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September 21, 2006

Harry Phibbs asks, how many highly successful books about life as a failure can any one person write? The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir - Toby Young

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir
by Toby Young
London: Abacus, 2006
Paperback, 11.99

The writer Toby Young is a colossal egotist and has managed to carve out fame and fortune for himself - as a failure. After his best selling book How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, which resulted in London publishing circles swooning, he has produced the next instalment, The Sound of No Hands Clapping. Yes, the critics have spotted the inherent contradiction.

The material is autobiographical, with a heavy dose of poetic licence. Young casts himself as a bumbling Frank Spencer figure always getting into scrapes. Often he will make politically incorrect comments, in the manner of Ali G, and then be startled by the indignation that results.

Certainly, Young is someone who over the years has been immensely pushy about getting a job but then often lackadaisical about keeping it. In the case of The Times he seems to have had a death wish. He gets his big break as a news trainee and here he takes up the story:

The editor of the time in those days was an old Fleet Street hand named Charlie Wilson and to pass the time I would spend five minutes in every morning trying to trick the office computer that I was him. I would enter his username and then try a dozen different passwords before giving up and logging on as myself. Then, one day, I hit upon the right password: "Top Man". Suddenly, I had access to all the paper's best-kept secrets. It was too good an opportunity to miss. I rooted through Charlie Wilson's "Personal" files and found a memo from the managing editor that included the salaries of every single Times executive. I immediately sent it to everyone in the building making it look as though it had come from the editor's terminal. For the rest of the day, Charlie Wilson had to contend with a succession of disgruntled employees, all of whom were demanding more money after learning how much some of their senior colleagues were being paid.
Toby is not left wing and wasn't n his youth either - rather the contrary. So it was not a question of seeking to destroy Murdoch from within. As I say he was not lacking ambition. So why did he do it? It wasn't a moment of madness. Let us continue the story:
It took The Times's systems manager a week to find the source of the security breach and in the meantime I caused as much mischief as possible. My immediate boss was a languid jazz enthusiast named Richard Williams and when he got to work fifteen minutes late one morning I sent him a message, purporting to be from the editor, saying, "Move your fucking car. It's in my space". He leapt out of his chair as if he'd received a jolt from a cattle prod. On another occasion, posing as the editor, I sent a memo to everyone announcing that I'd taken the decision to ban smoking in the office. For the rest of the day, members of staff had to assemble in the stairwell to get their hourly fix, an inconvenience they found particularly galling given that Charlie Wilson - himself a 60 a day man - was wondering around with a Rothman's King size permanently dangling from his mouth.
When Young was finally caught he expressed indignation at being sacked:
After all, being able to bypass computer security systems is a useful skill for any reporter to have.
Young can be hard working when he wants to be and perhaps a freelance arrangement was more suitable. Among those he has worked for include The Spectator. At their summer party during William Hague's leadership many noticed that Hague and Young looked similar. Young planned to go up to the Tory leader to tell him:
Don't make this harder on yourself than it has to be, Mr Hague. You're being replaced. On the planet I come from death by vaporisation is considered a luxury.
Young never did have the bottle to ever make the remarks and he would have probably been rugby tackled by Amanda Platell before he had finished.

In the acknowledgements, Toby thanks his wife Caroline for putting up with a lot. She certainly does - musings like the following for instance:

I quickly discovered there are some very sound arguments for not getting married. According to the Institute of Social and Economic Research, men's disposable income falls by an average of 15 per cent when they tie the knot, while women's goes up by 28 per cent. For a man, getting married is like entering a new tax bracket without any corresponding increase in income. It's like moving to Denmark.

My accountant confirmed that there was no tax benefit in getting married, at least not since the Government had abolished the married couple's allowance. The only advantage he could think of would be if I transferred some of my income-earning assets into Caroline's name in order to equalise our incomes, thereby reducing our joint tax burden. However, he quickly pointed out that I didn't have any income-earning assets and, even if I did, there would be no guarantee that Caroline would give them back if we ever got divorced.

Of course, few men engage in this kind of calculation when deciding whether to get married. For most of us, the real stumbling block is having to be faithful to just one person for the rest of our lives. The issue doesn't turn on how attractive the woman in question is. She could be Marilyn Monroe and it wouldn't make any difference. Rather, it's the thought of never being able to have sex with anyone else that's so difficult to bear.

Other comic scenes of humiliation include one of the high ups in Hollywood ringing him up about a screenplay and Young assuming it to be a crank call and then failing to get back in touch when it tuned out to be genuine because he couldn't get through. Then he told crude jokes at the wedding of one of his best friends, Sean Macaulay. Among the guests was Gordon Brown who tried to be kind. There are bits reprinted from the Evening Standard about Toby's experience as a dad who is both laddish but also stays at home. There are screen plays he gets paid for but doesn't actually get to the stage of having to write.

This is Toby Young's second highly successful book about life as a failure. He will have to find a new theme for his next one.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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