Status anxiety

What will it take to live up to my father’s Great Life?

If I want to be in the future, I’d better pull my socks up

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

I received a phone call the other day that I wasn’t expecting. It was a BBC producer calling about a Radio 4 series called Great Lives, presented by Matthew Parris. Each week, a distinguished guest is asked to nominate someone they believe is truly deserving of the title ‘Great Life’ and then they come on the radio to discuss that person, along with an ‘expert’.

I got rather excited as she was explaining this. Had someone really nominated me? When she told me the name of the guest I was even more thrilled — Brian Eno, the founder of Roxy Music.

‘The rock legend?’ I said. ‘That’s awfully flattering.’

‘Yes, isn’t it?’ she replied. ‘And we were wondering if you’d like to be our studio ‘expert’?’

‘Yes, delighted, obviously. [Pause.] But, er, hang on, wouldn’t that be a bit odd?’

‘No, not at all. You are his son, after all.’

The penny dropped. Brian Eno hadn’t nominated me. He’d nominated my dad.

I was happy to do it, obviously, but I also felt a pang of jealousy. In 50 years’ time, would anyone as talented and famous as Brian Eno nominate me for similar treatment? Matching my father’s accomplishments, with only 30 or so remaining, seems a distant prospect.

Michael Young was born in 1915, the son of an Irish bohemian painter and a Daily Express journalist. He had a miserable childhood, being packed off to the sort of prep schools that George Orwell wrote about in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, but was saved at the age of 13 by a fairy godmother in the form of Dorothy Elmhirst, an eccentric American millionaire. She had started a school in South Devon called Dartington Hall that was the only school in England that taught fruit farming. As luck would have it, my father had a rich Australian uncle with a fruit farm who offered to pay the fees.

Dorothy and her husband Leonard, a Yorkshireman, more or less adopted Michael. Instead of sending him home in the summer holidays, they took him with them on their annual jaunt to America and treated him like one of their own. He travelled in a first-class berth on RMS Aquitania, learned how to sail on Martha’s Vineyard and, on one memorable night, dined at the White House with Franklin D. Roosevelt. When he left Dartington at the age of 18, Dorothy set him up with a small trust fund, as well as a lifetime’s supply of Sobranie cigarettes.

Michael’s first notable achievement was writing a pamphlet for a pressure group called Political and Economic Planning at the age of 22, in which he argued that if war broke out the government mustn’t delay introducing conscription. Churchill read it and was so impressed that he immediately offered my father a job as his private secretary. He accepted, but the offer was withdrawn when Churchill discovered he was a member of the Holborn branch of the Communist party.

Michael went on to run the Labour party’s research department and, in that capacity, wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto. He spent the next six years at the heart of the Attlee government, laying the foundations of the welfare state, then left in 1951 to do a PhD at the LSE. His doctorate formed the basis of a book called Family and Kinship in East London which, to this day, is referred to by sociology students as ‘Fakinel’.

But it was his next book that really made his name — The Rise of the Meritocracy. A dystopian satire in the same mould as Brave New World, it purported to be an historical essay written by an academic in the mid-21st century about the emergence of a new ruling class whose claim to power was based on their superior intellect. The book was intended as a satirical critique of what my father regarded as a pernicious way of justifying inequality and it irritated him for the rest of his life that the word he’d coined to describe this ghastly new phenomenon — meritocracy — was generally used by politicians to describe something wholly desirable.

At this point, Michael’s place in the history of post-war Britain was guaranteed, but he was just getting started. He set up a research institute in Bethnal Green that, for the next 50 years, became a kind of organisational supernova, pumping out an endless stream of new institutions: the Consumers Association, Which? magazine, the Social Science Research Council, the University of the Third Age, the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Grandparents Plus… it goes on and on. The historian Noel Annan compared him to Cadmus, the founder of Thebes in Greek mythology: ‘Whatever field he tilled, he sowed dragon’s teeth and armed men seemed to spring from the soil to form an organisation.’

And if you think all of that is impressive, he also co-founded the Open University. Whenever I’m at risk of feeling a little too pleased with myself because I’ve helped set up a handful of schools, I remind myself that Michael helped establish the single largest educational institution in the world. At any one time, the Open University has a quarter of a million students, an astonishing figure.

I was the product of Michael’s second marriage and shared a home with him for the first 18 years of my life. At the time, I thought he was a great dad, a figure of towering authority, but now that I’m a father myself I realise how little time he spent with his children. I can clearly remember playing football with him in Waterlow Park on my ninth birthday. A lovely memory, to be sure, but the reason I can recall it is because it was one of the very few occasions he took me to the park. My children, by contrast, will have no specific memories of playing football with their dad, because we do it every weekend.

For Michael, the work always came first. He’d been given a great gift by Dorothy Elmhirst, who’d saved him from neglect, and that left him with an overwhelming sense of obligation to do the same for others. If I’m going to achieve anything else in the next 30 years, it must be driven by the same philanthropic impulse.

Great Lives: Michael Young will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 23 December at 4.30 p.m. and repeated on Boxing Day at 11 p.m. Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Cornelius Bonkers

    Don’t sell yourself short Toby; except amongst old and new lefties I’m afraid your father is not the elevated academic figure Messrs Eno and Parris seem to think. As a sociologist myself I feel your own writings have far greater insight into the realities of social life than the patronising and dangerous mythologies spouted by your father and his disciples. I’m sorry, but folk like him were and are the cause of – rather than the solution to – many of today’s problems. He had enormous influence in the promotion of ridiculous planning utopias and foolish public policy decisions. I’ll stop there…

    • GraveDave

      Don’t sell yourself short Toby; except amongst old and new lefties I’m afraid your father is not the elevated academic figure Messrs Eno and Parris seem to think.

      Maybe it would have been best to just to have kept quiet in this case.
      It is – was – his father after all.

      • Cornelius Bonkers

        Strange remark Dave; considering Toby didn’t keep quiet about his dad…I wouldn’t have commented otherwise…

    • Mahender Goriganti

      Forget about your sociology degrees , consider what I have to ask above, come up with answer.

      • Cornelius Bonkers

        Well M, I can’t forget about my degrees but I’ll give it a shot – if you tell me what your question is (as it stands it’s a statement) – regards

        • Mahender Goriganti

          I lived upto to keep my fathers name as well as the name he gave me as best as I can, as I am supposed to. There ifact is no question but a comet about your so called sociology degree that claims to be above all.

      • Mahender Goriganti

        I did not create this comment but never the less is relevant. I understand how you may not forget your degrees and more importantly your ego.

        • Cornelius Bonkers

          What’s my ego got to do with it? I’m sorry, but we have a problem here. You’re guided/dominated by the demands of theology – so as an agnostic I have no answers which could possibly satisfy you. In fact, any truly religious civilisation can never exist as an equal with secularism for very long – viz., Islam, Hinduism etc.,

    • Mahender Goriganti

      You may be a sociologist, he may be longing for attention. It is difficult some times to live upto your fathers’s status as my father was “Dharma” who lived upto his name and named me Mahender. My mother thinks and regrets that I took my name literally.

      • Cornelius Bonkers

        Sorry M, I don’t know what Mahender means

        • Mahender Goriganti

          Maha + Inder in Hindu theology means King of Gods. Though, he has his shortcomings just like other Gods, he is bestowed with that status for sake of order. He has a son just like mine Arjun (Mahabharat) the greatest warier.

  • Steve Jacks

    Your whole book ‘How to lose friends’ was a love note to your dad. It was all one long set up so you could contrast the moral failings of the shallow folks in the Vanity Fair circle with your noble intellectual crusader pater. It was a bit awkward to read the thing and realize you’d been duped with a bait and switch – it wasn’t a ‘lighthearted comedy romp’, you were just gatecrashing a kinda depressing cri de coeur pleading for recognition from (and for) a beloved remote father. You could have just told the old duffer you loved him in person.

  • Samson

    Fair play to the man, that was a life

  • EnosBurrows

    Are you saying that while your father promoted public selflessness but acted selfishly in his private life you do the opposite because he did not play football with you?

    Isn’t that rather like claiming that one became a Soviet spy because one was not made into a prefect at Eton?

    • rtj1211

      No he’s saying that there is a huge difference in that generation between professional standards and emotional competence at home. I can attest to have a very similar father who was a brilliant careerist and a very substandard father.

      Bonding between father and son can’t be imposed as a screw to a prisoner you know, it has to be with the child’s full consent and enthusiasm, otherwise it doesn’t happen.

    • justejudexultionis

      How did you know that I became a Soviet spy because I was not made a prefect at Eton? Who told you that? You don’t have clearance for that level. Who are you working for?

  • Sean L

    Nice tribute.

  • misomiso

    Helping mastermind a final of the Blob would earn you a place Toby, alas I don’t think this is possible any time soon.

  • trace9

    In terms of name-recognition there’ll only one Young forever, & he lost friends & alienated people. Efficiently if not quite sufficiently.

  • rtj1211

    Everyone has a different view of achievement: Britain is riddled with people who have established ‘credence’, ‘track record’ etc etc. Far, far fewer of them will be remembered in 100 years time.

    After all, Salieri was far more popular than Mozart in 1791……

  • CortexUK

    Sorry, but the people who opposed the idea that those with most intelligence should advance the furthest are why we lost almost everything between 1945 and 1979.

    • justejudexultionis

      I think we were shafted by the Americans due to our war debt.

      • CortexUK

        That too. And the US entered the war in Europe so they could destroy our empire, not Hitler’s. Hell, dozens on the Hill and in the US government backed Germany, including JFK’s dad. But I digress…

  • justejudexultionis

    When you are dead you will not care who remembers you.

  • ohforheavensake

    Toby, I’m sorry: to live up to your father, you’d need to be someone else.

  • AJAX

    Serve a cause bigger than yourself

  • edithgrove

    oh shut up.

  • Noa


  • mikewaller

    Interesting article and wonderful programme. The range of your father’s achievements was extraordinary. What the critics below fail to give due credit to was that he was very much of his time in thinking that given the opportunity, most people would blossom in the same way he had. This is now recognised as the academic assumption as in “that job would bore me” ergo “that job is boring”. It could be argued that all that was wrong was a surfeit of human decency.

    Regarding the destruction of grammar schools, one killer fact was pointed out by Andrew Neil on a TV programme when he revisited his old school. He pointed out that just when the opening up of educational opportunities for the ablest of the unprivileged classes might have been expected to deliver prime ministers, we got Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major. Then, with the supply turned off, in due course we were back to the products of public schools. What is often missed is the effect on those students who were the elite within secondary modern and technical schools. Once put into the great comprehensive melting pot, they became also-rans. The other great mistake was the large-scale destruction of single sex schools. As any evolutionist will tell you, sexual selection is the biggest game in town. It is OK at university, but much too distracting during secondary education.

  • Rudy Schmidt

    I detect worthy pride but also vanity in this iteration.

    The prism of father eclipse you will stunt you.

    Cast it off.

  • Rudy Schmidt

    Best thing was his pack of poodles.

  • Mahender Goriganti

    All I know is I lived upto my father’s ethos, who lived upto his name Dharma”. What can I do better ?? as I am Mahendra by Name and I did my best to fulfil that role.