A Life in Questions review – Jeremy Paxman keeps his distance in his memoir

The former Newsnight presenter gives little away in a frustrating look back at his career

Several times during this non-revelatory but nonetheless oddly revealing memoir, Jeremy Paxman takes people to task for “having their cake and eating it”. It’s a telling accusation because the impression left by these pages is of a man who has perfected the quantum art of both eating and having his large slice of Fortnum’s finest gateau, while insisting that he’d be just as happy with a stale biscuit.

He begins with a throat-clearing warning that a public life is subject to caricature that tells us little of the texture and truth behind the media-fabricated image. Great, you think, so now we’re going to discover the real Paxo.

Not so fast. The man who was for a couple of decades Britain’s most feared political interviewer writes that “‘Mr Rude’, the truculence, the so-called sneering” are all labels “I just have to live with”.

It’s an instructive formulation because it suggests that the image that’s been foisted upon him is inaccurate, perhaps unfair, but he’s not going to stoop to challenging it, though of course he already has.

Much of the rest of A Life in Questions proceeds on exactly this understanding of a misunderstood man who can’t be bothered with the psychodrama of making himself understood, while getting his points over at the same time.

“What follows,” he writes, “does not pretend to be history or rounded portraiture, just some recollections of how it seemed at the time.” And if that isn’t clear, a page later: “There is, then, nothing all-encompassing about what follows. It’s just some stuff that happened… ”

If it’s a means of distancing himself from his life, then it takes a variety of forms not just in the narrative but in the language itself. The writing is littered with constructions such as “I seem to have” or “I found myself in”, as though to emphasise that he’s never tried too hard to become the person he is.

Paxman interviews Tony Blair on Newsnight in 2004.
Paxman interviews Tony Blair on Newsnight in 2004. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

Underneath all this bemused detachment is the insistence that he’s really just a modestly talented hack doing his best. But how many people answering to that description have enjoyed salaries of more than £1m, or lunch à deux with Princess Diana or stay for the weekend with Prince Charles?

More to the point, how many are commissioned to write their memoirs? The fact is Paxman has occupied an exalted position in British public life and it didn’t happen by accident or because he didn’t want it to happen.

But despite detailing his progress from prep school to public school to Cambridge and on to the BBC trainee scheme, Paxman remains a detached presence in his own story. We learn that he suffered from existential dread at university and depression after several dangerous foreign postings as a young reporter and that his father wore blazers and drank pink gin and disappeared to Australia. But in none of these cases does he allow us a sense of what these experiences really felt like, how they affected him or his ambition.

At one point, he suggests that growing up during the cold war may have encouraged a “fatalistic sneering”. If so, it’s not entirely apparent that he’s grown out of it.

The quality he most admires in interviewees is a “sense of the absurd while others are taking you seriously” and this is clearly his own philosophy on life as well. “Absurd” is the adjective he reaches for in any situation in which he wants to convey his dismissiveness, which seems to apply to almost every situation.

And the characteristic he most derides is self-importance. But dismissing everything as absurd is not, as Paxman seems to believe, a prophylactic against pomposity but rather a demonstration of it.

This is a shame because when he relaxes, he writes well and entertainingly. The best sections of the book concern his early years in journalism working for Tonight and Panorama, where he describes the largesse and high-functioning chaos of television in the 1970s and early 1980s with warmth and humour.

His later and most celebrated years at Newsnight are less enthralling. The picture he paints is of having no great influence in a hierarchy dominated by the editor and that certainly seems to have been the case when Peter Rippon closed down the Savile investigation, though one suspects that such a celebrated and highly paid employee must have had some sway about the place.

Having set out by claiming that all he ever did was try to get “straight answers to pretty straightforward questions”, he rather gives the game away by recalling how he would spend a long time thinking of an opening question that would throw a politician off his or her stride, for example, “Why don’t people like you?” to Gordon Brown.

He also acknowledges, having first rejected the idea, that he may have contributed to a collapse in public respect for politicians, though he says it doesn’t keep him awake at night. Well of course not. That would be absurd.

A Life in Questions is published by William Collins (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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