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The Elusive Question Master
December/January 2016/17

Yet Paxman’s book arguably loses much of its interest once we get to the grown-up bit of the story. True, it is very funny. His recounting of the famous Marks & Spencer pants episode, for example, is hilarious. So too is the story of the young Kwasi Kwarteng MP audibly repeating “Oh fuck, I’ve forgotten” when he chaired the Trinity College, Cambridge team on University Challenge.

But do we learn much from Paxman’s thoughts on the likes of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Bill Clinton? Not really. Just about everyone knows that Ted Heath was ghastly and that Boris Johnson is a chancer (even if he is a likable one). Nor do Paxman’s remarks on the state of contemporary journalism as primarily an exercise in rewriting press releases cast much new light on the fate of a benighted profession. He is good at explaining the bizarre internal workings of BBC management and better still at describing the complicated relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Even he cannot fully account for the extraordinary questions he posed to some of his unfortunate guests.

However, the dissatisfaction has deeper roots and ultimately boils down to an uncertainty about what Paxman’s book is meant to be. It starts off as an authentic and moving account of a post-war childhood in the West Midlands, replete with the dramas of a dysfunctional household — a father crying on the bathroom floor in the presence of his sister — only to become a witty and rather gossipy book about a career behind the headlines and on our TV screens. The openness of the early years vanishes, to be hidden behind the well-cultivated public persona with which we have all been long familiar.

Much of this derives from Paxman’s (understandable) decision to exclude his own family from his narrative. It also arises from his conviction that we learn little from a knowledge of someone’s personal tastes (in this case, a love of fly-fishing). Perhaps the clue lies in Paxman’s admission that he has always suffered from the feeling that he is something of an imposter, that he adds little to the party he was so fearful of missing. So, in Paxman’s words, this is a book about “some stuff that happened”. Consequently, if we learn that (holding his nose) Paxman voted Remain, we learn little about what he thinks of the world beyond broadcasting, about what moves him, about what he has read, about what his hopes have been and might still be.

Many a reader might be satisfied by this and many will chuckle at references to the legions of unpaid Tarquins and Amelias keeping the press afloat but it feels as if there are two distinctly separate books struggling to get out here. What I know is that, on the rare occasions I have sat at lunch opposite my fellow baby boomer, I have found myself talking to one of the most intriguing people I have ever met.

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