I’m still Mr Angry
The famously irascible novelist Irvine Welsh has rules about rage. Here, in typically forthright language, he tells how to get furious – and survive
Monday May 19, 2008
It’s been a long and occasionally painful life lesson, but I’ve learned that rage, like fear, is an emotion best denied public expression. I now seldom go in for that sort of outburst unless it’s absolutely essential. I believe in the truth of the old maxim: losing the rag usually means losing. In my youth, I recall several half-arsed fights spent rolling around in gutters with unremarkable strangers over some real or imagined petty slight that I’d either suffered or issued. With violence, like other things, you tend to find your own level, and I was a crap fighter who usually fought other crap fighters. Nonetheless, there’s something very demeaning about it. And it’s never a good idea to give away what makes you angry. It only encourages people to wind you up.
I’ve generally ceased challenging those who make racist remarks in pubs as I’ve realised that they tend to be simpletons. Most real racists (those with fascistic or supremacist beliefs) now have more sense than to do monkey chants or verbally abuse black footballers – at least in the UK. This is now solely the preserve of educationally subnormal half-wits, desperate for some sort of reaction. It’s better to either ignore them or laugh in a way that lets them know that they are the fitter target for derision.It’s interpersonal rage when the anger you have for some sort of injustice or state of affairs, piece of music or art (there’s always something to be enraged about) is manifested on a tangible human target. It needn’t be the obvious ones. If you’re anti-racist, the mealy-mouthed politician who babbles on with ceaseless insincerity about “multiculturalism” may just get your goat more than the thick bloater who makes a knee-jerk, bigoted remark. Similarly, if you detest global poverty, your anger might be directed at the self-sanctifying millionaire pop star preaching at you, before the silent, corporate Wasp-like businessman.
It seems strange that something as spontaneous and explosive as interpersonal rage should have rules, but it does. Here are some of mine.
Do not manufacture passions or hatreds
Rage hates a phoney – that’s why we detest so many professional pundits. We know that they live comfortable lives and don’t mean it. So be genuinely angry. Don’t let peer pressure or alcohol queer the pitch. There’s nothing worse than kicking off at somebody or something, then running out of steam. You’ll look like a real prick. I recall one journalist who slagged me off in print, then later fled in terror from a crowded room when I appeared. I didn’t know who he was and hadn’t even seen the abusive piece.
No large hammers for small nuts
Related to this, if the amount of rage you express is inappropriate or has the wrong target, then it will probably have unforeseen consequences. For example, if you lose your head and start screaming at a traffic warden, you may justify it as venting your anger against stupid rules, governments or the system. Other people in the street may only see a big, wealthy, arrogant bastard bullying somebody trying to do a difficult job for modest rewards.
Have something to back it up
Rage can lead to all sorts of dangerous places. Are you man/woman/crazy/stupid enough to go to them?
Have an exit strategy
You can’t change the person in front of you, and prolonging things means you (or they) are only going to get angrier and crazier.
After you’ve said your piece and vented your spleen, it might be time to walk away. Or run away, if you work for a certain newspaper.
If you must make contact with somebody, strike them rather than manhandle them
Otherwise, you end up rolling around in the street. One solid left jab or a headbutt forces the other party to consider a response. Most people will just go into shock at this point and that’s it over. The ones who don’t, well, see rule three above. When you wake up in hospital you’ll have plenty of time to deliberate about the increasing number of fellow citizens who do martial-arts training or carry weapons. So I’m not recommending violence, just stating that it’s a response to rage. But remember that this applies to others as well as yourself.
Rules, of course, will be broken. I recently had a wee confrontation in Miami Beach. Hands-up time: I detest cyclists who use the pavement. Obviously, I understand how dangerous the roads are in medieval UK cities, and if people are respectful I’ll tolerate it. But I will cheerfully admit to getting fucking heart-sick at (usually stupid, spoiled, rich) cunts who cycle down the sidewalks in the USA when America is all big, straight roads and careful drivers. Not only are the poncey wankers too shit-scared to drive on the road, they often expect you to get out of the way.
A few weeks ago some wankstain pedalled towards me at speed, ringing his stupid wee bell. This had happened before but this time I wasn’t for standing aside. In fact, my intent was to step back at the last minute, and lash out with the anticipation of separating him from his bike. Fortunately for us both, he was as cowardly in interpersonal encounters as he was in the face of the traffic and braked and swerved at the last minute, almost coming off over the handlebars. As I smiled in satisfied vindication, he regarded me in a bemused and irate manner. I cheerfully told him that if he’d made any contact with me I’d have dragged both him and his crappy fucking bike into the traffic. He retorted that I had anger management issues – they actually say things like that in Miami Beach, which kind of wants to be in California. Nonsense.
Nevertheless, and this is another reason why the expression of public, interpersonal rage is dodgy, I felt guilt creep in. The guy was obviously scared. He wasn’t the demon I had made him out to be, just a stupid youngish chap caught up in his own thoughts and selfishness. He’d go home feeling crap, debased, and a little humiliated. I fought the urge to patronise him with some dreadful speech about how that might make him think twice before cycling on the sidewalk. Further up the road, it struck me that he could have had a gun.
But I couldn’t help lose the plot, as this incident ticked all the boxes. Conceptual – riding on the pavement is plain wrong.
Practical – it’s dangerous, and should not be a hazard pedestrians face. The arrogance of the other party – ringing the bell, expecting me to stand aside. Another factor, however, was that I considered this guy to be patently confrontable, and let’s be honest, we make the judgment about the person as much as the situation. A harder-looking bastard, I would have thought twice. And that’s the real shame of it all; we like to think we treat everybody the same and that our rage is righteous and not about bullying, but that’s just the lie we tell ourselves to make us feel better.
So in the long-run, after the buzz of “putting somebody in their place” or “sticking up for myself” had worn down, it was an unsatisfying way of dealing with the situation. A few days later, I read about some local people who were gathering signatures for a petition on this issue, to present to the mayor’s office and the police department. So that’s the way forward: if things make you angry, make paperwork.
Would I do it again? Of course, the next time some muppet comes pedalling down a pavement expecting me to get out of his way. And that’s the problem with rage, it’s seldom a good idea, but often seems pretty damn excellent.
· Irvine Welsh’s latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, is published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage. His new novel, Crime, will be published in July. This article appeared in the Rage issue of quarterly arts journal the Drawbridge (thedrawbridge.org.uk)
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Isn’t anger critical to Irvine Welsh’s work? blogs.guardian.co.uk/arts