What a horribly ugly lot we are

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE been having another look at Ecclesiastes. Couldn't get on with him in the past; a sententious old snake-oil salesmen, the sort you can imagine seducing young women with his nihilistic maunderings. "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher - that's me, sweetiepops, the Preacher - all is vanities." Such a deep man (she thinks), so sad, so real, so unlike all these horrible young men with their fumbling and their ambitions. And so the soft white hand slides beneath the Preacher's soft white robe (cashmere; a present from one of his flock, a widow) and all is gone into a heavy undersea flux of fronds and currents and dark drifting shadows where shape is lost and nothing knows its proper name.

The bastard. Hypocritical sod. To everything there is a season, turn turn turn, plinkety plunk tootle boing. La la la ...

... but quite wrong, of course. He was nothing like that. Before me on my desk is a photo of Luke, a smiling young man who has just been awarded a prize for being Best-Dressed Businessman of the Year. Luke has an "individuality of style which projects his personality". Yes indeed. Luke is wearing black lace-up shoes. Luke is wearing a shirt and tie. Luke is wearing a suit. Guess what colour Luke's suit is? Yes! Luke's suit is grey. Think of it, kiddies: grey!

It makes you wonder what the losers are like. All paunch and arse, I imagine, and crumpled Asda shirts (rule number 1: never wear anything which comes in a three-pack. And I mean anything) and those dreadful slimy hilum-of-the-spleen ties like miniature suburban wife-swapping carpets, and nylon socks and grey slip-on shoes. Or they might be the other sort, the dapper sort, in pale grey suits with a cowardly Prince-of-Wales check, and those dreadful shirts described as "crisp", and crisp haircuts and crisp little faces and clean, clean hands.

I wouldn't describe myself as a Man In The Street, but like most men (and most women) I from time to time have occasion to use the street; and isn't it a by God buggardly horror? All this stuff about Cool Britannia they tried on a few months ago (and quickly dropped, did you notice?); all this nonsense about Britain leading the world in flair, and poor benighted foreigners - Johnny Crapaud and Fritz and Alfonso the Cowardly Wop and what-have-you - looking up to our fashion industry and street style. Nonsense. Whoever cooked that up clearly has never ventured into the street, because it's a nightmare.

Where I live, it's fairly well-to-do during the day, full of lawyers and businessmen and people you'd think might be able to afford to look good. But no. Merciful heavens, we're an ugly lot, hunched and stooped, furrow-browed and apologetic, pale, straggly, bad teeth, lousy haircuts, a perpetual look of furtive anger, ill-fitting chainstore clothes and the overall appearance of people with a grudge, people who are affronted, people trying to look so bloody drab in case, otherwise, they are dragged off into doorways and, my dears, done by terrible buggeronies, without permission, warning or mercy.

Vanity of vanities? I wish it were. A little vanity does a lot to brighten the day. Vanity is a service to others, a form of courtesy. It lifts the spirits and cheers the eye, makes you feel you are among people who are pleased to be alive, who are hoping it's going to be another good day. People whose opinion of their fellow-humanity is high enough to make it seem worth taking a little trouble.

But not here. "It's only the office," they say. "It's only work; it's only shopping; it's only moving among fellow members of the species, and anything is good enough for them." And so we arrive at a truly drab, shambling world, a world where a man who, in any civilised country, would - even though his clothes fit and his shoes are clean - be pitied as unimaginative, can here be described as "Best-Dressed Businessman" without howls of incredulous laughter.

All is vanity? No. Not all. Ecclesiastes comes into focus as a wild-eyed, croak-voiced, finger-stabbing malcontent-in-the-street, denouncing outside the synagogue, clad in rags ... but such rags. Rags with style and flair; rags of rich soft cloth, rags which would make his targets say to themselves, "What are we doing, when we could wear such rags?"

The real vanity is assuming that you are so important, that the rest of the world so insignificant, that you are under no obligation to contribute to the general aesthetic pleasure of the street; that you need not dress with care or shave or wash your greasy insurance-clerk hair, but can shuffle along like a troll, being a nasty, ugly pain in the neck. Of that, we want less. But of the vanity which makes us all feel better and life more fun: more, please, and now.