Over the past five years, I’ve noticed an exponential boom in showing off. Everyone’s at it. One friend tells me, every time I meet him, “You know what? I’m extremely good at my work.”
Having returned to an editing job, after a decade as a freelance journalist, I’m also struck by the new obligation to show off in pitches for articles.
A decade ago, someone would pitch a piece by saying, “I wonder if there’s any chance you might be interested in something on the history of slate-mining in the Haute-Savoie department of France.” Now they say, “I’ve written an extremely interesting article on slate-mining in the Haute-Savoie department of France. I’m delighted to offer it to you.”
Why don’t show-offs realise that it never works? Don’t tell me you’re funny and extremely selfless, sunshine! I’ll believe you the moment you say something funny or do something selfless. Until then, I’ll suspend judgment.
Where did all this vanity – a subset of the deadly sin of pride – come from? America is partly to blame. In only a year and a half of living in New York, a decade ago, I threw off my old armour of false self-deprecation and started showing off. Across the Atlantic, there’s a sort of conversational deal: I’ll say I’m marvellous and you’re marvellous, too; then you return the compliment.
Social media – that standby explanation for modern, sinful behaviour – also plays a massive part. If you spend all day on a computer – praising your friends, damning your enemies and posting your achievements online – you’re bound to turn into a show-off.
Beneath the deadly sin, there also lurks our old friend, insecurity. With the few things I feel confident about – height, say; I’m 6ft tall – I never feel the need to show off. But when it comes to the things you’re not so sure of – how good you are at your work; how interesting your article on slate mines is – a defensive streak develops, and the ugly urge to show off strikes.
Give me false self-deprecation – the pride that apes humility – any day.
Those two dream qualities – silence and solitude – should be free. These days, you have to pay for them.
Queuing up for a delayed Eurostar train from a boiling hot Paris this month, I was in the seventh circle of travel hell, in a stationary crowd squeezed onto a tiny landing. And then I noticed the sign to the Paris Business Premier lounge. Because I was writing a travel piece for a newspaper, I had been given, joy of joys, a business class ticket.
I only had 10 minutes left before the train left – so I did the usual things a cattle-class traveller does on admission to business comfort, only at top speed. I downed a bottle of beer and a bottle of sparkling water, stuffed an apple in my bag for the journey and helped myself to free papers.
Pure greed, of course – another deadly sin. But the best thing wasn’t the freebies; it was the brief interlude of emptiness and silence before climbing onto the packed train.
Ever since, I’ve noticed the equation between money and isolated silence: the £20 for the First Class upgrade on the train from Swansea to London; my £510 annual membership fee for the London Library. That doesn’t just pay for the biggest lending library in the country. It allows me to sit in central London, alone and in silence, writing this article.
I’ve become obsessed with a family of wrens that have nested behind a water pipe outside my bathroom window.
Every morning, as I brush my teeth and shave, I watch the adult wrens zoom off to fetch food for their young. Those young have just fledged. One gormless fledgling sits, lethally exposed, on my garden wall, waiting for its parent to fly back and shove spiders in its yellow beak – like a lazy teenager, sleeping in, still expecting Mum to fill the fridge.
I can’t help comparing my life with theirs. When I head off to work in the morning, am I doing the equivalent of the parent wren zooming off in search of food? When I come back in the evening, a little drunk after a summer party, I wonder what the wrens are up to. Are they bored to death because they haven’t had too much warm white wine in a London bookshop?
I’m still not sure who has the nicer life. Unlike that gormless fledgling, I’m in little danger of being eviscerated by the cat at the bottom of the garden.
But I am sure they’re more virtuous. Yes, that fledgling is really greedy, but it never shows off.
Harry Mount is editor of The Oldie
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.