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The Elusive Question Master
December/January 2016/17

Jeremy Paxman: Open about his love of fishing, silent about his private life (©Jeremy Paxman)

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”.

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