There are surgeons who faint at the sight of blood, admirals who get seasick and interviewers who struggle under questioning. Jeremy Paxman, for 25 years the beaky-nosed Torquemada of British television, is variously charming, rude, evasive, illuminating and incautious. What he isn’t is comfortable.
Paxo has a few things to answer for. Since leaving Newsnight, the BBC current affairs show he fronted with an engaging blend of mischief and brutality, he has been ricocheting around the country, promoting his well-received book on the Great War and sounding off on subjects dear to his heart. He staged a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and talks, loosely, about ‘lots of ideas’ for the future.
But for now, hunched over a mug of lukewarm tea, he cuts a faintly forlorn presence. It is easy to see, as you gaze into his inquisitive eyes, how Paxo, 64, unsettles his victims. One minute he seems almost woebegone, weighed down by the expectation to perform – the next he will snort and leap magnificently to life. And while he talks as vivaciously as ever, it’s hard to avoid the sense that he finds being scrutinised a lot harder than doing the scrutiny.
Take his ill-received suggestion that the problem of an ageing population could be solved by euthanasia kiosks on street corners.
‘These days you can’t get on to a train or go to a country pub without bumping into old folk who, through no fault of their own, believe the state owes them a living,’ Jeremy told the Edinburgh crowd. ‘They’re under the sad illusion that they’ve paid into a pension fund all their lives. And they haven’t because the way successive governments have mismanaged the pension arrangements, they are being paid out of what you earn.
‘There are just too many old people around, so I would like to invite you all to join a crowdfunding project for a franchise of Dignitas clinics. There will be one on every high street.’ Press outcry ensued.
Baby boomer generation
Paxo knows what is coming. ‘That’s what is known as a joke,’ he says grimly, and the assurance is followed by a blistering admonishment of ‘pathetic, immature, lame-brained’ critics who, he feels, have portrayed him as the new Dr Death. Aha, but then comes the admission: ‘I was also putting forward a serious point.’
Let’s allow Paxo to make it uninterrupted: ‘We have a disproportionately ageing population,’ he says, ‘that requires younger people to work in order to keep it in the style to which it is accustomed, and I do not think that is desirable. The baby-boomers are the luckiest generation ever to have lived, and I think the lack of humility, the complacency, among those born after 1945, who have grown up in an era of ever-improving living standards, ever-improving health care, with cars and foreign holidays, and who are now able to sit on their fat backsides knowing they are getting richer simply because the value of their properties is rising, is extremely unattractive.
‘This generation really ought – firstly – to acknowledge its incredible good fortune and to thank those who came before, and – secondly – apologise to those who have come after for leaving the world in such a disgraceful state.’
Read more about Jeremy Paxman here
He hasn’t finished. ‘To what end has this good fortune been put? What have they done with it? They’ve lived as though there was no tomorrow, extracting whatever wealth they could from the Earth, and our political leaders – what a bunch they’ve been – have collaborated in the destruction of the jobs our children might have been expected to enjoy.’
Paxman appears little impressed by the argument that every generation is hard-wired to pursue progress and enrichment and that, far from being handed their good fortune on a plate, the baby-boomers prospered through their own hard work and creativity. Or that their unprecedented wealth creation and embrace of great social causes from the anti-apartheid movement, via gay rights to environmentalism, has in many ways produced a much-improved world. ‘I think that history will be pretty hard on them,’ he says.
World War One
History is a major preoccupation for Paxman. His current bestselling book on the First World War, Great Britain’s Great War, has been much praised, not only for the quality of its storytelling but for its vigorous debunking of the notion that the conflict amounted to little more than pointless slaughter, directed by blundering generals at the behest of deluded politicians.
The men who fought between 1914-18 represent not just a generation but a Britain that appears much more to Paxo’s taste. He writes admiringly of the remarkable social cohesion, patriotism and sense of duty that sent the soldiers forth. Despite horrendous losses, Britain’s resolve held, and – unlike in France and Germany – there were no significant mutinies against the war. He wanted to write the book, he says, as an antidote to the mocking ‘post- Sixties’ attitudes promoted by the Blackadder Goes Forth TV series and the musical Oh, What a Lovely War, which he believes have taken root, particularly in schools, where he thinks teachers too readily embrace the anti-war rhetoric of poets such as Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.
Earlier this year, Paxo took the radical counter-measure of sending a copy of his book to every state school in Britain, and this month’s Remembrance Day will find him addressing a school audience.
‘Something sad has happened to history teaching,’ he says, ‘and not just in relation to the Great War. I hope it is changing, because history is made up of fascinating stories, and if you subscribe to the dialectics of the kind of people who use history for a political purpose, you don’t get a great understanding of what really happened. So schools are a great place to begin.
‘I think we need to start by asking people, “What would you have done in these circumstances? Would you have fought?” These are questions that invite us to deal with the historical material in a fresh way and perhaps reach some fresh conclusions. I couldn’t claim that I have changed the way people think about the war, but I think there’s a willingness to look at it differently, and that’s a good thing.’
He scoffs at the suggestion that modern Britain could muster the willpower for a similar enterprise. ‘There’s not such a thing now as “the mass of the people”,’ he says, ‘and it wouldn’t survive the media scrutiny. If anything like this were to happen now, it would be subject to day-in-day-out coverage and be in people’s sitting rooms every night, and I don’t think they would put up with what they saw. We’ve become a very comfortable society, in which the idea of sacrifice and duty is a rare thing. We prefer to contract out the death and suffering.’
In defence of...
Have we, in other words, lost the stomach for a fight? Paxman suggests that it’s not that simple.
‘I can think of causes… core values in society that people would still fight to defend,’ he says. ‘If there was a serious chance that a bunch of Islamofascists could take over the country, suppressing freedom, suppressing women, suppressing thought, I can see people would fight.’
During his Newsnight career, Paxman’s personal politics remained – for obvious reasons – under wraps, but since escaping into the world at large he’s been fingered as a ‘one- nation Conservative’. He claims this label was pinned on him by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, but shortly afterwards at a history festival in Wiltshire he confessed to The Daily Telegraph: ‘I have to be frank, I suppose I am a one-nation Tory, yes.’
The phrase was first coined by Benjamin Disraeli in the mid-19th century, and the idea of common values that underpins it is clearly appealing to Paxman. ‘A country where people hold together seems to me preferable to one made up of various squabbling groups,’ he says. ‘Also, I find the idea of responsibility being taken by those who have been fortunate towards those who have been less fortunate an attractive one. I don’t apologise for that.’
Nor does he conceal his patriotism. ‘There’s nowhere I’d rather live than in this country,’ he says. ‘I love it not just because I find it very beautiful and I treasure its history and its literature, but because I love the small politenesses of everyday life in Britain, and on the whole I find people are decent.’
Ah, now the pitiless Paxo exterior is melting to reveal a soft core of sentimentality. Here is something he will talk about with abandon. Britain may be in decline, he says, but we still have things that the world not only admires, but longs to share.
‘Why is it that vast numbers of people will travel from the farthest corners of the world, then flog themselves all the way across Europe to Calais in the hope of coming here? It’s not because of the tabloid stereotype that they are after the benefits; they come because they know that in Britain they will enjoy a freedom of conscience, a respect for other people’s ideas, a belief that everything can be settled over a cup of tea. This is powerful stuff.’
Despite the trademark lugubriousness, it is hard not to sense that Paxo is relishing life post-Newsnight. He claims he can’t remember who had the idea of the stage show, but says the experience taught him to ‘do things that you feel scared to do, and that although it was terrifying at first, I came to enjoy it’. He purrs over the pleasures of not having to get up early to catch news bulletins and attend meetings, but overhanging all this is the fact that the last 18 months of his stint were far from happy.
After a disastrous double-debacle involving a wrongful accusation of child abuse against the Conservative peer Lord McAlpine and the dropping of an investigation into the paedophile DJ Jimmy Savile, the programme hired a new boss, Ian Katz, who arrived from The Guardian trailing a reputation for trendy metropolitan leftism.
A difference of opinion
He and Paxo did not hit it off. It might be an exaggeration to say that Paxman was Newsnight, but it was the signature style of his interviewing that pulled in the viewers. Katz made it clear that he considered this style to be out of date. In a newspaper article, he suggested that politicians deserved greater understanding, and criticised Paxo’s celebrated duffing-over of Labour MP Rachel Reeves.
Jeremy isn’t to be drawn. ‘He can say what he likes,’ he sniffs loftily. ‘It’s for other people to decide their way of doing things. I decided my way. I don’t actually know what he means… I gathered from the inordinate length of his article he had some axe or other to grind, but I’m not going to get into a scrap.’
A week later, Katz gave an interview in which he called Paxman ‘petulant’ and ‘dyspeptic about everything’.
Most likely Paxo is biding his time. He has more of it now, although the years are creeping on and they raise the question of whether, one day, he might be ready for an appointment at one of those Dignitas places he finds so amusing? ‘Oh, I’d be fine with that,’ he says. And those oldies who might not be fine with the idea? The ace interrogator looks less comfortable still. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘I’m a journalist not a clairvoyant.’
Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman (Penguin, £8.99).
Read Jeremy Paxman's Wikipedia here
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