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The Oldie's Town Mouse Tom Hodgkinson on John McVicar’s advice on fights? Run away

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Apr 17, 2024

Cartoon by Robert Thompson

In 1966, the lead singer of The Lovin’ Spoonful, reported that when summer hit the city, the back of his neck would get ‘dirty and gritty’. All around him, he said, people were not only ‘half-dead’ but also ‘hotter than a match-head’.

Yes, when it’s in summer in the city, the thinking goes, temperatures rise, car horns blare, fuses shorten, heads get hot, we start fuming and bubbling and we might even boil over.

The Spoonful’s songwriter Mark Sebastian grew up in New York: ‘My parents had an apartment on Washington Square West.

‘We were 15 stories up and my window looked directly out onto the Empire State Building, almost nose-to-nose. But when the summer came, it was horrific! You’d pray that a breeze might blow from one window to another. I’ve had a lifelong sensitivity to heat ever since.’

Here in Blighty, we’re less likely than our Transatlantic cousins to blow our tops when the going gets tough – more likely to say, ‘Sorry, mate,’ and carry on.

As a mouse, I do avoid the heat when I can. I would far prefer to scamper back to my nest than stand up for myself.

You wouldn’t take on Roger Federer in a game of tennis or Gary Kasparov in chess. Why think you can take on a psycho in the park?

I might allow myself a mumbled threat as I retreat, as long as I’m pretty sure my enemy cannot hear me.

‘You silly, silly man!’ I squeak. And then, later, I fume quietly in tranquillity and indulge in fantasies of revenge.

Yes, we Brits are passive aggressive. And we’re criticised for it. But does being aggressive get you anywhere? Surely there’s a lot be said for being passive.

It’s about survival: the armed robber turned author John McVicar once told me the wisest course of action when confronted by a violent man is to run away. The violent man is better at violence than you. You will not win a fight – so beat a hasty retreat.

All motorists in London fear an altercation with Jeremy Vine, the radio DJ and possibly slightly self-righteous cyclist. Vine appears to video everyone he sees while zipping around London.

In the summer of 2016, he filmed a motorist shouting at him. I thought the motorist might have had a point. Vine was being a bit annoying – actually quite aggressive – and she lost her temper. The courts did not see her point of view, and the poor woman got nine months for ‘threatening or abusive behaviour’.

Clearly she would have been better off had she kept her mouth shut.

Vine later said he regretted the whole affair and if something similar happened again, he would just quietly walk away.

‘The level of frustration and fear and anger and loathing that goes on behind the wheel of an ordinary car is just unbelievable,’ he said, having learned his lesson that fighting on the streets is a lose-lose game.

Having said this, Vine recently told a Bentley driver that he was ‘quite a dangerous driver’. The driver said, ‘My name’s Paul and you’re a d**k.’

We should thank God that neither Vine nor either of his opponents had a gun. An American friend tells the sad tale of an altercation he saw.

‘A couple years ago, I witnessed a road-rage incident outside my house, where a big, thuggish-looking guy got out of his SUV to assault an old man in a Mini. The old man pulled out a gun and shot the thug! There is now a a crucifix with flowers at the spot where the younger man died.’

Better also not to succumb to train rage or plane rage, either. The rage is often caused by delays. I’ve seen many humans stomping about, fussing and fuming, even shouting at staff, as if their aggression will somehow reverse the delay.

Better to be as the mouse, and quietly wait – or retreat to a little hole, where you can nibble away unobserved, and enjoy being in the moment.

It’s well known that Robert Burns felt sorry for us mice:

‘Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!’

It’s less well known that, later in the poem, he concedes that the mouse’s strategy of being suddenly startled by events may not be such a bad one. At least the mouse is not consumed by senseless worry and regret:

‘Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see, I guess an’ fear!’

So don’t worry, my fellow mice – but do passively walk away from all aggressive cats.