A is for Anger: Michael Holroyd on Stephen Potter

Michael Holroyd

Filed under: Non-fiction

Michael Holroyd on why Stephen Potter's 'Gamemanship' is a better guide to life than 'Mein Kampf'.

Many people these days seem to enjoy losing their tempers. A generation ago, when I was a child growing up in wartime and during the immediate post-war years, anger was quite out of fashion. Losing one’s temper was considered to be much the same as losing one’s wits. The critic Hugh Kingsmill caught the spirit of the age when he wrote: ‘To be angry is to be wrong.’ In his opinion anger used up a fraction of the truth and pretended it was the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In short: it was a lie.
The angriest man we knew had been Adolf Hitler who was obviously mad and whose speeches, bits and pieces of which made our wireless sets tremble and were sometimes hurled at us in cinemas during the Pathe News, sounded as if he were permanently consumed with rage. Even if we did not understand what he was saying, it was impossible not to feel the hypnotic energy of the man. He was, in the words of the diarist Richard Pennington, ‘one of the greatest orators of the world’.

Hitler remains a figure of curious fascination in our own age of anger – like the venomous hero of a cautionary tale. But for those of us who witnessed the synchronised saluting of his Nazi audiences there is something disturbing about the spectacle of segregated chanting and flag¬waving among football crowds and the religious mantras, so didactic and immature, we see on television.

It seemed to me in the 1940s and early 1950s that there could never be another international war during my lifetime. But humankind, it seems, cannot bear very much quietude, and anger thrives in the doldrums of peace. In our post-John-Osborne world, this is increasingly reflected in the language we use. Words such as ‘aggressive’, which was wholly pejorative when I was young, are now employed in favourable contexts – such as ‘an aggressive marketing policy’. Even in cricket the batsman, allegedly on feminist principles, has been transformed into a ‘batter’ – a far more hostile word.

I remember years ago trying to struggle through Mein Kampf later turned to a rather lighter work, Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship, which showed us all how to get what we wanted without actual hostility.

After that I went a stage further, seeking to win without actually appearing to take part in anything. Instead of arming myself for battle, I attempted to disarm my opponent, insisting that there was no contest between us. I devised my own method of bullying which made use of a devastating armoury of apologies and a quite sickening smoke-screen of gratitude.

According to a graphologist, my handwriting suggests an amiable and good-natured fellow in whom there lurks a belligerent devil. It must be this that makes my good manners so frightening.

For example, when an intemperate motorist behind me starts hooting, I abruptly stop my car (so close to him that he cannot move), get
out and thank him for drawing my attention to something that must be amiss with the rear bodywork or lights. I then hold him there immobile as I begin to inspect the boot and bumpers, and am gratified to see how his blood pressure visibly rises as the volume of my amiability thickens around him.

Perhaps the most striking success of my methods came a long time ago at a tennis match in the United States against – or rather with – a very young John McEnroe. It is a story that, in my natural modesty, I have never told anyone. I was merely an average player but fortunately McEnroe was less than half my age – a junior with the fiery temperament of a future champion. He won the first set before I was able to perfect my strategy. Then I began. When he put a ball into the net I deluged him with sympathy. When he served an ace I bombarded him with praise. On the other hand, when I occasionally hit a winner I would advance to the net and explain at some length that it had been a fluke and quite unintentional, Balls of his that were obviously out I insisted were in. It was as if he had an opponent on court and could not gather the outrage and indignation that were his supreme sources of energy. It was poignant to see how he wilted, his genius unravelling, all passion gone. I remember looking at his crumpled figure as I served for the match. I stretched up, stretched and…suddenly woke from my dream. Yet it was, I maintain, a prophetic vision – which is why, with all I modesty, mention it.

Boredom and fear are the two most dangerous challenges to my polite philosophy. At No 10 Downing Street where, shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair gave a party for actors, pop stars and other ‘celebrities’ in the arts, r found myself in a corner with an official from the Customs and Excise Office, Under the impression that I was a composer, he gave me a detailed description of a five-act opera he wished to see performed round the succulent subject of VAT, ‘Fascinating!’ I cried. But he did not need my encouragement and resented interruptions. Here was an occasion where, imprisoned by the endless tedium of his tax initiatives, an outburst of Hitlerian rage might have served me better. And this was not a dream.

My methods have been put to their severest test over the past year when I have been ill. Nevertheless I was able to apologise for the nausea I felt during my chemo-therapy treatment, and the infections and side-effects I experienced after my radiotherapy. At no time did I indignantly raise my voice or threaten anyone with lawyers. But I did take to wearing a bright red Wormwood Scrubs sweat shirt in the hospital. As I happily
joked with everyone and thanked the nurses who were stabbing me with needles, I noticed that one or two of them were unsettled by this brilliant subtext.

I cannot say how I performed under the anaesthetic and I cannot remember exactly what lay behind my incoherence while I was in the high dependency unit (though I had the notion that I was Samuel Pepys undergoing what Clare Tomalin calls the ‘hideously unpleasant procedure’ of having a stone removed from his bladder). I know that for two or three days I could not make even my poor wife understand the noises I was making – which suggests that they sounded rather less than amiable.

Losing the will to take up my bed and walk, I lay inert as the nurses vainly tried to coax me forth. At last one of them promised me a very special treat – she would not tell me what it was. All I had to do was to allow myself to be led a few steps down the corridor. I was gently yanked off my bed, had my feet placed on the floor and, feeling rather dizzy after twelve days without food, I shuffled along. Over the hundred yards we travelled I must surely have set some record. Then we halted in front of a door. ‘This is it,’ my nurse said. ‘This is where I looked after George Best.’ We stood there for a minute in silence. Suddenly I felt a curious sensation in my chest and heard an odd sound coming from my mouth. I regret to say that I was laughing. My special treat had worked. I almost hurried back along the corridor.

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Sir Michael Holroyd 1968