The Gentle Giant

Jan. 16 2002 4:33 PM

The Gentle Giant

Michael Young is remembered by his son.

Michael Young, who died two days ago, invented, guided, and advised so many public and private organisations that he might aptly be called the most influential Briton you may never have heard of. His son, Toby Young, writes about the father he knew.


Filial pride can take you by surprise sometimes. Not the fact that you're feeling it, but the intensity of the feeling, the sheer ferocity. It was the night of Oct. 30, 1999 and my father had come to stay with me in New York. I took him to a party given by a famous young writer; and there he was, in his threadbare Marks & Spencer jacket, surrounded by the Manhattan glitterati. I was worried that he might be bored, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. There was certainly no shortage of beautiful girls.

The woman I was talking to, a journalist in her early 30s, caught me looking at him across the room and crinkled her eyes sympathetically.

"I know exactly what it's like," she said.

"Know what what's like?" I asked.

"You know, having to look after your dad. They can be a real liability at that age."

I felt a flicker of annoyance. What on earth was she talking about? He wasn't some out-of-control 2-year-old, crawling all over the room. Then she did something unforgivable. She rolled her eyes.

I was so furious I couldn't speak. How dare you? I thought. How fucking dare you? I was tempted to rattle off some of the things this "liability" had achieved. As the head of the Labour Party's Research Department during the Second World War and the author of its 1945 manifesto, he was one of the architects of Britain's post-war consensus. He founded the Consumers' Association, the National Extension College and the College of Health. He wrote many books, two of them best sellers. He laid the foundations of the Open University. He invented the word "meritocracy". He spawned dozens of organisations, enriching the lives of tens of millions of people, from the East End of London to the Horn of Africa. After turning 70, he started a magazine for the elderly, became President of Birkbeck College, published half a dozen books, and set up countless more public bodies, including the Open College of the Arts and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. As if that wasn't Promethean enough, five years ago, at the age of 80, he became a father again when his third wife gave birth to a baby girl. This man is a giant, I wanted to say. Beside him, these so-called "movers and shakers" are nothing.

I always got a little hot under the collar when I thought my father wasn't getting his due. Yet being the son of such a formidable over-achiever wasn't easy. How could I possibly compete? During my adolescence I smoked a great deal of dope and failed all my O-levels, much to my mother's chagrin. However, among my father's many gifts was a talent for dialectics—the sociologist Garry Runciman maintained he was impossible to defeat in a practical argument—and he managed to persuade me to retake my O-levels, study for three A-levels and then apply to Oxford. When I got in he seemed remarkably unsurprised, as if he'd always known I'd come right in the end. This implacable optimism served him well in his career as an inventor of organisations. Like some eccentric, Professor Brainstorm type, he knew his outlandish creations would work, even if everyone else was sceptical.

While growing up, I rarely saw my father until 8 pm. He was always working. During the week, he'd be at the Institute of Community Studies, his base of operations in Bethnal Green, and at the weekend he'd be in his office at the top of the house. Even on Sundays he'd disappear at 9 am and wouldn't emerge until well after 7 pm. It's not an exaggeration to say that he never took a holiday. Two years ago, when he was supposed to be taking a break in Australia, he spent his time inventing a new kind of brake light. That's right, a brake light! He thought it would become the first thing that would actually make him some money.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?