Grudges make the world go around, according to Sophie Hannah. They are ‘an important and fascinating part of human experience’, which ought to be ‘protective, life-enhancing and fun’. I think this overstates the case somewhat, as I can’t see any pleasurableness, though I am aware that my own ability to harbour resentments is possibly pathological and blood-soaked.
The first thing I do each day is scan the obituary pages to see if any enemy has met with a fatal accident — and I fully understand Auden’s line about hearing with satisfaction, much later in life, of ‘the death by cancer of a once hated school master’. Not that being dead lets anyone off the hook. I still seethe about the little character actor who, though a paedophile known to the authorities, hired lawyers to persuade a judge that this was an inadmissible irrelevance, and that he could still sue me for libel to protect his reputation. (Oh well, since you ask — it was Graham Stark, the judge was the late Michael Davies, and what was defamatory was that I’d said Stark was ‘the only man in London with a flat up Peter Sellers’s arse’.)
Sellers, by the way, kept what he called a Shit List, revised daily — names of the producers, directors and film reviewers who he’d deemed disobliging. My own catalogue would include a quite well-known if mediocre novelist, a total sponger, who over-meticulously divides up restaurant bills; a woman journalist who is as vile in person as she is in print (quite a feat); a minor television personality who was all over me like a cheap suit when he thought I’d be famous, and then dropped me when I wasn’t; the Welsh language mob who have turned my beloved South Wales into a phoney foreign country; and any number of off-hand shop assistants, nurses, waitresses, barmen and everyone involved with no-frills budget airlines. Though these people are there to serve the public, more often than not they are neglectful and plain rude on an hourly basis, their attitude being to sod the public.
The excellence of Hannah’s compendium of bones to pick is that she’d allow us to feel, like Bellow’s Herzog, that ‘If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me’ — and bearing grudges shouldn’t make us feel that we are cracked: they should give our confidence a boost, they remind us we are alive and alert, our senses still attuned. Were we to eliminate conflict and huffs from our lives, we’d eliminate moral judgment. If someone is insulting, it’s a bit pathetic to ‘slap a smiley sticker over the truth of the experience’, as this would be ‘to deny the truth of the human condition, which is that we are social animals’.
And being social animals, this is where the trouble starts. I find socialising a total pain — from publishers’ launch parties, where everyone is boasting, to queues in the Post Office, where I am behind imbecile old ladies. Once two or more people are gathered together there’ll be fundamental power struggles, jostling, upmanship, competition, conflict and stress. Families are always falling out, schooldays are warfare, office life is nothing but bullying and coercion, marriage is hell, and children are ungrateful.
Generally speaking, as Hannah says, few people in this life ever act selflessly and in good faith. More irritating still are those (left-wing vegans keen on welcoming refugees, usually) who go about making sure you are ‘absolutely certain’ that they are a ‘Very Good Person’: virtue signalling, it’s now called, though it looks like old-fashioned smugness to me.
This book gaily argues that it is perfectly in order to be miffed about mothers-in-law buying a coat they know you wanted, and then not wearing it. Hannah also holds grudges about ex-friends who make a boring fuss of their pets; people who make ill-judged jokes that create an embarrassed silence; those who offer only cursory thanks when you’ve put yourself out for them; inconsiderate colleagues; tactlessness that is later excused because the guilty party ‘was an unfortunate alcoholic whose wife had recently died’; and brides and grooms who expect expensive presents but don’t invite you to the whole of the wedding. I myself went to a posh wedding last month, and those drifting in for the evening reception looked daggers at me. ‘Have you been here all day?’ I was asked accusingly.
Not to take umbrage is to be in a state of denial, maintains Hannah. It would not be entirely sane to say, except sarcastically, ‘It’s great that my sister shagged my husband! No one, save Our Lord, is really capable, deep down, of fully forgiving and forgetting, allowing insults and malice to roll off them ‘like raindrops off the waxed bonnet of a car’, a brilliant phrase. Hannah thus suggests we each keep a kind of ‘Grudge Cabinet’, in which we log our grievances and give ourselves booster shots from time to time, remembering old hurts, to see if we have acquired detachment. This is Sellers’s Shit List by another name.
Nevertheless, this is also where I began to find How to Hold a Grudge confusing. Is it a self-help book, or a parody of a self-help book? I can never tell with this genre at the best of times. I thought Jordan Peterson and Matt Haig’s things were spoofs, as their publications do not seem to have been written, as I understand the process of writing. They are like blogs or rants, bullet points and gobbledegook, pouring forth as a tide of numinous sewage. Does it go back to Kahlil Gibran or Patience Strong — readers grabbing anything that promises to cheer them up? Sophie Hannah is culpable of some of this cod enlightenment, especially when she says things like ‘a sunflower isn’t a grudge, and neither is a tortoise’. Can anyone not on drugs follow what that may mean?