My new book, Thinly Disguised Autobiography, is not just good. It’s absolutely bloody amazing. The drug scenes make Irvine Welsh look like Mary Poppins; the sex scenes are more realistic than the real thing; it’s the finest dissection of the English class system since Evelyn Waugh; the dialogue rocks; it’s funny and moving, pacy, and lyrical enough when it needs to be but never so purple that you get bogged down in descriptions of trees or furniture; it’s at least as wittily post-modern as Dave Eggers but without the cloying sentimentality; the squalid bits outfoul Martin Amis; it’s better edited than The Corrections; and the ending, when with sorrow you reach it, turns out to be so blindingly brilliant that you go, ‘Bugger me. That was a brilliant ending. I think I might just have to read James Delingpole’s thinly disguised autobiographical masterpiece all over again. And possibly again after that.’
But obviously I’d never say any of that in print because I’m English and it’s simply not the done thing. Instead, I’m going to take a leaf from the book of one of my more successful friends and colleagues and tell you what an incredibly small penis I have. I have an incredibly small penis. Even smaller, if that’s possible, than Toby Young’s. Actually, I don’t believe for a moment that Toby Young has a small penis. He just doesn’t look the sort. And if you’ve seen him in real life, you’ll know he’s not that ugly either. Bald, baby-faced and not tall, certainly; but scarcely so hideous (I’m imagining I’m a woman here) that you’d need to be blindfolded and paid large sums of money before considering having sex with him.
Yet such is the image Young will insist on foisting on us every time he writes another of those pieces plugging his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. When Jack Davenport plays him in the stage version, we are invited to imagine that this is akin (I paraphrase) to casting Keanu Reeves as Dobby the House Elf. When Young manages to acquire an attractive young fiancée, it’s like the five loaves and two fishes, only a bit more miraculous.
The book itself is based on a similar conceit: ugly, talentless jerk comes to New York, ligs his way into a wholly undeserved job on Vanity Fair, pisses everybody off, cocks everything up, gets fired, then comes home tail between his legs to live unhappily ever after.
But if Young is really such a useless nobody, how come he got the job on Vanity Fair in the first place? How come the magazine let him loose on its landmark Swinging London issue? How come so many commissioning editors seem so happy to run his pieces puffing his book? Why – I got these figures from Young, natch – has the book sold more than 140,000 copies in Britain and why is it now number seven on the Washington Post’s paperback non-fiction bestseller list? What about the film deal and the sell-out stage play? Isn’t this poor-little-ugly-me act wearing ever so slightly thin these days?
Well, yes. It was pretty damned threadbare by his second term at Oxford. But what Young has recognised – and it’s a widespread phenomenon, with offenders ranging from Boris Johnson to Tony Blair – is that bogus self-deprecation is a very good way of deflecting people’s natural urge to hate you. If the wider public were fully aware of Young’s overweening shamelessness – the way, for example, he emailed every person on his considerable mailing list urging them to vote for him in the GQ book awards – they would surely boycott his every jotting out of sheer disgust. But they’re not aware. They probably think he’s a sweet modest guy who has been cruelly abused by a heartless world.
Or look at Boris – another master of bogus self-deprecation. When you see him on Have I Got News For You, your immediate impression is of an amiable, bumbling half-wit with a vocabulary straight out of Billy Bunter. And understandably so: portraying yourself as an Old Etonian Tory in front of a BBC audience would be akin to wandering into a Hema village in a T-shirt saying ‘Je suis Lendu.’ I’ve heard of similar stratagems being employed by people who want to avoid being mugged in Central Park at night. Apparently, if you jabber madly to yourself, the bad guys will let you off the hook.
He pulls the same trick even when he’s off camera, and it works; it makes you feel charmed and unthreatened by his enormous Greats-at-Balliol brain. But just ask yourself this: how ruthless and cunning do you have to be to bag the seat of a well-loved constituency MP who’s politically your polar opposite while still keeping your job as editor of The Spectator? And getting asked on to Have I Got News For You as a presenter?
But perhaps he has been taking a few tips from across the floor from the undoubted king of bogus self-deprecation, Tony Blair. Blair has remained so widely tolerated for so long thanks to his bravura impersonation of a plain, simple guy who – oops – seems accidentally to have found himself running the country. Like the Fettes school-play star he once was, he’s particularly adept with props. One of them is his guitar, which – rather as his fellow fraud Clinton did with his sax – he reluctantly wheels out on every possible occasion. When Tones reminisces modestly about the ineptitude of Ugly Rumours, you know damn well that what he’s really doing is swanking about what a cool guy he was. ‘Hey, I was in a rock band, me.’ His other prop is a football, which he pretends not to be very good with. Of course, if he were genuinely inept with a ball, he’d never agree to do photo calls with famous footballers which enable him to show off his skills.
It’s one of the few areas where Blair has remained true to his public-school upbringing – this carefully cultivated veneer of effortless superiority. In this, of course, he is wholly different from his more basic, unimaginative Chancellor who would much prefer us all to be like the Americans. The Americans have never had a problem admitting to the world how good they are. This is partly because they think modest self-effacement makes you a quitter and a wuss; and partly because they don’t have the equivalent of our tall-poppy syndrome, where we instantly want to destroy anyone who seems to have got too big for their boots or (a quintessentially English concept) too clever for their own good. It’s why they always beat us at tennis.
Personally, I think the British way is much better. It lulls your enemies into a false sense of security and it good-naturedly allows the rancorous to be less upset by your many achievements than they might be were you to shout them from the rooftops. Also, it’s a fine English tradition stretching back at the very least to Uriah Heep. And, though it may be disingenuous, it’s a lot less ghastly than the alternative, which is to go round bragging like Jeffrey Archer until you end up in the nick.
What I think the editor was hoping at this point was that I would out myself as yet another bogus self-deprecator. Because I’m forever whingeing about how badly my career’s going and because the thinly disguised autobiographical element in my book invariably seems to involve my throwing up at inopportune moments, being got at by celebrities, failing to pull girls, etc., he seems to imagine that it’s all a brilliant ruse to mask my naked ambition.
His favoured image is that fabulous scene in Lord of the Rings where Gollum just about manages to coax himself into a state of good-natured humility when he catches sight of his precious Ring, and suddenly his eyes blaze, his teeth sharpen and his nose juts forward in a grotesque caricature of avarice as he remembers his real purpose. Except I don’t think I’m quite like that. I’ve always been pretty up front about what I want – double-fronted Georgian house, big garden, enough mon
ey for the school fees, me-column with big picture byline, massive literary success, that sort of thing – and the only reason I keep grumbling is that I haven’t got any of them yet and I bloody well think I deserve them.
And though I do admit to being guilty of sometimes exaggerating my miseries in order to win people’s sympathy, it’s not really for my public’s benefit that I do it so much as for the Eumenides. You see, for as long as I can remember I have told myself that if ever I show too much happiness in my career, my family life or my general good fortune, the Furies will notice and punish me by taking it all away from me. I know quite a few successful people who think this way, and they’re much better for it. It’s the ones who are not daily aware just how quickly and easily they could fall and just how far who are the problem.
Oh, and I do pretty much mean what I said about my book at the beginning. It’s probably the best thing I’ve done, and if you like my stuff you’re not going to regret buying it. Don’t let anything Toby Young says when he reviews it in a couple of weeks persuade you otherwise.
Thinly Disguised Autobiography is published by Picador on 18 July.