I think this saying comes from Aesop’s Fables. Normally I could check. I’m fairly sure I still have my childhood copy of Aesop, complete with crayon scribbles and my address in wobbly blue-black ink, all the way down to …England, United Kingdom, The World, Universe. Unfortunately all my fiction books are in cardboard boxes at the moment and stacked in the wardrobe. The painter’s coming to paint the top half of the living room on Thursday. Why only the top half? It’s a long story, perhaps for another day.
The picture I had in mind was of two pots floating down a swirling river, one metal pot and one clay pot. However, I did manage to unearth that story on the internet. It’s not the one about empty vessels. It’s the one about the unwisdom of floating down a raging river in the company of a metal pot, if you happen to be a clay pot. The point being, of course, that whether you bump into the metal pot or the metal pot bumps into you – you’re the one that’ll end up fragmented. Something about this reminds me of businessman Alan Sugar and his perpetually televised mission to select Apprentices from a crowd of smarmy, yelping, expensively-suited, shiny-shoed, self-promoting contenders. Now there’s a metal pot if ever there was one.
I’m pretty sure Empty Vessels illustration also involved pots. But never mind. The point is, is it true?
Here I am also diverted, this time by an unpleasant work-related memory. (Most of my work-related memories are unpleasant – some of them mildly unpleasant, a few of them traumatically unpleasant. The traumatic ones I find it difficult to remember at all. I just know they’re there – lurking in that little dog-eared pile next to the disordered file-card cabinet of my subconscious – to be dealt with at some later and possibly more bearable date.) This particular memory concerns a girl I shall call Margot. She was my supervisor in one of the three sections of the Council typing pool – Legal & Administrative.
Margot hated me. She used to adjust the air-conditioning so that it blew on the side of my face every few seconds, until I complained about it. The HR lady took notes but did nothing, so Margot carried on doing it, sneering a little more. She never stopped talking. Ever. And she was getting married. And she talked about this wedding – in between word-processing her wedding invitations and photocopying other bits of wedding-related stationary – all day and every day for months. Her wedding was to be maroon-themed. I remember the cream card samples, the maroon ribbon samples. The maroon bridesmaid dress designs. The maroon wedding cake sketches. All maroon. I think maybe I hated her even more than she hated me. When I finally left – rather to her annoyance (since copy-typists were harmless drudges, never expected to become secretaries – though one step above “bloody old Admin” who filled in dull forms all day and couldn’t even type) to become a secretary at a local college, she informed me I would need all the skills I had learned at the Council, and then some. I couldn’t help but admire this item of arch-bitchery, combining as it did the implication that I could have had no skills before sitting next to her and listening to her blathering on about maroon bridesmaid dresses and fifteen-tier wedding cakes for what felt like several years, and that any skills I might subsequently succeed in getting my head around were likely to be woefully insufficient.
But just because someone makes a big splash in the world, creates a racket, makes themselves the centre of attention – does that always mean they are empty-headed? Maybe they just larger-than-life – entertainers, say or exuberant leaders. Does having the spiel, the self-belief, the showmanship preclude a person from being intelligent? I can think of one particular politician who makes everybody laugh – almost a comedy turn, he seems, at times. But I wouldn’t want to be creeping about the corridors of Westminster on any Night of the Long Knives, having offended him, in case he was lurking in the shadows. And I wouldn’t want to be his opponent in a political debate. The clown has a glint in his eye.
A quiet demeanour may not necessarily indicate high intelligence. I seem to remember reading somewhere a story of a king who decided to visit his blacksmiths in their forge and watch them at their work. All the while he watched them in silence, they greatly respected him. The instant he opened his mouth and started blathering on about blacksmithing – something he knew nothing at all about – their respect was lost. The moral being, if you are in a position of high authority and find yourself among people more knowledgeable than yourself in a certain area – a profound and contemplative silence is the best policy.
I think on the whole I subscribe to Empty Vessels, but always – whether a vessel appear Empty or Full – and to mix metaphors appallingly – look out for a Glint in its Eye.