Toby Young Toby Young

Why didn’t I listen to the Old Devil?

I should have listened to what that Old Devil Kingsley Amis said

When Kingsley Amis won the Booker prize for The Old Devils in 1986, he said that he had previously thought of the Booker as a rather trivial, showbizzy sort of caper, but now considered it a very serious, reliable indication of literary merit. It was a joke, evidently. Indeed, when he said it during his acceptance speech he grinned from ear to ear, just to make it crystal clear that he was being ironic. But it didn’t do any good. In a BBC round-up of the events of the year, the presenter said that Amis had won the distinguished literary prize in spite of having previously disparaged it. This was portrayed as a brilliant bit of sleuthing on the presenter’s part, as if his own dogged research had exposed Amis’s ghastly hypocrisy. In his memoirs, Amis concludes this anecdote by issuing a warning to writers and others: ‘Never make a joke against yourself that some little bastard can turn into a piece of shit and send your way.’

As a journalist whose stock in trade is telling stories against himself, I also experience these infuriating episodes from time to time. Perhaps the most memorable was at the Cannes film festival in 2008 when I spoke at a press conference to launch How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, the film based on my memoir of the same name. One of the assembled hacks — a friend of mine — asked how I felt about being played by Simon Pegg, who happened to be standing right next to me. I glanced at him contemptuously and said: ‘A bit disappointed, obviously. I was hoping for Brad Pitt.’

It was blindingly obvious I was joking. Indeed, everyone present burst out laughing. But in the following day’s Independent, the journalist who’d asked the question wrote up the incident in a way that portrayed me as an arrogant cock.

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