave Cameron a thumbs-up: Thanks, chump: I win.

Balls's trick is to spend the entire 30 minutes of Prime Minister's Questions telling Cameron to "calm down", "drink some water" or repeating over and over again, with hand gestures, that the economy is flat-lining. The reason Osborne was so pleased with the reaction is that he too has to tolerate Balls's games. "It's Ed Miliband I feel sorry for," the Chancellor tells friends. "He has to put up with it all the time."

Call it heckling, goading, sledging – maybe, sometimes, just plain bullying – but having to deal with (and ignore) a barrage of abuse and attempts to distract is an occupational hazard for everyone from referees to comedians, cricketers to TV presenters. The victim must stand and take it or lose by default.

The expert heckler starts young. The classic classroom prank is non-verbal, and every teacher has a horror story involving a pupil who thinks it amusing to break wind in lessons. "It's always a boy. I have never known a girl to do it," says Hazel Bennett, a teacher for more than 35 years and author of The Ultimate Teachers' Handbook. "The way to handle it is to say nothing, do nothing, don't respond. And at the end of the lesson, keep them back and say you're going to ask their parents to change what they are eating."

You see, it's all about the witty riposte. Responding with anger is an admission of defeat. Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, lost his rag in October 2010 when anti-war protesters waved a "Bring troops home now" placard behind his live report on the Six O'clock News. After coming off air, he grabbed the sign and smashed it up. He later admitted: "I lost my temper and I regret that."

The relentless, repetitive rudeness of the expert sledger is something to behold. It must be funny, because that makes it even harder for the victim to react badly and risk being seen as someone who cannot take a joke. It is a lesson forgotten by the Scottish comic Dave Whitney when last summer he headbutted a heckler at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and also by the rugby referee in a Somerset league game in 2004 who walked off the pitch after 67 minutes because of "abuse from the touchline".

However, the masters of sporting sledging are to be found on the cricket field. Far from the genteel thwack of leather on willow or perfect Victoria sponge, it is brutal, and dates back decades. The best exponents are heroes in their own right, their names interchangeable but their jokes no less cutting. Australia's Rodney Marsh once remarked to England's Ian Botham: "So how's your wife and my kids?" Botham replied: "The wife's fine. The kids are retarded." But the easy ball came from Aussie paceman Glen McGrath, bowling to Zimbabwe's Eddo Brandes. "Why are you so fat?" McGrath asked. "Because every time I sleep with your wife," Brandes replied, "she gives me a biscuit."

Rude, yes, but brilliantly quick-witted, unlike Cameron. Ed Balls may be a mutterer, but he is no idiot. It was his taunts on the state of the economy that provoked Cameron, and, in the end, a double-dip recession is no laughing matter.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Organisational Change/ Transition Project Manager

£500 - £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Accountacy Tutor

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Randstad Education is looking...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Day In a Page

Read Next

August catch-up: dress to impress, words to use more often, and the end of the internet

John Rentoul
A group of primary school children learn about where babies come from  

Of course seven-year-olds should be taught ‘age appropriate’ sex education

Chloe Hamilton
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis