Terence Blacker: Our sneaking regard for life's scrappers

For some people, great fights seem to snag in the brain like great sex

Reporting the fracas, newspapers used the word "punch-up" - proof, if it were ever needed, of the sheltered life that most parliamentary correspondents lead. Were there cut lips, black eyes, broken teeth on the floor? By the standards of the outside world, this was a tea-party tiff.

On the other hand, because the generally accepted view is that the people's representatives in the mother of parliaments should be able to resolve their differences without violence, the scrap may have an effect on the participants' political careers. A barney in the lobby is likely to play rather more significantly among an MP's constituents than a thoughtful contribution from the backbenches to the debate on work and pensions. Back in Medway and Lewisham, voters will be viewing their men in a slightly different light. Jabbing Jim and Bruiser Bob will either be seen as silly, emotionally incontinent men who are too old for a pathetic playground fight, or as red-blooded, passionate men who understand that an MP has to do what an MP has to do, and that sometimes you have to let your fists do the talking.

We all know which way it will go. The world loves a scrapper. Etiquette and convention may demand an appropriate degree of pursed-lip disapproval of public fighting, but only in certain contexts. When footballers lose their temper and punch one another during a game, the next day's sports pages will dutifully report "scenes that bring shame upon the game"; inexplicably, similar behaviour on a rugby pitch will be seen as nothing worse than an expression of manly commitment and passion.

Those scandalous weekend binge-drinkers are letting down the nation when they fight drunkenly outside pubs, but when novelists attack (rather a good idea for reality TV), their sales and profile are helped no end. Norman Mailer's non-verbal relationship with Gore Vidal, which went from a head-butting before The Dick Cavett Show to a spot of wine-throwing and floor-grappling at a dinner party, enhanced his already formidable reputation as a literary bruiser.

More recently, the American writer Stanley Crouch spotted the brutalist critic Dale Peck at a restaurant and gave him what is technically known as "a bitch-slap". Crouch later boasted to the press: "Just because I write, doesn't mean I can't also fight."

It is an odd fact, but in public life violence almost always pays. John Prescott's famous lunge at a voter proved that, in a political world dominated by bloodless technocrats, here was a man who, when provoked, would let his fists do the talking. Some of those in the ringside seats may have argued that true character involves rising above the temptation to biff and bash, just as courage can be more genuine when it is quiet and internal. But, in their hearts, most people will have recognised that, simply by losing his temper, Prescott proved himself to be, in the old-fashioned phrase, a real man.

It is a great character divide, the capacity of one man to hit another, and I rather regret that on the whole I have remained on the side of the responsibly non-violent - or the wusses, as we should probably be known. There have been squaring-up moments, even eye-to-eye moments but, since my early twenties, the sheer absurdity of being involved in a fight, the embarrassing indignity of it, has proved stronger than rage.

Physical aggression, one suspects, is addictive. For some people, great fights seem to snag in the brain like great sex. The novelist Richard Ford has talked in interviews about having once had a row with a neighbour in America. It was an embarrassing thing to happen, he said - two grown men rolling around in the dust, fists flailing. Yet the fact is, he remembered it and talked about it publicly. I would lay money that, as he told the story, he was smiling.

It is surely not a coincidence that successful men who have occasionally allowed themselves to be physically aggressive in their dealings with other men, have rarely had cause to regret it. Actors from Richard Harris and Oliver Reed to Russell Crowe and Sean Penn have used it to their advantage. The very footballers whose on-pitch behaviour has caused hacks in the press box to hyperventilate - Graeme Souness, Vinnie Jones, Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane - have gone on to significant success later, in the game or out of it.

As it happens, the scuffling backbenchers are not the first politicians to be involved in a bit of argy-bargy in recent weeks. Ten days ago, another pair of MPs were grappling with one another in the studios of TalkSport, of all places. As politics becomes more interesting, we can expect more wonderful, shameful, violent scenes in the months to come.

terblacker@aol.com

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