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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 9th October 2004

Thinly Disguised Autobiography by James Delingpole

James Delingpole

Picador, £10.99, pp.476

Dear James,

Thanks for sending me a copy of your...what shall we call it? Memoir? Novel? Anyway, I really enjoyed it. You've completely captured what it was like to be an Oxford undergraduate in the mid-80s--all that Sloane Ranger crap, the Pimms, the seccies. Every time I turned the page I had a horrible jolt of recognition. "Oh Christ," I kept thinking. "Were we really that bad?" (We were, we were.) The drug stuff, too, is absolutely spot on. I don't think I've ever read such an accurate account of what it's like to smoke dope. Or drop acid. Or take shrooms. You have this wonderfully colloquial, casual style, like you've just tossed it off between a couple of spliffs on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean, but actually you're this really diligent reporter. You have an eye for the telling detail. It all comes leaping off the page in vivid technicolour. You're like Hunter S Thompson in a pair of green wellies.

The thing is, mate--and I know this isn't what you want to hear--I don't think it's quite ready for publication. For starters, I don't quite get this is-it-or-isn't-it-an-autobiography thing. It comes across like you're trying to be all tricksy and post-modern, like Martin Amis including a character in Money called "Martin Amis", and, well, to be frank, it's a bit irritating. I mean, it's basically a memoir, right? This Josh Deveroux character, he's you, isn't he? It reads like you've essentially written your autobiography, but you don't want to name names for fear of embarrassing anyone who might be in a position to harm your career so you've decided to make a virtue out of your cowardice by pretending it's a deliberate, genre-straddling bit of literary experimentation. My advice is to drop all that poncey stuff, come clean about the fact that it's a memoir and name the guilty men. Whatever ill-will you attract will easily be offset by the yards of column inches you'll generate in Londoner's Diary. Stop being such a wuss.

Having said that, in most other respects I think you've been far too candid. All that material about how you tried to pass yourself off as much posher than you are at Christ Church, your embarrassment when your father came to see you, with his Midlands accent and so forth. That's too much bloody information. We all suffer from a bit of class anxiety from time to time--it's the English disease--but, for gawd's sake, you're not supposed to talk about it. It's just too cringe-making. They must have taught you that, even at Solihull Comprehensive or wherever it is you went.

Then there's the fact that you don't make nearly enough effort to conceal what a shameless little hustler you are. You start out as this smug git who's only interested in meeting famous people and shagging gorgeous birds and...you never change. About three-quarters of the way through I was expecting a personal crisis, followed by a bout of intense suffering and, finally, some sort of moral awakening. But it doesn't happen, not really. Okay, the character goes from being predominantly self-satisfied to being predominantly self-loathing, but that isn't the same as self-understanding. You never escape the prison of your own narcissism.

I'm not trying to get all psycho-analytical on you here. God knows, we're all pretty shallow in this business. I'm merely pointing out that, from a narrative point of view, this is a real failing. It means there's no substance. It's just the story of your life and, to be brutal, that's not really interesting enough. I know this is rich coming from me, but at least in my memoir I managed to give the impression that I'd matured a little by the end (even if you and I know that's crap). In reality, you may not be any less self-obsessed today than you were 20 years ago, but you're one of Fleet Street's finest. You know the rule: if you can't make it, fake it. Give it a bit of top spin.

Look, don't get me wrong. I really, really liked it. You're a huge talent and several of the passages had me biting my fingernails with envy. The scene in the Ivy when your cool celebrity friend turns on you in front of your little brother--that's gold, mate, pure gold. I just think you need to stick in a bit of character development as well. We're not talking major surgery here. All it'll take is a quick rewrite and you're such a robohack you can probably bosh it out in 24 hours--and I mean that as a compliment. Once you learn how to harness your formidable reporting skills to telling a proper story you'll be selling more copies than Hornby and Parsons combined. Then you can move to that five-storey house in Kensington you're always going on about and take your rightful place among the panellists on Late Review.

See you at the launch party.

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