Elsewhere (38)
What Cassini Sees

The Impervious Toynbee

Another classic sentence from the you-know-what: 

By deliberate misrepresentation, drip, drip, week after week, the powerful interests of wealth deliberately distort reality.

So says the leftwing millionaire Polly Toynbee, whose own intermittent relationship with facts and logic is of course quite famous, even earning her the honour of an entire website devoted to listing and correcting her various errors and distortions. One glorious Toynbee article contains no fewer than five factual errors in a single 21-word sentence. Sadly, this effort to correct the finest Guardian journalism has since become dormant, its author possibly having collapsed under the weight of the endeavour.

Ms Toynbee’s own struggles with realism often take intriguing forms, not least in her belief that the state should “become the best possible nanny to all babies,” and her enthusiasm for the idea that “disruptive 16-year-old boys” should be taken out of class to spend a term being taught the finer points of dance, thereby resulting in a “transformation in the whole year group.”

When not curing classroom delinquency with the thrill of modern tap, Ms Toynbee rails against “the unjust rewards of the rich,” by which she means, “the 1.5% who earn over £100,000.” These, she says, are the “extravagant earners” who “feel profoundly entitled to take what they like in salaries… untouched by public disgust or a sense of propriety.” Toynbee’s Guardian salary, for years a subject of speculation, was eventually revealed as £106,000 - excluding royalties, advances, media fees, etc. Curiously, Polly’s own financial rewards are not deemed “extravagant,” “unjust” or in any way improper, such is her ability to apprehend reality.

And let’s not forget Ms Toynbee’s conviction that obesity isn’t chiefly a matter of inactivity and overeating but instead has a more pernicious cause, i.e. a lack of socialism:

It is inequality and disrespect that makes people fat.  

To bolster this radical insight Toynbee made a number of further claims regarding economic inequality and expanded waistlines, each of which proved to be either misleading or untrue.

But Polly is by any measure a complicated woman, one whose on-again-off-again infatuation with Gordon “the Viking” Brown is now the stuff of legend, and whose property portfolio – including a £2.4 million London townhouse, another home in Lewes and a Tuscan holiday villa - is maintained with the proceeds of writing about the poor.


Peter Risdon

I miss the Daily Ablution.

Laban Tall found another cracker recently:

"The likely indictment of John Edwards for misuse of campaign funds is the final blow for a rare champion of economic justice"


Amanda Marcotte brings so much laughter to our lives.

And yes, we all miss the Ablution.


In fairness to la Toynbee, I earn exponentially less than she does, I disrespect her profoundly, and I am pretty fat. And just yesterday morning I was reading an article about the bonuses paid out to executives at UBS Warburg in 2010 and before I knew it I was having a cheeseburger for lunch. With regular - regular - Coke.

Yes, yes, I know, correlation and not necessary causation, but dammit, she might just be on to something here...


It is inequality and disrespect that makes people fat.

Not biscuits then?

I'm surprised you didn't take on Polly's 'chav' outrage.


"It is inequality and disrespect that makes people fat."

So there is a completely different cause for powerful, highly respected rich fat people then? People like Polly.



“I’m surprised you didn’t take on Polly’s ‘chav’ outrage.”

Well, she’s basically covering the same ground as an earlier Guardian piece, on which I commented. So I’m not sure how much I could add. Though it seems to me the word chav is a favoured working class term, similar to “scrote,” and denotes a thoughtless and antisocial lifestyle that you wouldn’t want housed next door, however modest your means. Perhaps Ms Toynbee feels that people who live in or near the rougher parts of town shouldn’t have a word to describe those who make their lives a misery.


I suspect Polly's set have a similarly derogatory term for people who can only afford second homes in Umbria.


And speaking of blogs we miss, when is Eugenides getting back on the horse?


Aha, very kind. When I have something constructive to say - or destructive, or at least interesting - that goes beyond agreeing with you about the idiocy of mindless leftists. We will see.


If you don't have the phrase "limousine liberal" in the UK, then, on behalf of the people of the United States, I gift it to you. Use it in good health.



You forgot to add nepotist as she only got into Oxford Uni because of her father.


Actually, I'd guess Ms. Toynbee has spent pretty much her whole life coasting on the accomplishments of her ancestors. Which explains why she thinks other rich people must be lazy, selfish bastards, too. The word is "projection."


May I say that the bit about taking disruptive students out of the regular curriculum and teaching them dance instead for a term does not sound utterly hare-brained? There is nothing so inherently magnificent about modern schooling that we ought to force it upon the very people for whom it has no effect, especially when other models are available. One of the ongoing criticisms of education is its divorce from application. With all the miserable time I spent diagramming sentences, writing a play sounds like a superior way to learn English for that reason alone.

It may be a case of the stopped clock being right twice a day, but there you go.



“The word is ‘projection.’”

Another thing. Regarding the word ‘chav,’ Polly tells us,

This is language from the Edwardian era of unbridled snobbery. When safely reproduced in Downton Abbey, as the lady sneering at the scullery maid or the landowner bullying his workers, we are encouraged to look back smugly as if these shocking class differences were long gone.

Having watched Downton Abbey in full, twice, I can’t recall any scenes matching the description above. There’s a lot of noblesse oblige and heaps of buttoned-up stoicism but Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville don’t spend their time sneering at scullery maids or bullying the workers. Apparently Polly can fathom the particulars of a programme without actually watching it. Such are her talents.

However, our well-heeled socialist is rumoured to be quite grand with those she deems beneath her.



“It may be a case of the stopped clock being right twice a day, but there you go.”

Maybe you went to a school with a better class of delinquent. The 16-year-old boys who were disrupting lessons at my old school had different ideas about physical expression.

Ted S., Catskills, NY

By deliberate misrepresentation, drip, drip, week after week, the powerful interests of wealth deliberately distort reality.

I presume she's talking about the BBC's presentation of so-called man-made global warming? Or the "mainstream" news organizations' coverage of immigration? Or nuclear power?

Peter Risdon

A very nice Toynbee-a-like (I expect Polly is OK too, as a person) suggested to me once that dance should be used to teach mathematics to disruptive boys. I asked how.

Although I'm still waiting for an answer, the conversation left me with a very pleasing mental image of a track-suited tattoo-canvass (I realise I shouldn't say 'chav') performing a few simple dance steps in a supermarket aisle, as the only way they could add prices. Imagine what a bookie's shop would look like.


Perhaps Ms Toynbee feels that people who live in or near the rougher parts of town shouldn’t have a word to describe those who make their lives a misery.


Guardianista + chavs = learning curve.


“Guardianista + chavs = learning curve.”


The key line, I think, being: “They took no notice, so then I did something stupid.”

Novelists allegedly have some insight into human psychology and behaviour, so I can’t help wondering exactly what she thought would happen.

Nate Whilk

I have to agree with her that socialism will cure obesity. It'll do that by curing the generous level of crops and livestock that now oppress us. A serendipitous side effect will be a decrease in the surplus population. I think we should call it the Toynbee/Ukraine Cure.


Toynbee’s conviction that obesity isn’t chiefly a matter of inactivity and overeating but instead has a more pernicious cause, i.e. a lack of socialism

Polly thinks everything bad is down to a lack of socialism. If only taxes were even higher and the state had a hand in everything we'd all be happier for it! She says the same thing every week so it must be true.


“Polly thinks everything bad is down to a lack of socialism.”

She does seem to have real difficulty with the idea that her intrusive and rapacious paternalism might actually do harm to those she claims to care about. The downside of the state as surrogate parent seems indigestible. I think Peter summed up the possible consequences quite well here:

“One thing, and one thing only, keeps people trapped in the kind of poverty of mind where they don’t feed their children properly even when they could, and shit in their own stairwells. It’s a lack of ownership; a lack of self-reliance. It’s a lack of the very concept of self-reliance. It’s an idea that the mere thought that they should be self-reliant is immoral, evil, callous and cruel.”

Though I see no reason to suppose that Toynbee is as gushing with compassion as she would have us believe. If she were, she might give half of her six-figure salary to those she deems in need, and do it again the next year, and the year after that. I suspect she could do this fairly easily and each time it would change someone’s life. Likewise, she might give one of her three houses to a deserving family. That too would be a life-changing gesture.

But I think we both know that isn’t likely to happen.

Peter Risdon


Dickens coined the phrase 'telescopic philanthropy' - the desire to do good, but from a great distance.

Polly suffers from the desire to indulge in vicarious philanthropy - the desire to give generously of other people's time and money.

But at no time does she try to imagine what we could do to put the recipients in a position where they could be sufficiently autonomous and affluent to become givers themselves.


“...vicarious philanthropy - the desire to give generously of other people’s time and money.”


Not unlike this.


"Novelists allegedly have some insight into human psychology and behaviour, so I can’t help wondering exactly what she thought would happen."

I'd say give her credit for recognising at least that it was stupid (albeit in hindsight) but the last para shows that she hasn't really learned anything at all....


For some strange reason I enjoy posting at The Guardian website "Comment Is Free".

But Toynbee's columns are difficult to comment on, as they are generally so untethered from reality. It's like critiquing "Das Kapital" from the viewpoint of classic liberalism. Where does one even begin?

Robert Edwards

I really do not understand why this dreadful harpy has any public space accorded to her. I have a simple rule; if a matter emerges about which I have no developed view, then it has become very straightforward - find out what the BBC (or the Grauniad) thinks.

And then oppose it.

Sgt Pinback

The problem here is I just can't get worked up about Polly. There are approximately 457 Guardian journalists who are streets ahead of her in terms of ... how shall I put it ... cuntishness. Why waste time on her when animals like Milne, Bunting and Steele are out feverishly rutting with any Islamist they can find.

I actually think Polly may be the sort of person who would secretly spit into their drinks at the Guardian Xmas party. And have a snigger at the idea of Laurie Penny's big scraggy muff.


As Heinlein said of preachers: "It's a nice living if you can stomach it."

David Gillies

Peter Risdon: I am very taken with the idea of Polly as Mrs Jellyby. Mrs Pollyby, perhaps. I think I shall refer to her thus from now on, although I wonder how many will get the reference.

Theodore Dalrymple coined the term "Jellybyism" as "...moral concern in proportion to the square of the distance of the problem from oneself and a tendency to see high-flown and seemingly generous sentiments as the essence of virtue and morality. A virtuous person thus becomes the person who expresses, perhaps with the most conviction or vehemence (which are not quite the same thing, but they are increasingly difficult to distinguish), what are considered to be the right ideas."

Jellybyism/Toynbeeism, ach, who can tell the difference?

David Gillies

And if it is correct, as de la Rochefoucauld said, that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, the Serious Organised Crime Agency should be looking at Polly's extracurricular activities.


Polly’s a strange creature. She has no discernible sense of humour, certainly not about herself, and can tolerate levels of hypocrisy and incoherence that would fell a lesser woman. She manages to sound earnest and impassioned even – especially – when distorting the facts. The more hypocritical and evasive she is, the greater her tone of moral indignation. It’s extraordinary to watch.

She even has the gall to call herself middle-class. This, she tells us, is why she gets mocked by those nasty “rightwing” bloggers. (Obviously, it can’t be anything to do with what she actually says or how often she’s demonstrably wrong.) But as Guido pointed out, Polly isn’t middle class – she’s a millionaire, in the top 1% of earners, part of the metropolitan media elite, born into three generations of the same (which may explain how she got into Oxford with only one A-level). She’s invited to Chequers by Prime Ministers - who, it’s rumoured, find her intimidating - and regularly holds forth, and holds court, on the nation’s state broadcaster. And she describes those who earn a lot less than her, and who have none of her connections and influence, as “the elite” and the “hugely privileged class.”

You could scarcely get more elite than Mary Louisa “Polly” Toynbee.


It’s extraordinary to watch.

That clip is still funny as hell. The 'ooohh' from the audience is hilarious.


“That clip is still funny as hell.”

It pretty much captures the essence of Toynbee. The three-home millionaire socialist who flies to her Tuscan villa lectures the non-millionaire audience on how “we” should want to go without and must make do with less. But it’s Polly’s reaction to Littlejohn that’s revealing. She’s the one who starts the exchange of personal comments but is utterly unprepared for anyone to point out her own enormous hypocrisy. It’s almost as if it hadn’t occurred to her. She just blathers: “Um, er, listen, well… er, let’s not, er… ”

I’m no great fan of Littlejohn but he deserves a drink for reducing Polly to mouthing random syllables. And the really funny thing is that even that public humiliation hasn’t diminished her hypocrisy. She still carries on exactly as before. Again, she’s impervious.

Patrick Brown

Economic illiteracy ahoy at the Graun - Deborah Orr thinks that banks are the only ones who can "create wealth" because they issue currency.


I'm reminded of that bit at the end of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the shipwrecked Golgafrinchans adopt the leaf as legal tender, but because they produce nothing they run into a slight inflation problem, ending up with a peanut costing several deciduous forests.

Ted S., Catskills, NY

And, of course, the Governing Class media keep trotting her out, setting the agenda on what the serious, adult people think is acceptable opinion.


Orr's line of reasoning is actually sounder than the argument I recently had with a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel here in Florida. Long discussion having to do with insurance regulation ended with this brilliant "take-down" of my understanding of economics:

"Without "policymakers," insurers would be free to rip you off, refuse to pay your claim, or otherwise capitalize on your lack of information in your contractual dealings with you...

Private buinesses would be completely free to rip you off without government regulation. That's basic economics. Sorry, sir, you're dead wrong there. The concept is called information asymetry. The history of markets is a history of market failures..."



“…setting the agenda on what the serious, adult people think is acceptable opinion.”

It’s rather like how Bidisha and Laurie Penny imagine they’re being incredibly counter-cultural while conforming to the Toynbee tradition – and consequently being go-to girls for the Guardian and BBC. I’m guessing it doesn’t occur to them that their public platforms are partly a result of mouthing the kind of opinions that are expected of, and by, people like themselves. The BBC – a vast multi-platform media entity, the largest in the world – refers to, links to and advertises in one national paper much more often than the others. Care to guess which one?

It’s possibly worth noting that the BBC happily promoted the launch of Sunny Hundal’s leftwing Liberal Conspiracy blog, where Laurie first caught my attention. Ms Penny is of course now a frequent guest across a number of BBC programmes. Despite her obvious shortcomings and difficulties with facts, they seem to like her. Does she imagine that similar favours would be extended so readily to bloggers whose politics challenge those of Mr Hundal and Ms Penny, and the BBC itself?


I've written a bit of a first draft of what I think is wrong with her thing about "chavs". I find something wrong with every sentence she writes there, but it all comes from a blinkered, apparently-Marxist interpretation of absolutely everything.

It does, however contain several candidates for classic sentences :) Here is one such joyous, hilarious, disturbing nugget:

"Wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain's great social fracture"

She goes on to talk, rather expressively, about "public monstering". I invite you to explain to me what that means. The stuff implying that chav is all about class is infuriating, the number of articles/books she lists as "excellent" make my heart sink.


...though on a lighter note, when an echo of this was written on the BBC website (which has Guardian-esque tendencies in my opinion), the editor's pick of comments were largely of the view that "chav" described behaviour and moral choices rather than being a "class" issue.

ie: that tricky business of being responsible for our actions, which is where Toynbee inexplicably changes the subject and starts saying that if only inequality and unfairness were eliminated tomorrow, all crime would just disappear.

It's all so bloody simply to Guardian jounalists....

David Gillies

I watched the Littlejohn clip and was struck by one of the more common Leftist question-begging tropes in Polly's ramblings: that we should be searching for ways to consume less. No! No! No! We should be looking for ways to MAXIMISE our consumption. It is consumption that constitutes being rich. People in North Korea or Cuba or Sierra Leone consume nothing compared to people in Germany or Canada or Singapore. The reason people want to live in the latter group of countries and not in the former is precisely because they get to consume more. Of course Polly's never been a member of the wealth-generating segment of society so her mindset is utterly refractory to notions like this. She gets a six-figure paycheque for writing trite, boilerplate Leftist bilge and somehow comes to the the conclusion that this state of affairs is a natural law of the universe. She really is a deeply stupid woman.


Polly is "Lady Mary" from "Porterhouse Blue"


The BBC... refers to, links to and advertises in one national paper much more often than the others. Care to guess which one?

"Perhaps the Guardian has such low circulation figures because the lefties choose to listen to the broadcast version on Radio 4 every morning instead."



I do think the BBC left-wing bias is a disgrace - they go on so pompously about 'impartiality', and Radio 4, the BBC website, etc are always trying to educate us as to how things are.

For ages I really thought I was the only person who noticed it. I get the impression that vast numbers of people trust the BBC for a fair coverage. Gradually, people like Rod Liddle and Peter Sissons have come out with stories about the BBC thought-police.

The BBC, which I used to think of as a national treasure, has lost it's balance and now contains a strong clique of unsophisticated left-wing fanatics. They are anti-patriotism, and appear to subscribe unthinkingly to a line of thinking about gender-politics stronger than many feminists. I wish more people were aware of this.



Sometimes the bias is subtle, as in the reporting (or non-reporting) of the Bonergate saga. But sometimes, quite often in fact, it’s not very subtle at all.

It’s one of those things that, once spotted, you wonder how you ever missed it.

sackcloth and ashes

'I’m no great fan of Littlejohn but he deserves a drink for reducing Polly to mouthing random syllables'.

Having a klutz Richard Littlejohn hand your arse to you on a plate on live television must be as humiliating as losing a game of table tennis to David Blunkett.

Polly's lack of self-awareness must be the only thing that keeps her alive.

sackcloth and ashes


Spot the comment by PatBateman (24 May 2006, 9:22pm):

'By the way Ms Toynbee, before you ask us to decry Ian Burchill for referring to the death of your husband, please remind us of the sensitive piece you wrote about Auberon Waugh in the days (not 14 years) after he died, entitled 'Ghastly Man'. Please also remind us about the accompanying cartoon showing Auberon Waugh being flushed down the toilet. I'm sure his grieving family were greatly comforted by your kind words. In fact, his son wrote a touchingly gentle and humorous reposte, something you, as a self-obsessed humour-vacuum, would be incapable of'.

Also the final word by DrJohnCrippen (27 May 2006, 1:52pm):

'Mutatis mutandis, writing under your own name does not give you the right to cause gratuitous offence. I well remember your diatribe on Auberon Waugh written, not to his face, but to his coffin and to his grieving family. I remember also the gentle and temperate reply written by his son. I was reminded of all this by the recent documentary on the Waugh family.

Your behaviour then was despicable.

Yes, you wrote under your own name, but that does not justify or even mitigate what you said.

Auberon Waugh was no left winger, that is for sure. But you clearly failed to understand his style, and his satire.

Shame you did not have the guts to say what you said to his face. His reply would have been a joy, but then he was a better writer than you.

Any comment?'

The comments to this entry are closed.