A blog written by Neil Stephen from 20th January 2009 reflecting on the virtues of modesty.


Self-promotion is one of the hardest things in life, especially when you’re naturally modest. For my colleague Mary Arnold-Forster, it’s almost crippling.

When she went up on stage at the recent IAA ceremony to accept the award given to her house for the best new building, she looked like Gregory crossing the playing field. No matter how far she pressed against the back wall, or ducked down, we could all still see her, exposed by the spotlight.

Offered a microphone by Muriel Gray and asked to say a few words, she cried NO! looked heavenwards as if to say, “God, why do you torture me so?” and cringed off the stage.

Perhaps Mary had a plan, as someone once said that “a modest demeanour arouses thoughts of seduction”, and surely the tables of corduroy and bearded men could not have helped but be enflamed by her coyness.

The judges had praised the restrained modesty of her architecture. Fearful that Mary didn’t manage to convey fully her inherent self-effacement on the night, I issued a press release the next morning to all Highland news outlets to let them know she had spades of it. Modesty must be trumpeted.

But I realised that this was not a wide enough audience– Wayne Hemmingway, up north as a celebrity speaker, may not pick up the Lochaber News in Blackburn. So I persuaded Mary to humbly accept the offer of featuring in a Channel 5 “architecture” programme where her humility can be fanfared to millions.

It’s called – ‘I Own the Best House in Britain’.

A demure Mary will lead a polished-faced presenter around her home (or the Shed, as she deprecatingly calls it), followed by camera, sound man, producer and director, and if the voting public is crazy enough to believe that her house is better than the 24 others it’s up against, she’ll trouser 25 grand (to be donated to the Lighthouse, of course).

A token acknowledgement of the struggle to hide her Saxby stainless steel down-lighters under a bushel.

I’ve told her she’ll be the skinny equivalent of John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing – pity always works with the public. But don’t feel too sorry for her, she’s got a choice life in a remote rural idyll, working with charming people. And, as she will explain, “if the twins tease me it’s because they care”. Which we are happy to let her believe.

Fortunately for Mary, beneath all that feminine delicacy, she has a will of steel and an unshakeable confidence. This was probably forged in the tumultuous London upbringing of a large extended family of artists, novelists, political radicals and free-lovers. And the security of a Cambridge education.

How else could she have had the brass-neck to send a note to a flower-sending suitor, explaining she only travels to London for work, so to meet her would be £50 an hour?  I think she undersold herself- an engineer would have quoted eighty – but you need confidence to administer such a withering put-down.

I’ve never received flowers, (though am hopeful of a small bouquet at my funeral, God willing), but if I did find myself in a similar situation, I’d have to rummage deep to find Mary’s cajones. My rate would be a packet of Monster Munch and a tin of Tizer, per day; more likely I’d be the one making the payment (up to twenty quid).

But maybe that’s because I’m Scottish.  Despite our conceit at being the world’s best at the put-down and piss-take – built on the strength of an established ancient culture- researchers have found this to be a mere mask to low self-worth and an insecure nature. We spend so much time undermining each other (see above), both personally and politically, our deficiencies become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I remember this subtly happening to me many years ago, after I finished my Highers, when my mum’s pal took me aside for some back-stiffening advice before I stepped in to the big world. “Neil” she said. “ Always remember that in Scotland, to be better than most, you don’t have to be that good.”

Inspiring words for the challenging climb to the summit of mediocrity.

The Scottish Higher Education approach to suppressing innate spunk was a bit more straightforward. At the first crit at the Mack I attended, the task set was to make a model that “expressed your personality”. The earnest young student before me explained to the gathered year that the cardboard pound-sign represented the money he made, the records what he spent it on, and the broken records that he was wasting his money. The tutor asked him a straight question.

“This either indicates your lack of imagination or lack of personality. Which is it?”

His stunned silence and the sniggering of other students probably defined the rest of his education. Why have the confidence to do anything when you’re met with derision from your “tutor” and humiliation before your peers.

Fortunately, the tutor looked at my effort and said, “I love it, don’t say a word.” (I had impaled an apple on a decayed rusty drain cover. No idea.)

But can anyone learn properly in an atmosphere where people are loath to be free with ideas for fear of being ridiculed? People don’t gain confidence, but either bluster bravado or retreat to a shell. And it’s not a fault to admit that you don’t know or aren’t sure.

Doubt should be an attribute. I always had sympathy for the Fountainhead character Peter Keating, who constantly questions his ability as an architect. For this, he is despised by the author. Meanwhile, the ginger hero (oyxmoron, I know), Howard Roark, the epitome of confident ego, is supposed to inspire readers by his single-minded pursuit of architectural integrity.

Yet he specifies suspended polystyrene ceiling panels, and we’re still expected to believe he’s a genius.

I thought of him when I heard a certain high profile architect recently address a conference. His practice is brilliant, he was telling us. No modesty here, and confidence was oozing from every pore. He only employed the best architects in the world, and if anyone in the audience thought they were among them, see him afterwards. (Who would be so arrogant as to stay behind?)

Put this practice not only features great architects – their website also claims them to be “socially, economically and environmentally responsible”. They were bringing “sustainable” architecture to the Middle East, with their tower in Abu Dhabi, which is a “green building” that employs clever technologies to harness the wind and sun, and collect water.

Let’s get this into perspective.

The 66-storey tower will be covered with a gold-coloured titanium crystal. It will house shops, offices, a restaurant and a 300-bed hotel, and will cover an area of 2.5 million square feet. Its cost is undisclosed, but estimated between astronomical and absurd. The energy required to make and to run the building is also unknown, but probably about that of a medium-sized nation. The building is grotesque – like a giant petrified golden sphincter, standing tall in the desert sands. The architect should at least have the modesty to acknowledge the absurdity of claiming this as “sustainable” or “responsible” architecture.

But away from the superficiality and vulgarity of the Emirates (did you see that firework display?), and back in the modest surroundings of Inverness, the architects at the IAA awards were playing, by comparison, in the Highland League.

When it came to the Open Award shortlist for the Best New Building in the Highlands and Islands, everything was understated. The Culloden Centre, the Eden Court Theatre extension, the Belmont House renovation – nothing close to resembling a sphincter.

Images of the Stromness Arts Centre by Reiach and Hall were then flashed up on screen to announce the winner, and the sewerage designer next to me was baffled. “Where’s the architecture?”  “Exactly” was my response. The building fits so seamlessly into the harbour townscape you hardly notice it – yet the spaces are beautiful and the building works.

And we also saw an award for something that actually was “socially, economically and environmentally responsible”. Neil Sutherland, a politically driven architect, with huge commitment to his community, uses timber hewn from local forests for his own building firm to build affordable housing. And he’ll turn down work from clients if it doesn’t tie in with his ethics.

Not a gold-coloured titanium crystal in sight.

There was no arrogance in Inverness, but there is a confidence in the Highlands that was tangible. Where simple, beautiful architecture, using developed technologies, can enhance and sustain the local culture and environment.

It’s a lie that in Scotland you don’t have to be good to be better than everyone else – Reiach and Hall showed you have to be world class. Despite the recent dross of the housing developers, the quality is getting better, and projecting a distinctive Highland image to the world.

And it was reassuring to see from our Norwegian presentation, that while they do some exquisite architecture up there, they make their ghastly mistakes as well.

But meanwhile, I’ve confronted Mary with the charge that she has allowed her undergarment of humility to be indecently exposed. Was it not her chaste appearance that left her with a purse-full of business cards from corduroyed gentlemen?

She says she just happens to be socially competent at making business contacts. By comparison, when I went home a-flutter from the Roses Awards, clutching a single card from a thick-lashed blond beauty in publishing, I ended up being invoiced for an £800 full-page ad (damn, these woman are persuasive).

But I better redeem myself, as I do tease Mary too much (and I sit within punching distance). Scottish mask removed, I’ll go against my cultural instinct and give a friend a compliment.

Mary, you’re a genuinely modest and talented woman – with nothing to be modest about (that one should last me a year).

Postscript: I have suggested to my sewerage consultant friend, that a scale-model golden Stellar Sphincter should be presented at the annual Scottish Waste Management Industry Awards Dinner for the Most Vulgar and Expensive Jobby Wheecher category

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