Recently I realised, (lamentably slowly, it would appear) that some woman of my peripheral acquaintance had taken unreasonable exception to some passing remark of mine.    For some time,  I saw in retrospect, she had been trying to entice me into a conversational minefield where she would deliver a pre-planned put down for whatever triviality had bothered her.

Not having intended to wound in the first place, nor, I have to admit being very interested in either her or her refined sensibilities, I had unfortunately failed to react at all to the conversational sign-posts, until eventually the poor woman in frustration at my not having the common decency to give her the platform to perform her (rehearsed) speech, felt obliged to deliver it out of the blue.    This further injustice of mine of course robbed it of whatever power she may have supposed it held, but the peculiarity of its inappropriate placing made me – at last – pay attention and see what was happening.

I reflected that she must consider me very stupid that I had failed to respond to her very obvious signals and attempts to annoy me, but it had simply never occurred to me that she would be so bold.    I had just interpreted her eccentricities of conversation as owing to to her being an uneducated, charmless, mannerless oaf.

Firstly, if you have to pre-prepare a verbal attack – if you cannot kick your opponent in the by-going with no previous thought whatsoever;  if the stones you’re going to throw don’t leap unbidden to your hand, then this is a field of combat where you most decidedly should not enter.    There are some people so skilled in verbal combat – Ian Hislop for one, and Alex Salmond for another – that any sensible person would recognise the folly of taking them on under any circumstances.    Styles vary – Hislop always looks slightly incredulous that anyone would be so stupid, whereas Salmond’s bland face rarely loses its potato like calm.   Alan Johnson has a good-natured, man of the people approachableness, but he’s a rapier wielding assassin, and if you blink you miss the flash of steel and wonder wny his opponent is bleeding while Johnson still exudes working class charm.    Michael Foot had a very long deceptive preamble and he reminded me of a knight lumbering up on an old horse in a jousting competiton, and you wondered as he thundered – no, chundered, along why his flashier opponent looked so anxious, until by some sleight of hand you’d somehow missed, the opponent was dead on the floor.   I’d be content just to sit at the feet of these warriors and admire their skill.   You see occasional fools on TV who don’t have this much wit, and clearly you don’t have to be on TV to be this stupid.

Secondly, once you realise someone is trying to annoy you and manoeuvre you into a quarrel, the game’s over.   They may as well clear off and try to ignite some other fire.    You’re never going to get annoyed if only for the perverse pleasure of watching them lose their temper long before you do.

And thirdly, by behaving as they do, they prove themselves so unworthy an opponent, so crass in their tactics, so impoverished in their strategy, that you’re not going to accept them for whatever duel they might propose in any case.   You have to maintain some standards, after all.

As for my original point?   The one that presumably offended in the first place?   If I could remember what it was, I’d stand by it!

About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.


  1. Sheena Murphy says:

    Yes, mud slinging is too easy. Verbal evisceration: now, there’s a gift. I admire your ability. Is it learned or innate, do you think?

    I’d love to deliver an ace serve, one that nobody could possibly return, but I always have last-minute qualms about hurting someone’s feelings. I don’t have the killer instinct (unfortunately), so I stay out of the battle, for the most part.

    I save all my true viciousness for people close to me, more’s the pity!

    • adhocannie says:

      Well, of course I’m going to deny all expertise in this field and say I was talking in abstract.

      But when you observe these masters of this art – they seem to be predominantly men though there are also women, but I can’t think of any in public life (Jo Brand would be good, I imagine; Margaret Mountfod another) (Interestingly, I do not think Mrs Thatcher was skilled in this field). I think the skill in verbal combat is an instinctive ability, obviously honed by effort as all innate skills are. I think the foundation of it is an ability to spot people’s areas of weakness and vulnerability, so without thought at the point of delivery, the areas to target are instinctively understood. Then you need to be able to think fast; and you need to have word skill. You also need to be tough (or unkind) enough to be prepared to deliver the blow. I think people who have this ability if they are to be good people, have to be in command of it; they cannot just fire off their deadly arrows in a fit of irritation because the damage inflicted will be out of all proportion. But I always find, for example, Ian Hislop’s incredulity at some fool having a go at him very amusing: you can see him thinking, am I hearing right; is he really so stupid as to challenge me, and then he shoulders his weapon and that’s the end of that.

      But the killer reply can also be made more slowly: see Eamon de Valera’s reply to Churchill’s complaints about Ireland’s neutrality in the Second World War on Irish Radio 1945 (on You-tube in his own voice). It is very mild in tone, (considering) but it is unanswerable, and no reply was made.

      Exponents of this art should practice restraint and kindness and treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated.

  2. what a delight reading your profile and your blog! I relate! we think the same way. I love your flow with words and how you express yourself. *adds to blogs to follow*. thanks. Reina.x

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