The Elusive Question Master

Jeremy Paxman's memoir is a moving and witty account of a postwar upbringing and TV career, but we learn little of the man behind the persona

Jeremy Jennings

By my reckoning Jeremy Paxman is just two years older than I am. We are then both members of the generation that Paxman does not hesitate to describe as “the most privileged that has ever lived”. Indulgence, he believes, was offered to us on a plate, and little good have we done with our astonishing good fortune.

Yet I cannot but think that when we were boys I got the better part of the deal. Yes, our fathers were still struggling to adapt to a post-war civilian life — in Paxman’s case, this cast a long shadow over his family, with a reconciliation between father and son only achieved at the end of the former’s life — and our mothers had still to escape from domestic drudgery, but, while I was happily content at Highbank Junior School, Nottingham, poor Paxman was suffering at the hands of a “bunch of drunks, pederasts and cashiered army officers” at the positively Dickensian Lickey Hills Preparatory School. Looking at the photograph of the pathetic specimens who made up their school football team — with both Paxman brothers present — I think we would have kicked them off the field in minutes.

School at Malvern College seemed hardly better. Here good money — earned from his grandfather’s canning factory — condemned Paxman to a life of what he describes as “pettifogging tyranny”, of beatings at the hands of tail-coated prefects, of fagging, compulsory daily chapel, and the Combined Cadet Corps on Wednesday afternoons. He hated the place. Malvern, it seems, had a language laboratory but so did Fairham Comprehensive School and we never once had to dress up as soldiers. Best of all, we had access to girls. The closest Jeremy seems to have got was a midnight meeting with Georgina, an encounter brought to a hasty and doubtless unsatisfactory end by the arrival of the poor girl’s headmistress. Paxman’s musical tastes did not get past Bob Dylan, the Who and the Kinks (we sixth-formers on the council estate were listening to Cream and the Incredible String Band). As for his A level results, even he admits they were terrible. And they were.

A year later, Paxman was at St Catherine’s College Cambridge, still desperately trying to meet the females of Homerton College and the local language schools, still haunted by the idea that there was a party going on to which he had not been invited, but increasingly drawn to student journalism. Almost by luck he had found the career that has dominated the subsequent 40 years of his life. The same luck got him a job with the BBC and not long afterwards he was covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

What followed is a career that has seen Paxman working on many of the flagship television and radio programmes of recent decades. Indeed, it is easy to forget that in addition to Newsnight, Paxman worked on Panorama, Breakfast Time, Tonight, The Six O’Clock News and many other programmes now largely forgotten. He has been the long-time quizmaster of University Challenge, presenter of television series on the Victorians, the First World War, and the British Empire, and has done much more besides. Not bad for someone who speaks without insincerity of his “own modest talent”.

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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