The time I didn’t head-butt someone

‘What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?’

They were out in the open at last and Gatsby was content.

‘He isn’t causing a row,’ Daisy looked desperately from one to the other. ‘You’re causing a row. Please have a little self-control.’

‘Self-control!’ repeated Tom incredulously. ‘I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out…’

I glanced at Daisy, who was staring terrified between Gatsby and her husband, and at Jordan, who had begun to balance an invisible but absorbing object on the tip of her chin. Then I turned back to Gatsby – and was startled at his expression. He looked – and this is said in all contempt for the babbled slander of his garden – as if he had ‘killed a man.’ For a moment the set of his face could be described in just that fantastic way.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

My girlfriend and I went to a Halloween party on Saturday night and as we were leaving I walked up to a man, saying nothing, and squared up to him. His face went from confusion, to realisation, and settled finally on indignation.

Losing his head and believing himself accused of a more heinous misdemeanour, he sounded like a little boy caught in flagrante delicto. He protested to his friends: “I didn’t know her boyfriend was there! I didn’t. Honestly, I didn’t!”

I immediately understood that my action was un peu too much and it was then my turn to be like a child who doesn’t want to be found out. So I handed him one of my two remaining beers and said that I had made a mountain out of a molehill. He took the beer, but didn’t pipe down. And so I thought the best way to act was to do nothing and wait.

If you are still with me, reader, and haven’t been offended by my display of literal gorilla tactics, I would like to reflect further on my action. What we have here is one man intervening as, or so he perceives, another man tried to chat up his girlfriend. And I have seen fights break out for much less than this.

There were, of course, many ways that this situation could have been handled differently: I could have spoken to my partner and explained how I was feeling; I could have kissed her passionately in front of the unlucky suitor; or I could have ignored it until we left and then quietly have mentioned it on the walk home. 

I am not a violent man. Had I been, the incident would have escalated. But I have grown up around violent people. At the age of eight, I was supposed to fight someone in the playground, but cowered under a table inside. At twelve, I was repeatedly and variously accosted for wearing Harry Potter glasses. During my teen years, I learnt how to recognise and avoid violence on nights out. And in my first week of Oxford, a fellow Northerner head-butted someone and knocked the guy’s two front teeth out.

As the quotations above show, self-control is a class issue: the ability to remain calm, even as another man is trying to make love to your wife is the sine qua non of old money.

Only, I am not from old money. And while I might be able to recognise a Cézanne from a Seurat, in moments of whiskey and pretentious chancers, my class flares up, like a swollen ankle.

So I hobbled home, leaning on my partner, and we dissected the events together: you can take the boy out of the North, but you can’t take the North out of the boy. 

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