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To renounce the vanity


“One must be terribly old, Margot said to me one day, to renounce the vanity of living under someone’s gaze.”
The Vagabond, Colette

On Wednesday I lifted recipe books and Christmas magazines from the shelf in the kitchen & sat at the table, coffee in hand, planning what to cook over the holidays. Clementine cake & stollen. Chestnut stuffing & aubergine moussaka.

I was listening to Joni Mitchell & when she got to ‘River‘ everything was just so perfect that all I wanted to do was share it with someone.

For years I’ve only known half of the Colette quote. ‘To renounce the vanity of living under someone’s gaze’ is the epigraph to Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful fictional biography of her mother, Poppyand I’ve always associated the quote with the maternal gaze. I sometimes think that one of the best things I can aim for as a parent is simply to supply that gaze — to be the one who will always be interested. The way Modjeska pieces together her mother’s life from scraps and imaginings is a reminder of the depth of the loss that comes when that gaze ends.

For renouncing the vanity of living under another’s gaze presupposes the existence of another who is interested and willing to listen. Flying to Vietnam as an eighteen year old gap year student I was shocked that the other, the willing listener, was no longer there. Already thinking of how I would tell the story of the journey, I realised that there was no one to whom I would be telling it. I’ve written before about how long ago that journey now seems in terms of technology — one phone call, and everything else by fax or letter. Strange in this connected world to believe that such a time ever existed.

Now — all these years later — I’ve finally looked up the full quote. Actually it’s about a lover not a mother. And, rather than being something to aspire to, it is — thankfully — something that only someone very old would be capable of. Or maybe it depends what one is seeking from that gaze. It is something to aspire to if one is in some way showing off to impress the gazer or seeking praise or recognition from them. But, to want to be seen, to want to share, seems to me to be entirely human.

So here, I give you my table. You give me your gaze.


The phone, the phone. I know, when will I stop talking about the phone? But it’s affecting the way that I see things and do things all the time. This photo, for example. This whole train of thought. (Oh! I found myself thinking. This is why people are on Instagram.) Or today in the library, when I couldn’t remember the name of the next book for my  book group & spent about five minutes wandering the shelves before I realised that my emails were in my pocket. (Stormbird by Conn Iggulden). Or yesterday, when I went to London for the day & in two hours spent on trains saw only one book, but countless screens (one person with three!) on phones & iPads & ereaders. I expect I’ll calm down soon, but for the moment I’m so intrigued by this world that it seems everyone else has been in for so long.


  1. I’ve never read Collette (must do so – maybe a future book club book?) but I’m so with you when it comes to Joni Mitchell. I’ve always wanted to fly along that river……

    Glad you’re enjoying your phone. Are you wondering how it took you so long? But you’re right: so much has changed in so little time. I remember my first trip abroad without my parents. It was only to Europe so phone booths allowed for sporadic contact (me to them, of course) which was decent preparation for Africa a few years later: one phone call from the hotel in Nairobi and then nothing for weeks. Would we permit that for our children, I wonder? Will we be able to suspend our interested gaze? (I love that idea, by the way.) Or will we be too used to constant contact, to permanent availability?

    • It’ll be hard, won’t it! But I hope we’ll have the courage to let them go & do the things that they want to. And, of course, we’re unlikely to be forced into such long periods without any contact. I keep being amazed at how stoical my mum was to let me go — but then I’m not sure that she could have persuaded me otherwise…

  2. It’s so interesting to witness you become acquainted with your new phone-filled life. I often worry we are so connected that we can’t ever escape the desire to gaze or be gazed upon. There are few private moments anymore, few times when we are left wondering or being without immediate entreaty to our devices. And how quickly those old ways, long familiar, have faded into the forgotten past. You offer an interesting way to frame it–the fundamentally human desire to be seen, to connect. I’m always left thoughtful after reading you.

    • Thanks, Dina. I left it so long before getting a phone because I knew how much I’d like it (if that makes any sense). And now I feel like I’m conducting a strange sociological experiment. I just read this great piece about the potential of social media: “[W]e should be claiming our right to be lyrical, observational and profound on social media. If the internet is the “social laboratory of the self”, then we have to experiment relentlessly; to innovate, and refuse structure and accepted use.”

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