One of the nice things about having a column in The Spectator is that I get a chance to reply to all the smears and lies published about me. Which brings me to my wife’s remarks in last week’s magazine. The editor asked the partners of regular contributors to write a few words on what it’s like living with us during lockdown and Caroline was unbelievably rude. Among other things, she accused me of being a ‘complete hypochondriac’, said the pandemic had sent my anxiety levels ‘through the roof’ and ascribed my own life-and-death battle with the virus to a bout of shingles brought on by the stress.
Needless to say, this was manna from heaven for all the haters out there. Alan White, an online journalist who describes himself as ‘Lord Chief Justice of Twitter’, posted a screengrab of Caroline’s piece and the venomous comments came flooding in. ‘Venting about him in public is a service in that it will put other women off ever going near a man like this,’ wrote Liz Tray, a sub-editor at Time Out.
Someone else tweeted: ‘This reads like the kind of parody someone who hates Toby Young would write.’ ‘Why doesn’t she leave him?’ wondered London Lofty, a QPR fan. ‘Such an awful human being.’ Another person added: ‘Not a court in the land would convict her if…’ Richard Innes, co-host of a podcast for first-time dads, wrote: ‘Do you think “Tobe” realises he’s a laughing stock?’ But the best comment of all was: ‘Forget about the NHS. I’m clapping for Caroline at 8 p.m. next Thursday.’
When people react in this way to a piece of writing that’s obviously intended to be funny, I often wonder whether they’re just pretending to take it literally so they can use it as a stick to beat me with or they really are that tin-eared. I fear it’s the latter. During the five years I spent in New York, it used to depress me that so few Americans picked up on the different ironic registers that Englishmen use in everyday conversation, rarely intending for anything to be taken at face value. A self--deprecating remark, the purpose of which was to advertise just how sublimely self-confident I am, was often met with a look of furrowed-brow concern, as though I was suffering from low self-esteem.
On the other hand, an arrogant comment intended to send up the pomposity of Brits in general was usually greeted with stern disapproval. I remember being on a plane about to land at JFK on 4 July as the fireworks were going off and saying to the man next to me how nice it was that Americans still celebrated their conquest by the Brits. I was expecting a hoot of laughter, not a history lecture about the war for independence.
But in the past ten years or so it’s begun to feel like that living in Britain too. Spectator writers seem particularly susceptible to being misunderstood, because we tend to make full use of these different registers and are almost never in earnest. (Not unless it’s after midnight and we’ve been drinking all day.)
I used to marvel at all the people sifting through the columns of Taki, Rod Liddle, Douglas Murray, James Delingpole and me every week, desperately looking for things to be offended by, suspecting they were just malevolent trolls hoping to get us into trouble. But it’s begun to dawn on me that they’re just completely unversed in the tonal variety employed by mischievous hacks like us. When it comes to their own conversation, it’s the same dull note of plodding sincerity all the time and they assume we must be the same. Consequently, when they read something that seems to cast one of us in a bad light — such as Caroline describing me watching her slave away at the household chores and saying ‘We seem to be managing really well without our cleaner’ — they are genuinely offended.
In fairness, it’s difficult not to be complicit in these cloth-eared confusions. Part of the bond that we columnists have with our readers is that they understand us, even if most other people don’t. It’s knowing that they’re in a small minority that makes the relationship special. And we play up to that by being outrageous in a camp, hammed-up way that we know will drive our critics round the twist and add to our readers’ amusement. Anyway, Caroline’s squib was very much in that vein and it seems to have worked like gangbusters.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.