Terence Blacker: Punch someone ­ it's an easy badge of authenticity

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The Independent Online

It is a matter of some regret that, in all my years as an adult, I have never managed to punch anyone in the face. I have been punched ­ a vicious jab to the solar plexus, delivered with some justification and force by a female friend for reasons that are outside the scope of this article.

It is a matter of some regret that, in all my years as an adult, I have never managed to punch anyone in the face. I have been punched ­ a vicious jab to the solar plexus, delivered with some justification and force by a female friend for reasons that are outside the scope of this article.

I have also been in quite a serious fight, but since my opponent, an emotionally dysfunctional would-be writer, broke all the rules of manly conflict by grabbing my hair and whirling me round like a helicopter blade, I was unable to land a blow.

Yet the training was there. Compulsory boxing was part of my education from the age of seven, but, even in an environment where hitting was a favoured form of communication, sometimes even among the children, I failed to develop the basic skills.

I can recall only one appearance in the ring ­ an end-of-term event in front of the whole school, in which I was drawn against a tricky southpaw called Dobson. At the end of the three-round contest, the PT master, unaffectionately known as the Sergeant-Major, refused to declare a winner, on the grounds that not a single punch had been landed during the fight. It was the most disgraceful thing he had ever seen, Sarge said.

Maybe he was right. Perhaps you are never quite complete as a man until you have smacked someone in the mouth. No one, least of all today, will actually come out and commend hitting people as a way of getting on, but the evidence in favour of occasional, selective violence is all around us, and will soon become gloriously clear to this week's hard man, John "Slugger" Prescott, and his advisers.

For the world loves a puncher. There is no sportsman more revered than Muhammad Ali. Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno are secure in the pantheon of honest, gawd-bless-'em Englishmen, and, more surprisingly, Chris Eubank seems about to join them.

Outside the ring, few public figures have found that the occasional spat does them any harm. Norman Mailer caught critical flak when, in his 1959 essay The White Negro, he argued that individual violence is an acceptable expression of outrage against the oppression of the state, and a few years later lived his message.

Enraged by a review by Gore Vidal that conflated him with Henry Miller and Charles Manson as "Miller-Mailer-Manson man", representing a type of violent, misogynous American male, he head-butted his fellow author just before they appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. It was rumoured that this was a particularly vicious act since Vidal had just had a face-lift and the blow could have caused his features to collapse like a laundry bag that has had its cord cut, but the event seemed to add to both authors' reputations.

It is true that the world of writers is a tougher place than most politicians would recognise. When the novelist Richard Ford revealed that Raymond Carver had given him a much-loved Colt 45 as a testament to their friendship, it seemed a more touching and writerly gesture than handing over, say, a fountain pen. And when Ford used the same pistol to shoot a hole in one of Alice Hoffman's novels before mailing it to her, in response to a bad review she had given him, that, too, had a certain rough integrity to it.

Violence is such an easily acquired badge of personal authenticity that it is surprising that more publishers, PR agents and political advisers do not urge their charges, just now and then, to let their fists do the talking.

In fact, the scuffle involving the Deputy Prime Minister and a close-range egg-chucker is such a perfect response to complaints that New Labour lacks passion and humanity, that it might almost have been stage-managed by the famous Millbank spinners. But they wouldn't do that, surely. Would they?

terblacker@aol.com

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