Terry versus Bridge, Brown versus Blair again ... What can we learn from these spats about the art of holding a grudge?

For anyone who enjoys seeing bitterness and bile traded in public, who likes the glint and gleam of a metaphorical knife being wielded, the past week has been a toxic treat. The news in Britain has been packed with reported spats, played out in the sporting arena (Wayne Bridge versus John Terry), the domestic arena (Ashley Cole versus his mother-in-law), and the political arena (the Brown versus Blair debacle suddenly revived like a saggy, sweating Frankenstein's monster). Toys have been thrown from prams. Mud has been slung. And we have been given an object lesson in the delicate art of grudge-holding.

There are those who see a grudge as a poison, who believe you should never harbour resentment against anyone at all. These people are paragons of virtue who are kidding themselves — I disagree with them entirely. If someone has, say, screamed at you suddenly, shockingly, for no reason at all, and then failed to a) apologise or b) change their behaviour so thoroughly that this amounts to a tacit apology, you'd be misguided not to file the experience away for future reference. To forget it entirely is to attach a prominent “kick me” sign to your back.

But how should that grudge proceed? Let's look at the evidence we've accrued this past week. One lesson seems to be that, for anyone who intends to air a grudge, it would first be sensible to consider how others might respond. Are people going to sympathise with you or your opponent? When “friends” of footballer Ashley Cole alleged that he partly blamed his mother-in-law for the breakdown of his marriage, they presumably thought they were doing him a favour, putting his side forward. But if this grudge actually does exist — if Cole really believes that the intimacy between him and his wife Cheryl died down after her mother moved into their house — it would have been much cooler to keep it under wraps. When you have been accused of cheating on your wife repeatedly, blaming anyone else invites hysterical laughter from your enemies and more attacks.

Another approach that seems ill—advised is the ranting, raving, shouting, finger-waving showdown. See Gordon Brown. In Andrew Rawnsley's new book, The End of the Party, it is suggested that in one confrontation, Brown shouted more than once at Tony Blair, “You ruined my life.” (Downing Street is denying many of the claims in the book.) Again, there's a question of coolness. Losing your temper with the object of your grudge means they immediately have the upper hand. Losing your temper to the extent depicted by Rawnsley means that while beads of sweat roil across your brow, your enemy is essentially sitting in a high—backed swivel chair, stroking a white Persian cat, and cracking a satisfied half—smile. If Brown — or indeed any of us — finds ourselves in this position, we need to ask one question that rarely seems apt, but is perfectly placed in this instance. What would Peter Mandelson do? Meanwhile, the person who seems to have emerged from their grudge match most admirably this week is the footballer Wayne Bridge. The audience's breath was bated when, this weekend, Bridge had to play against John Terry — once his best friend, before allegations of an affair with Bridge's ex—girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel. Then, just before the match began, Bridge swept past Terry's outstretched palm, snubbing the customary handshake, and went on to help his team secure a 4-2 victory. The score card seemed clear. All points to Bridge.

But I'm not so sure. Two days before that match, Bridge announced he was removing himself from contention for the England side — implying that he couldn't bear to play with Terry. Fine, if that's how he feels, but it's hardly how you want a grudge to play out. After all, Bridge has now scuppered his own chances of England glory this summer (winning the World Cup is a long shot, I realise, but would obviously be the pinnacle of any footballer's career). And then there's the question of where he goes from here. How long does he snub Terry in public? At what stage will this start seeming petty and pointless rather than coolly combative? Closing down communication is a perfectly good way forward if you never have to see the object of your grudge again. But if you're going to bump into them regularly, it's a disaster. It takes a real effort to ignore someone completely, and after a while your glowering, pouting avoidance will only start to look like startle-eyed strangeness. At which stage, you have two choices. Continue with the silent treatment, and look ridiculous. Or back down — and look ridiculous.

Surely the best way to hold a grudge is in a silent, secret, superior fashion, giving nothing away, and allowing the slight not to fester but to glow warmly. You know that you're safe on the moral high ground, and can relax in the knowledge that the object of your grudge has no idea of your feelings. Meanwhile, in quiet moments, you can construct happy fantasies of how it might all come to fruition — some sunny, superlative occasion when you're able to confront them with panache and a perfectly witty put-down — a showdown that will be delicious if it does ever come to pass, but probably never will. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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