Revelations that the Clintons keep a spreadsheet updated with everyone who has ever wronged them led us to ask writers and politicians whether they hold a grudge with the same conviction – and impressive organisational skills
If Hillary Clinton is still favourite to become the next president of the US, there may be a few worried Democrats who vote Republican in 2016. The Clintons have long memories, you see, and, according to a new book, they keep a spreadsheet listing everybody who has helped or betrayed them during their time in politics. The scale of the traitors' offences are said to be graded from one to seven, like a kind of Divine Comedy rewritten for Microsoft Excel. For instance, if the book is right, Hillary's election would be the end of the line for the secretary of state, John Kerry, who gets a place in the seventh circle of infamy for preferring Barack Obama.
Keeping a "shitlist", it must be said, is not associated with history's most lovable characters. Senator Joseph McCarthy made himself famous in 1950 by holding up what he claimed was a list of all the spies and communists then employed in the State Department. The list was never published in full, and McCarthy may well have been wrong anyway, but it helped to fuel the Red Scare, which ruined many careers. Richard Nixon was also discovered to have an "enemies list" in 1973. He may never have seen it personally, but it was drawn up by his aides with the express aim of trying to "use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies".
More recently, the Church of Scientology was reported to keep one. Indeed the concept of the "suppressive person" who sees enemies all around is, somewhat appropriately, written into the religion's demonology.
Just last year the National Rifle Association, for reasons that are hard to fathom, even published an extremely detailed list of its opponents, including many obvious names, such as Michael Moore, along with quite a large number of surprises, such as the ever-villainous Dick Van Dyke.
Keeping a shitlist may not add warmth to one's reputation, in short, but it sure sends out a message. You are implacable, it says. You are going to be methodical about getting your revenge, serve it cold, and then take just a line of ink through someone's name as a digestif.
The idea of the list says so much, in fact, that you don't even need the list. At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, when he was still new in the Liverpool manager's job, Brendan Rogers told all his players – and the TV crew following them – that he had written down the names of three people who would at some point let the team down.
In the middle of a very successful second season, he now admits that the envelopes were empty. It was a trick he says he learned from Alex Ferguson, a man whose real enemies list would fill a book, and has.
When I was a young activist, I had a shitlist as long as your arm. Yet middle age has taught me an important lesson in life: your shitlist owns you. It gnaws away at your soul and does you more harm than the list's members.
So these days there is only one person I would like to park in a three-hour traffic jam: Jeremy Clarkson. I do not have to describe to Guardian readers why, with his ruddy face and greying clumps of curly hair held together with Copydex, Clarkson is on the list, because he's probably on theirs, too. My only sadness is that he will revel in such notoriety. And the BBC will continue to pay him to be like this. It's almost worth siding with Murdoch to ditch the licence fee over.
He's on my shitlist because he's been bragging about running against Chris Bryant as an MP. I hope the BBC give Chris his own show to even up the coverage. He'd probably beat Clarkson in one of those ridiculous road races they do on Top Gear.
I'd gladly amend the law to free this Tory clown from the onerous red tape of wearing a seatbelt. Then it's just a matter of probability working its magic as he lives his celebrity life in the fast lane.
Very boringly – or perhaps very lazily, I can't even be bothered to analyse it – I prefer to go by that old adage that the best revenge is a happy life. In fact, I have frequently been known to express sympathy for someone in the business who is publicly going through a tough time, only for a friend who is far better at keeping track of such things to remind me that the person was once a shitehawk to me in one way or another. I once even sent a long letter of commiseration to someone who I had completely forgotten had done me quite a significant disservice, which – entirely accidentally – must have made me look very gracious. Or maybe outrageously sarcastic. Again, I have no idea.
In (imperfect) memory, I have twice ventured toward what I suppose would be deemed faintly retributive action. The first time was when a colleague plagiarised some lines from my columns in their book, and after offering them the chance to cough to it privately, and being disappointed, I eventually mentioned it in pointed amusement to our mutual line manager. Nothing whatsoever was done about it, equally amusingly, and it doesn't seem to have affected their career progression, so I don't really count it as a dedicated takedown. The second time was during some journalism seminar, in which I was on the panel with the editor of a website who once claimed something personal and false about me that I thought damaging. I am afraid I interrupted their keynote address on the state of the trade or whatever it was to remind them of this unapologised-for error, and they seemed so shaken by being called on it in such a forum that I felt rather mean and regretful about it later, and am sure it only made me look like a complete twat.
Both were years ago, happily – and such infinitesimally minuscule slights, in the great scheme of things, that writing them out just now I can't believe I even bothered to the quarter-arsed degree I did. In the interim, thank goodness, I have absolutely cemented the idea in my mind that even an ice-cold dish of revenge is far, far too much trouble to serve.
Here's the thing: in order to have a huge feud with someone, you have to either a) have a huge relationship, as good as married or a very, very close friendship, or b) be engaged in a huge project – take, as a wild for-instance, running for president. In a big undertaking, people can betray each other in big ways even when they don't know each other very well; whereas, on a normal-sized tapestry, you really have to be at the foreground of somebody's life in order to stab them.
As a complete aside, I think this is why Damian McBride and all those end-of-the-era New Labour types make such a big deal about how betrayed they all were, because it lends grandeur to the entire project. Except it doesn't. It makes them all look like idiots (1).
I'm not in the business of holding grudges against people I'm very close to (2), and obviously I don't have a huge project, so there's nobody against whom I nurse an implacable hatred (3). But I will say that any moderately well-lived life will contain some accidental giving of offence, most often by me, and after that I will nurse a grudge against somebody pre-emptively, on the assumption that they already hold one against me and if I were to meet them without acknowledging it, they would then have the opportunity to snub me. Imagine.
Then, if some panel event comes up that they will be at, I will passive-aggressively say to the organiser, "but X (4) hates me, would you check that he's OK with me chairing?", appearing both open and humble, so that even if X wasn't even aware of hating me, X just has to forgive me or he'll look bad (5).
One time, when I'd just met my fella, we were introduced to a journalist at a party, and he asked her what she did, and she put her head in her hands and said: "Oh God, really?" And he said if any other journalists were as obnoxious as that, it was definitely over between us. And I have had to keep my fingers crossed all this time (6). But otherwise, no. No shitlist. Nothing like that.
1 Damian McBride is actually on my shitlist, for a reason too petty to go into, although I will say that it involves LBC presenter Iain Dale.
1A Iain Dale is not on my shitlist.
2 I just remembered I haven't spoken to my half-sister for 10 years.
3 Apart from Orlando Bloom.
4 Oliver James.
5 This Thursday.
6 I really want everyone to ask me who this was, but I'll have to shake my head sadly and say I can't tell you.
The problem with having a list (everyone has a list. Anyone who says they don't have a list is telling porky pies, or Pope Francis; mine has a disproportionate number of people called Sadie on it and I am now troubled if I meet someone new called Sadie) is that unless you expressly publish it in a ledger, a la Clinton, the person involved probably has absolutely no idea they're on it. I ran into a (highly successful theatre producer) aquaintance recently for the first time in an age, who said: "Oh my God, I have never forgotten that ferocious review of my play you wrote in 1992. I nearly gave up the game altogether. God, it was something else."
He mentioned this several times during the course of a short conversation.
"I am so sorry," I said. I genuinely was and am sorry. Before doing stuff other people reviewed, I thought reviewing was an hilarious lark, taking other people's hard graft and writing show-off-y takedowns of it. Ah, being young. "What was the show?"
"You don't remember the SHOW???!!"
I didn't. I didn't remember the play, the production, the year, or writing a review of anything. Although if the way young callow wannabes review things is anything to go by, I deserved rather more than being on someone's hitlist; I deserved a hitman.
I do have a shitlist, but I'd be a pretty poor PR man to out the names on it. It's a single sheet of yellowing paper, nestling inside my wallet. Thankfully it's a very short list, however each name is tattooed on to my very soul because of a litany of sins.
My dad offered me the best piece of advice for dealing with the vicissitudes of PR life. I didn't realise the power of his aphorism until the heat of battle. Cherish this, he said: "Lord protect me from my friends – I can take care of my enemies." He claimed it was an old Polish proverb. Many years later I was told the quotation is attributable to Maréchal Villars when taking leave of King Louis XIV: "Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies."
In work, I need to be surrounded by people with good souls. It's important that the people across the divide share the same values of honesty. So when I experience a less-than-honest dealing from a journalist or client or employee, I notch it up. There is no point in harbouring feelings of paranoia when creating an atmosphere of certainty and reliance is critical. The best contacts are full of heart, and share a sense of responsibility for a relationship. Those on my list are the ugly ones, whose best conduct is enacted behind my back. These are filed in a bin marked "toxic".
It's a matter of being resolute – if we lose heart and a sense of proportion we are likely to be consumed by a craven process. Sometimes PR needs to bare its teeth and just tell the truth.
Although it is good to be merciful, for some, anger, hatred and evil will is everlasting. The shitlist is like a voodoo doll, which I occasionally stick pins in while cursing. It's very therapeutic! Succumb to anger, then expect to slip into a dark spiral of despair. Ensure your own shitlist is small like mine, and then remember the greatest revenge is enormous success.
I wish I had a shitlist. I wish I had the capacity for that level of vengeance. I've seen entire careers get destroyed by shitlists – by people who overheard perceived slights long ago, then spent years waiting for the perfect opportunity to fatally crush the perpetrator – and I'm jealous. I want to be that person. I want to be that shadowy puppetmaster. I want to hurl someone's entire future against a spiked wall because they looked at my shoes disparagingly at a party once. I want to be Kevin Spacey from House of Cards.
But I'm not. The point of a shitlist is to exact painful revenge when the subject expects it least. But by the time the subject expects it least, I've invariably moved on. If revenge is a dish best served cold, I'm the guy who took my revenge out of the oven, put it on a windowsill to cool down, got distracted by a shiny piece of paper on the floor, and let a hungry dog run off with it.
That said, in the brief window between being offended and completely forgetting about it, my shitlist has an incredibly low bar of entry. If you have ever remained stationary on an airport travelator, know that I have temporarily sworn violent retribution against you. If you don't let people off trains before getting on, I'll transiently assume that you're the worst person who ever lived. If you've taken even a millisecond longer at a cash machine than I've arbitrarily decided that you needed, I will have definitely entertained the idea of finding out where you live and torching your house. If you're the builder standing outside my window as I write this, drilling holes in things because it's your job, then oh my bloody God you're going to get it.
Or at least you would get it if my organisational skills were better. I think the problem is that I'm surrounded by such a constant stream of annoyances that I literally don't have the time to commit any of them to memory. By the time I've decided to add, say, Jeremy Kyle to my list, I'll accidentally glimpse a mug with an ironic moustache on it and immediately start daydreaming about tracking down and killing the man who invented mugs. That's no way to live. Perhaps it'd be healthier to keep a shitlist. If that's the case, that builder had better look out.
I never had a hitlist – it sounds like an American thing to me. In British politics, nothing is permanent – people aren't friends or enemies. They will work with you one year, and the next year they will work against you. Just look at the relationship between Blair, Brown and Mandelson, which moved from love to devotion to hatred. There were people I came up against, such as Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch. I'm sure I was on a few hitlists myself – when I was leader of the GLC the editor of the Mail, David English, instructed his reporters to file six stories a day about me. But it tended to be media, rather than politicians, who targeted me, and even then I don't bear a grudge. In a sense, there's a feeling of vindication in knowing that someone like Dacre thinks you're worth targeting.
This article was written by By Leo Benedictus. With Ken Livingstone, Marina Hyde, Zoe Williams, Jenny Colgan, Tom Watson, Mark Borkowski and Stuart Heritage, for The Guardian on Tuesday 14th January 2014 18.06 Europe/London
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