Lunching with the doyen of ‘loser lit’

Toby Young, journalist, author and soon-to-be subject of a Hollywood movie, poses as a hapless failure. ‘Is it all an act?’, asks Emily Hill over a £5 platter of Indian food.

Emily Hill

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I have arranged to meet Toby Young in a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Hammersmith, west London.

I’m expecting something swanky. But one look at the desperation on the faces of the charity muggers outside the rotting shopping mall on King’s Road – so depressed by the onslaught of pram-chairs they’re not even talking anymore, just jabbering and thrusting – and I gather I have the wrong idea about Toby Young. Surrounded by wailing toddlers and geriatrics clinking their cutlery, the Spectator’s Status Anxiety guru says we can get a full platter for a fiver and orders us one each. Surprisingly down to earth for a columnist and associate editor of a magazine that describes itself as ‘champagne for the brain’, oddly fresh-faced for someone who spent most of the Eighties and Nineties on chemical substances, Young is also weirdly un-obnoxious for someone famous for losing friends and alienating people.

Young, as his book titles How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and The Sound of No Hands Clapping might allow you to guess, has built a one-man industry upon being unpopular and tanking in his career. The film version of How to Lose Friends is due for release in 2008, starring Brit actor Simon Pegg as Young. Pegg is ‘a winsome actor’, Young has said, ‘but even he may struggle to make me look charming’.

Young describes himself as a William Hague look-a-like, whose William Hague impression is so convincing that partygoers at the Spectator’s summer garden party completely ignored it, thinking that he was, in fact, William Hague. His friend Lloyd Evans, the playwright, describes him as a ‘balding, bug-eyed, skinny-chested opportunist with the looks of a punctured beach-ball, the charisma of a glove-puppet and an ego the size of a Hercules supply plane’. Personally, whenever I tried to picture Young mentally, I came up with Harry Hill with more conservative spectacles. In person, he doesn’t look like any of these laboratory specimens; the idea that he is speccy or wimpy or Harry Hill-esque is another product of his comic exaggeration.

It is my well-honed theory for the day that Young’s veneer of failure is one that he has lathered on himself principally because it produces good jokes. With a thousand Facebook friends, he’s one of the few journalists today who is actually read by the younger generation – or, specifically, my mates. Most journalism out there bores us frigid; Young makes me cackle out loud. I suggest that he deliberately forges situations in which he can go down like Red Bull in sleep therapy. He denies it. Although he does later admit that when things do go wrong, he rather likes it. The blurb on Young’s best-selling memoirs bills him as the ‘doyen of loser lit’, which is interesting because when you actually read the books you find that you are not ploughing through the scrawlings of a down-and-out whinger but rather racing through what appears to be a one-man campaign of self-sabotage.

For instance. He is best man at a wedding and the bride’s mother is German. He’s warned not to tell German jokes. So he tells German jokes from start to finish. Fresh out of university, he gets a prestigious traineeship at The Times. For larks he spends several weeks trying to hack into the editor’s computer account, and when he succeeds, he circulates staff salary details to the whole building. He’s fired. Turning up at Vanity Fair for his first day on the job, he is told the dress code is ‘Smart/Casual’. So he wears jeans, trainers and a t-shirt emblazoned with the Modern Review’s homage to Keanu Reeves: ‘Young, Dumb and Full of Come.’ These aren’t the actions of a loser; more of a wrecking ball in human form.

Perhaps Young is still trying to catch up with the jet-propelled actions of his younger self – the young Young, who used to turn up at parties for cutting edge style mag The Face with a rolled-up copy of the Sun in his back pocket, and who set up the Modern Review with two of his best friends, and proceeded to piss off the whole of Media London. ‘At one point Bloomsbury wanted to publish a collection of articles from the Modern Review and I wrote this introductory essay called “The New Criticism”’, he recalls. ‘The gist of it was that as critics we brought a lot of our own personal feelings to bear and used the word “I” and “Me” a lot. This accounted for a lot of the hostility we provoked.’

In the early Nineties, it became clear that Young and his fellow Modern Reviewers had the zeitgeist by the scruff of the neck. Soon the I’s and Me’s caught on, and the literary worship of Schwarzenegger, Axl Rose and Liz Hurley, as honed in the Modern Review, caught on, too. The Review’s format was pinched by The Sunday Times’ Culture magazine, as was some of its writers. For Young, editor of the Modern Review, such copycat flattery must have felt like a pretty big achievement.

Explaining the spread of the Modern Review’s swagger into other sections of the media, Young refers to the ‘collective action problem’ identified by the Marxist academic Gerald Cohen: ‘If you think that communism is inevitable, why do you do anything to bring it about? It’s a sort of paradox. Even though [the changes in the media] might have happened had the Modern Review not existed, the Modern Review was nonetheless an important factor in bringing those changes about.’ The jury’s out, however, on whether the Modern Review had an improving impact on journalism in general… or whether it merely opened the floodgates for a horde of numbskulls to saturate the press with their faux-intellectualisation of pop culture. These days Julie Burchill is out, and ‘humorists’ like Lucy Mangan, Zoe Williams and Charlie Brooker have come wittering in.

Young founded the Modern Review with Burchill and her then husband, Cosmo Landesman, in 1991. Young took a salary of £3,000 a year, and produced the magazine out of his Shepherd’s Bush bedsit. In order to produce the first issue, he and his team snuck in to use media tycoon Robert Maxwell’s production facilities – and left some page proofs there, with a printed ‘thank you’ to Maxwell on the contents page. The first issue went out in a blaze of publicity as Maxwell ‘completely lost it’ and threatened to sue Young personally. Fortunately, for Young, Maxwell died shortly afterwards, only to be exposed as a crook who had stolen from his company’s pension schemes to keep his business interests afloat.

Earlier in the course of our conversation, Young denied that he deliberately sets out to fuck things up in order to get good material. But the underhand exploitation of Maxwell’s facilities – and then the brazen ‘thank you’ note to Maxwell – looks to me like a prime instance of farting in the face of self-advancement. Didn’t he know he would upset people? ‘No, I expected two million pensioners to leap to their feet and burst into applause.’

Applause emerges as one of the principal cravings of Young’s psyche, as grasped over shared poppadoms. Journalism frustrates him because writing an article is much like ‘dropping a stone into a well and not hearing it go plop’. He got a great rush from his play about the ‘Sextator scandal’, Who’s the Daddy?, which told the story of then home secretary David Blunkett’s fling with the publisher of the Spectator and was a raging success at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Putting on a successful play was like ‘after writing my Spectator piece I then stand up in front of thousands of people and read it out loud, stopping in the right places so they can laugh uproariously, and then at the end they leap to their feet and applaud and then several members of the audience have to fuck off and write commentary on what I’ve written which is then published in national newspapers. It’s so much more rewarding.’ If Young were a Hollywood starlet, he wouldn’t want to be some niche auteur, like Chloe Sevigny; he’d want to be Pammie: Pamela Anderson, boobs a-bobbling, hair a-flowing, running down a beach, while 20million male pulses ran with her.

Part of Young’s disappointment with journalism may derive from the fact that it never matches up to his idea of what journalism ought to be, or used to be, or could be. He arrived at Vanity Fair, believing the glossy put together by the infamously robotic Conde Nasties was ‘a link to Manhattan during its golden age, the era of the Algonquin Round Table’. During Vanity Fair’s first incarnation, from 1914 to 1936, the magazine played host to the work of everyone from Dorothy Parker to Harry Houdini. But when Young got there, it turned out to be so PR-sodden that there was very little room for his particular brand of shit-stirring.

So he refused to play ball. One of his most successful attempts at ‘alienating people’ was his attack on the golden Stateside media couple, Harold Evans and Tina Brown, who had edited Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992. (Young arrived under Brown’s successor, Graydon Carter, in 1995.) After Young wrote a piece in the Spectator about Evans’ departure from Random House, ‘Harry’ threatened to sue. And yet still, imperiled by bankruptcy once again, Young went ahead with trying to write a satirical play about the couple. ‘Part of what motivated me was, I suppose, a kind of contempt for people who sucked up to them and did their bidding. There seemed to me something unmanly about Peter Jay [Maxwell’s chief of staff and later economics editor of the BBC], who was once called the cleverest man in Britain, and then ended up being Maxwell’s official car door opener. Within the media there are these very powerful, kind of feudal barons who a lot of people suck up to. Their careers, their livelihoods depend on these people’s approval. And that was certainly true of Maxwell; it was true of Tina Brown; it’s still true of [current editor of Vanity Fair] Graydon Carter. I suppose I have a real contempt – or at least I did then – for people who kowtow to them. To a certain extent the whole of the media is unbelievably craven and easily bullied. And I suppose I always prided myself on being independent.’

I ask him whether there are things that he would no longer do – and he instantly mentions the jetset superstar journalism gigs, such as flying off to LA to interview Sharon Stone and then writing it up on the plane home. ‘I was interviewing [supermodel] Claudia Schiffer in the Four Seasons in New York’, he says. At the end of the interview, Young, trying his luck, said: ‘So Claudia, do you wanna go for a drink?’

He recalls what happened next: ‘“Nawwww”, she replied, in her pinched German accent. “Nowww I take my little red pencil, and go through the article I have copy approval on and cross out anything I don’t like.” “Ah”, I said, “but you don’t have copy approval over mine”. And she said, “Awwww, they didn’t tell you..?” Great, I thought, so I’m now being edited by a fucking model. And they didn’t even tell me.’

The film version of Young’s first book of memoirs, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, is due out next year, starring Kirsten Dunst and Shaun of the Dead comedian, Simon Pegg. There aren’t many people alive in the world who have had Hollywood films made of their lives – and still manage to present themselves as rank underachievers – but Young appears to be one of them. Right now, he is concentrating on screenwriting. On the collapse of the Modern Review, the journalist Auberon Waugh publicly wondered why Young didn’t give up and become a dentist. It was quite obvious why (because his columns are damned funny), but why does he constantly want to put himself in situations that might invite failure?

‘Funnily enough that is one of themes of the screenplay I’m trying to write: why people don’t value the things that they’re good at.’

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young is published by Da Capo Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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