“You’re so vain…”   Most of us have been accused of this at some time (generally by people who don’t like us and whom we suspect of jealousy.)

When I was thinking about this first, I thought, you can’t be ‘vain’ if you actually possess the quality being examined.  Can Kiri te Kanawa be accused of vanity over her beautiful voice?    I thought not.   It is glorious.    She IS a diva.


But then I thought of the wretched business man I wrote about last week who resembled Fred Goodwin in his destructive uselessness, and realised that he was undeniably handsome, and indubitably vain.   He placed an inordinately high value on his looks.   It’s fine to be good-looking and certainly of great benefit to the person possessing the beauty, but it’s not really of over-riding importance.    He (The Pretty Face) was a case in point.      Yes, he was good to look upon, but a half hour spent in the company of an ugly man who had wit enough to make you laugh; or  even with an ordinary fellow, but kind and decent, would be far more rewarding than wasting time on his dull, self absorbed and terminally boring self.   The Pretty Face also didn’t like any competition:  he took care to surround himself with men and women whose looks would not detract attention from himself, like a bride who chooses for her bridesmaids only girls whom she regards as less attractive than herself.   (Whereas if you’re confident in yourself you might like to surround yourself with  a bevy of lovely girls, thinking the more the merrier, and the great impact you, as a group, will create.    The bride is after all The Bride anyway.   On that day, nobody else will get a look in.)   Or maybe you should just have the people you love, whatever their appearance?

The same things I’ve said about beauty apply to, say, cleverness.   Yes, of course intellligence and academic ability are good things.   But you want someone who possesses these qualities also to be practical and sensible and useful, and not so clever that he can’t apply his massive intellect to cooking a meal or navigating a city.   We had one acquaintance (not half as clever as he thought) of whom it was said by an unkind observer,    that he must find it tiring having to push his brain around in a wheelbarrow, so enormous and weighty it was.

Vanity, I discovered when I looked it up, actually means ‘worthless’ as in All is Vanity.    But I think in modern usage, we tend to mean overly proud, or arrogant.   There again, if one has some special talent or skill, one should be confident in it.   If you are an ace sailor and can sail the seven seas and bring the boat safely in to any port, then you’re good, and you know you’re good.   You’re only ‘vain’ (as the word is used now) if you think you’re the best navigator since Captain Cook; and that you are on this list through undoubted merit and that everyone else of your acquaintance who sails is just a trifling amateur.   But if you genuinely believe this (even if it is only in your secret heart) then we don’t need to worry about your vanity because sooner or later the oceans will swallow your boat and the sharks will devour you.

And vanity in women?  Who’s the fairest of them all?   Well, eventually even her mirror told her it wasn’t  her.   There shouldn’t be competition in beauty.   It’s at least in part in the eye of the beholder.        Besides, there’s room for all of us.    And anyway, full blown beauties can be both tiring and boring, as though like Trollope’s Lady Griselda Dumbello, all they had to do was ‘appear’ and be A Beauty.   (Trollope’s names are not a coincidence.   He had a firm of family lawyers called Bideawhile an d Slow.)

I suppose the term vanity could be applied to those people who are only interested in themselves and their affairs;  who see their own lives in glorious technicolour which quickly fades into shadow and sepia if the subject strays off themselves for more than a few minutes.   Vanity could also apply to people who are always boasting – how rich they are;  how cultured they are;  how well-connected they are;  how desirable to the opposite sex etc etc.

However you define vanity, it clearly isn’t a desirable quality.   We should all try to cultivate humility, and conclude (and believe) that our fellows are, on balance, the equals of ourselves.   That way you might just defend yourself against hubris, and avoid being eaten by sharks.

PS   Talking about  our old  friend Trollope.   We were discussing between ourselves recently the use of the word ‘flitting’ in relation to house removals, and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary making no mention of that meaning, I concluded it was used in this manner in Scotland only.    Imagine my surprise to find, reading early this morning the concluding chapter of The Warden by Anthony Trollope  (published in 1855) the following sentence referring to the Warden’s removal from  the Hospital to lodgings:   “After this manner did the late Warden of Barchester Hospital accomplish his flitting and change his residence.”