It was just the other day, after one of the putrid demonstrations of junk theatre dubiously described as a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that I was engaged in a Skype conversation with one of my North American client authors, an extremely well-educated man well-versed in both government and electoral politics. As talks between intelligent friends tend to do, we drifted off the main topic of his book and entertained ourselves with our thoughts on this most appalling of modern American elections. Regarding the most recent debate, where not a word was spoken about the US bombing Yemen, the lock-up of journalists and documentary makers covering the oil pipeline protests in the northern Midwest, nor the environmental catastrophe that is our generation’s greatest sin, I said to him, ‘God what I wouldn’t have given to have Jeremy Paxman run that debate.’ From the slight confusion on my friend’s face and the brief yet definite pause before he replied, ‘Oh. Yes!’ I could tell that he wasn’t quite sure who Paxman was. That is a pity. Since then, and just before writing this review, I emailed him. I quote: ‘Do get yourself a copy of A Life in Questions. It’s one of the very very best memoirs I have ever read and that number must be approaching or has passed 500.’
I’m well aware that the farther you live from the UK the less likely it is that you know Jeremy Paxman’s work as the premier interrogator of the powerful, principally from his twenty-six year run from 1989-2015 as the lead presenter on BBC Two’s flagship public affairs program Newsnight. In addition, he has reported from Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the Middle East, El Salvador, and the US during its Presidential elections. What has driven him in a career approaching the half-century mark is curiosity. As he says in A Life in Questions, ‘Curiosity, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, is common to both journalism and intelligence-gathering. But a spy finds things out in order to keep them quiet. A journalist finds things to pass them on.’ My father and mother would have loved that adroit statement of pith; they were both journalists.
For my part, I came to Paxman’s work much too near the end of his run on Newsnight although since moving across the Atlantic I clear time to watch his occasional documentaries or politics specials for Channel 4 or the BBC. I first heard him when I purchased my first iPad, while I was still living in Canada. Having grown increasingly frustrated with the weak as water news coverage on North American stations (in retrospect, I think at least a third of my weekly newspaper columns on television were moans and rants on that theme) I installed the BBC iPlayer so I could listen to the BBC News while making breakfast. There would be the main headlines, a deeper engagement with three or four of the stories, and a closing feature interview of several minutes’ length. Paxman made me burn my bacon on several occasions but I haven’t a complaint to make.
His manner in an interview was and is almost always one of challenge. Perhaps more specifically, he sounded like a high school principal or a wise parent who has just caught the boys ‘up to something’ in the alley and he was going to carve past the protestations that there was nothing going on because there is always something going on. Is there a closest comparison? Edward R. Murrow perhaps, although he was before my time. I’d love to say Gore Vidal or Christopher Hitchens as Paxman shares their lucid brilliance yet both Vidal and Hitch were better as guests than interrogators and they wore their politics openly. As for Paxman, even after having read A Life in Questions I am confident that we share the same political views, but I have no idea how he votes, although he does admit that he reluctantly voted for Remain in the Brexit referendum. (His comment on David Cameron is the perfect eulogy for a twit: ‘greater love hath no man than that he sacrifice his country for his party’) He did however suggest to Russell Brand that they hire an ice cream truck together and drive around Britain during the 2015 election dispensing sweets and gathering opinions, so there’s a clue. That would have been brilliant television.
There is one structural aspect of A Life in Questions that I deeply admire. Paxman sticks to what is important. I have no idea if Jeremy Paxman has been married once, twice or never; if he has children they have been blessed with anonymity rather than having their lives cursed by the re-telling of mildly amusing embarrassments to arouse the laughter of total strangers. Good for him. On several occasions I have quoted the discomfort of the late Theodore H. White who essentially invented the ‘behind the scenes’ genre of political reporting with his The Making of the President series of books. Noticing the growing obsession reporters and their public had with the personal lives of public figures, White cursed his own legacy by grumbling, ‘Who gives a fuck if he had milk with Total for breakfast?’
I don’t know what Jeremy Paxman has for breakfast, nor do I need to know. What I – and you – do need to know are his views on journalism and television in general. In a nutshell, Paxman defines his medium thusly: ‘Television remains an escapist medium even when it is most apparently rooted in reality.’ Perhaps this is why the environment is not the predominant issue in recent elections; on-going stories are just less captivating than bombs going off in schools or political candidates groping models.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that A Life in Questions fulfills the essential mandate of a book. It is a cracking good read. I have dog-eared some forty or fifty pages containing anecdotes told with the same sort of delighted, smart amusement that I have missed since Vidal and Hitchens closed their accounts. Just to borrow one, there is the description of a reporter being sent out to cover a Satanic Ritual:
“In a basement flat he found half a dozen old wrinklies about to celebrate a Black Mass. They explained that since one of them was teetotal, they were using Ribena instead of wine. If Richard would provide the bread, he could observe the event. The corner shop was unfortunately out of loaves, so, … he bought a packet of biscuits, which was deemed sufficient. A naked woman was draped across the kitchen table, and what the [reporter] witnessed that afternoon no pastry chef had ever intended. He returned to the office unable ever again to look a Custard Cream in the face.”
Now I wonder what Channel 4 will do with The Great British Bake Off? Pardon me, I digress.
I know this about A Life in Questions. For someone like me, for anyone who is like Jeremy Paxman, endlessly curious about the world, its stories and how those stories are told, this is a book to be absolutely treasured. Give it as a gift and then impatiently insist on borrowing it back so you can read it for yourself, or vice versa maybe; hang it all, do you expect me to run your life for you? This is my favourite book of the year so far, and November through December had better pull up their socks if their releases intend to mount a challenge.
Be seeing you.