Your starter for ten! What VERY saucy question flummoxed Jeremy Paxman? The presenter's memoir reveals all
- Jeremy Paxman's new memoir A Life In Questions documents his life
- As young as six he was 'thrashed' by his dad with sticks and cricket bats
- He was also caned by the head of house at his public school
A LIFE IN QUESTIONS
by Jeremy Paxman
Former government ministers who have been treated with rudeness bordering on savagery by Jeremy Paxman need not read far into his trenchant memoir to discover why the former Newsnight presenter had such an urge to humiliate those in authority.
As early as page six he recounts how his father, a former Naval officer, ‘was accustomed to chains of command, and the merest suggestion of insubordination would send him into a fury, during which he’d grab the nearest hard object with which to beat whoever had provoked him.
'I was thrashed with sticks, shoes, cricket stumps, cricket bats or the flat of his hand.’
Former government ministers treated with rudeness by Jeremy Paxman need not read far into his memoir to discover why the presenter had such an urge to humiliate those in authority
In the following chapter, he describes being caned by the head of house at his public school (Malvern). The young Paxman had refused to obey some order from a prefect called Robinson.
When asked why he had not done as he was told, he said it was because he ‘didn’t respect Robinson’.
Before ordering him to ‘take off your dressing gown and bend over the chair’, the head of house intoned: ‘The purpose of a public-school education, Paxman, is to teach you to respect people you don’t respect.’
So when you’ve seen the mature Paxman verbally battering a cabinet minister, you were actually witnessing the long-delayed revenge of the brutalised boy Paxman against the authority figures who’d caused him such anguish.
Paxman himself doesn’t make this connection, naturally; he prefers to say it was all in the cause of the public’s right to know.
Whatever the reason, his fearlessness as an interviewer was exhilarating for the viewer and almost always in the pursuit of information the public did indeed need to know.
As early as page six he recounts how his father, a former Naval officer, ‘would grab the nearest hard object with which to beat whoever had provoked him'
He relates how, even though he had for years been friendly with Charles Kennedy, he confronted the then Liberal Democrat leader about his drinking habits: ‘Does it bother you that everyone I’ve talked to in preparing for this interview has said: “I hope he’s sober?”... How much do you drink?’
Kennedy replied (dishonestly, as he had to): ‘Moderately, socially, as you well know.’
As Paxman relates: ‘The morning after the broadcast, all hell broke loose.’
MPs, sticking up for one of their own, united in demanding an apology.
And, as Paxman goes on to record: ‘One after another that afternoon, BBC executives — some of them the very people who’d OK’d the interview for transmission — demanded that I issue an apology. I refused.’
Well, of course he refused to grovel; he didn’t to his scary father or cane-wielding head boys. Why do so to weaselly BBC executives?
And there’s another point about Paxman, which many viewers never knew or had forgotten.
His first three years as a BBC reporter were spent in Northern Ireland, covering what amounted to a civil war between Catholics and Protestants. As he relates: ‘To be sent on a winter’s night into a West Belfast housing estate like Ballymurphy with an English accent was a very scary experience.’ Paxman was just 24.
Though he denies that he shared the ‘callous and shallow relish of many of the [journalistic] war addicts’, he then volunteered to cover other, much bloodier civil wars, such as those in Lebanon, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
He relates how, even though he had for years been friendly with Charles Kennedy (pictured), he confronted the then Liberal Democrat leader about his drinking habits
In an admirably low-key manner, he describes how, when advancing with an army column in the last of these conflicts, ‘after 20 minutes’ march, the rebels opened fire, hitting the soldier next to me in the chest.
‘One minute the poor boy looked about 15 years old, and the next like a grandfather.’
I like to imagine some British politicians reading this — possibly Michael Howard, whose refusal to answer the same question put 12 times by Paxman did his career no good at all — wistfully wondering what might have been if that bullet had strayed by a couple of feet.
By his own account, Paxman was traumatised by these experiences: ‘I didn’t exactly have a breakdown. But it was pretty like one.’
When he was then mentally patched up and re-directed by the BBC to covering domestic politics, he says that his ‘ignorance gave a fresh perspective on British domestic affairs.
‘I approached the political class as a Victorian explorer might have confronted a new tribe in darkest Africa.’
Paxman takes a dim view of the political specialists among his broadcasting colleagues.
A LIFE IN QUESTIONS by Jeremy Paxman
‘There are now men and women interpreting the posturing of that political class who have spent their entire career among that class,’ he says.
‘The reporter is there to speak for the governed, and a journalist who has spent all their working life in the company of politicians loses that perspective.’
Very true — and well put. But Paxman’s gloriously independent ignorance can be irritating in its own way. For example, in a passage about the grim Blackpool boarding houses in which he would be billeted by the BBC money-savers during party conferences, he writes: ‘Once Tony Blair and his gentrifying friends got control of the Labour Party, Blackpool was struck off the list of venues.’
In fact, no fewer than four Labour Party conferences were held in Blackpool while Blair led the party (though not once since).
As Paxman would have attended all of them as Newsnight’s big political brawler, this can only suggest he hated being there so much he’s blotted out the memories completely. I know the feeling.
What Paxman does not forget are the frequent passes made at him by female politicians, or the wives of the male ones.
In Belfast’s much-bombed Europa Hotel ‘the wife of a well-known MP once tried to seduce me’.
Decades later at Newsnight, Paxman still has the allure. He describes how, when sitting down to have his studio make-up put on, he was propositioned by ‘a Baroness, who sat down, announced that she was wearing no knickers and then gave me her hotel details’.
Very gallant of Paxo not to tell us their names.
But he does name Hillary Clinton, the probable next president of the USA. He says he found her ‘a toughie, but vulnerable to a bit of flirting’.
Jeremy, please tell us more. The public needs to know.
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