Vanity, vanity



For some reason but perhaps because 1945-49 seems so long ago, I remember very little of my secondary school life. I know not what Abingdon offers its (in my time all male) boarders now but in those days the regime was hard, expectations high, the pecking order absolute and any deviation or attempt to bend the rules punishable with much pain, both moral and physical.
I was not the keenest of students; most probably like the second in Shakespeare’s seven lives of man …And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school. And I therefore was not unduly disturbed when my father’s money, or his desire to spend it on me ran out. Whatever, my fees became unaffordable and I had to leave. I was at that time fourteen and threequarters years of age. Welcome to the world, not that the world seemed to notice my arrival.
But one thing you had learned very early on at Abingdon, without being specifically taught, was how to comport yourself. Good manners uber alles! However proficient you happened to me scholastically or on the sports field, or from however elevated a family background, you must not under any circumstances indulge in the slightest sign of self-glorification. Unspoken pride, yes OK; professed vanity, no. You took care not to take overmuch care with your looks or your dress for that would be ungentlemanly and ungentlemanly behaviour put you in that dreaded position of being ostracised. You would indeed be ‘beyond the pale’.
I remember one manifestation in particular of this. My class, or form as it was known, of twenty five or so were told to write a single page essay entitled, ‘Myself as others see me’. The English Master (I’ll call him Mr Chips) then gathered together the boys’ literary efforts, shuffled them up and read out the first one without revealing the author’s name. Horror upon horror - it was my own! With a great effort of will gave no hint and joined in the general, subdued snigger as my written words received their very first public airing.
Mortar-boarded My Chips reached the end, looked up and all around the now silent gathering. He then invited us to stand in turn and declare who he thought had written it.  One by one the boys declared, mostly of them include myself with the name of our quietly acknowledged leader; Harris, the boy we all admired the most. To my private mortification nobody named me.
I absolutely dreaded the next bit, but Mr Chips said he was not going to reveal the author’s name, nor the names of any other contributor. However, if the author of this ‘rather nicely written one’ would care to stand … ?
Did I stand and ‘confess’? Yes, if only after a lengthy silence during which my face must have grown redder and redder and all eyes had turned to me.
Do I recall the content of that essay? Yes, in large part I do.
Will I write them here? Absolutely not. That would be vanity and although self-glorification seems now to be the essential order of the day it still is not for me.

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