A Life in Questions
Jeremy Paxman

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The other day I was rootling through some boxes in the bottom of a cupboard. Whatever the reasons for keeping the stuff I found inside – the hours devoted to an essay, the brief moment of insight which seemed so vital at the time, the transitoriness of television – earlier in life I wanted to preserve my past. I have now lost that urge. There, among the Panamanian hotel bills, Swiss speeding tickets, defunct fishing permits, libel-reader reports and now unplayable videocassettes, was the evidence that I was once vain enough to subscribe to a cuttings agency, which dutifully clipped pieces from newspapers and magazines across the land. I suppose I kept the subscription for a year or two, and it is embarrassing to confess. For a while, my head was turned. Even after deciding that the agency was a waste of money, I still occasionally clipped stories from the newspapers in which I had appeared. From them I learn, among other things, that my weather forecasting colleague on Breakfast Time was ‘a sex machine’, and that a Scottish sports reporter on the same show with ‘a squashed face’ was tipped as the future of broadcasting. I seem once to have told a celebrity magazine called Best that ‘I find clothes really boring,’ and soon afterwards a designer called Jeff Banks nominated me as one of the worst-dressed men in Britain, saying, ‘That man should loosen up and get into some soft linen.’ In 1994 Ruby Wax told Options magazine that she had noticed I had ‘huge genitals’, and in March 2008 Marks & Spencer took a full-page ad in the Guardian to proclaim that I was wrong about the drop in quality of their pants. David Cameron let it be known to some obliging reporter that he detested me. Tony Blair’s Health Secretary, John Reid, accused me of disrespecting him after I described him on air as the government’s ‘all-purpose attack dog’ (the ten minutes of foul-mouthed abuse which his assistant afterwards heaped on Kate McAndrew, the producer of the day, was not disclosed), and the next day the Daily Mirror quoted a ‘friend’ of John Reid calling me ‘a West London wanker’. In the following weekend’s papers the novelist Howard Jacobson accused me of ‘coarsening public life’.

The accusation is familiar, along with the suggestion that people like me are responsible for the fact that so many of the public despise mainstream politicians. I reject the charge, of course – all we try to do is to get straight answers to pretty straightforward questions, and often a cloud of obfuscation is as revealing as an unexpected outbreak of frankness. But I accept that if you present yourself uninvited in people’s homes, they will take a view on you. That’s how it goes. In my case the progression of newspaper-columnist opinion went from ‘a breath of fresh air’, through ‘Who does this cheeky bastard think he is?’, to ‘peevish old sod’. It is intrinsic to the trade I follow that we constantly seek novelty, and once the novel becomes familiar, it is ripe for aerial bombardment. The only hope then is that in the years when you’re wondering where you left your teeth before your afternoon nap, someone reaches for another cliché and deems you to have become a ‘veteran’ – as if you are a car on the London–Brighton run, and unlikely to get much beyond Croydon. Then you die.

There were dozens of letters in the cupboard, too – a tiny fraction, I suppose, of the total I received, and which I had kept for no rhyme or reason I could discern. I rather enjoyed hearing from viewers, since broadcasting is such a one-way business, and letters often described a first-hand experience of issues which would otherwise be hidden behind clouds of political verbiage. Since anyone who presents news or current affairs programmes on the BBC is effectively an employee of the viewers who are forced to pay the licence fee, they are perfectly entitled to say what they think of them. (Anyone who performs the same role on a commercial channel is also paid for by the viewer, of course, but rather more indirectly.) I relished the exchanges which often followed, and only a handful of times had to use the tabloid editor Kelvin MacKenzie’s tactic, which was to tell my correspondent that I would reluctantly have to ban them from watching. This generally led to even angrier letters, protesting, ‘You can’t do that – I pay the licence fee!’

I discovered that generally, if you’ve made a mistake it is best to answer a letter of complaint with ‘You’re quite right. I’m so sorry. I’ll try to do better.’ This often has the complainant writing back to say, ‘Oh, please don’t take it too seriously.’ The nuclear option is to employ the tactic refined by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Rob ‘Piggy’ Muldoon: ‘Dear Mrs Smith, I think you should know that some lunatic is using your name and address to send offensive letters in the post.’* (#ulink_3ab2fdd7-4ba3-5206-8ea9-88d862179e0f) I perhaps sent something similar to the man who wrote from Sutton in Surrey during a journalists’ strike I supported in 1985. He described how he had arrived home, ‘blessing my luck at not having to look at you on television. Then I picked up the Standard, and damn me, there you were, leering in the front rank of the picket line, puffing out your chest like a stuffed ulotrichan and posing with drooping pants.’ I must have kept the letter as a vocabulary lesson – apparently ‘ulotrichan’ means having crisp hair.

Other letters included numerous requests to donate items for sale in charity auctions, or for recipes to be included in fundraising cookbooks – further evidence of the conviction I reached a few years ago, and which is quite the reverse of the impression given by most of the mass media, that most people are decent human beings. There are an awful lot of generally unacknowledged individuals doing terrific things in the world.

In one letter, someone said they had managed to read my palms off the television screen: ‘You are quite healthy and energetic. Minor ailments are inevitable and may sometimes do you much harm if you neglect them,’ followed by similarly vacuous diagnoses. Amateur cartoonists sent awful caricatures they had drawn; singers, songs they had written; and poets their poems. For a while, a kind viewer would post me hand-painted ties every couple of months. A lady still brings pots of jam she has made to recordings of University Challenge, and over the years plenty of fishing folk have sent me flies they have tied up with feather and fur, which they claim are ‘certain’ to catch salmon or trout. When I was blackballed by the Garrick Club (for the crime, apparently, of being beastly to politicians on television) I was bombarded with supportive letters from outraged club members I had never met. They coincided with numerous invitations to join other clubs, including the Crediton Men’s Group, where there was ‘no danger from bores – if someone’s being dull we tell him to shut up and buy us another pint’.

A public life is as inadequate an expression of the whole person as a patient’s medical notes – they only record what he or she told the doctor, and often disclose nothing much about the texture of their life. I suppose that when I eventually expire, the likely headline will be ‘Man Who Asked Same Question Fourteen Times Dies’. This is no more of a claim on anyone’s attention than ‘Man Who Collected 5,000 Tin Cans Dies’. It wasn’t fourteen times, but the repetition of that number proves that what matters is who produces the first account, and that was the figure used on the radio the morning after the notorious Michael Howard interview. The rest of the caricature – ‘Mr Rude’, the truculence, the so-called sneering, I just have to live with. Is it just the media which can only deal with a monochrome stereotype, or are we all a bit like that?

You don’t learn much more from personal tastes. I am a strong swimmer, love fly-fishing, drink more than the Department of Health says is good for us, and have a dodgy knee. I like dogs, but am allergic to cats. I am easily bored, read a lot, don’t watch much television, would love to be able to play a musical instrument but can only sing – badly – in the bath, dislike shopping and enjoy watching birds. For years I had to stay up late, and my real idea of a good time is to be in bed by 10.30. I don’t sleep particularly well, and I don’t much like kale. Or the parson’s nose on a roast bird. I would rather ride a bike than drive a car. I spent several years seeing a therapist, and several more on antidepressants. Though I think I’m an atheist, I have a passion for old churches. Occasionally I sit on the loo and shoot squirrels out of the bathroom window.

Journalists like to brag that their account of events is ‘the first draft of history’. Sometimes this is true, although it is really a boast that can only be made by a small minority of our trade. I have been lucky enough to have had an interesting job and to have worked with clever, funny people. We had a lot of laughs, and sometimes we found things out. That’s all. What follows does not pretend to be history or rounded portraiture, just some recollections of how it seemed at the time. There is often a disclaimer at the front of novels to the effect that ‘Any resemblance to individuals alive or dead is unintended.’ In a memoir, the reverse ought to be true – any similarity is entirely intentional. But, just as every witness to an accident tells a slightly different story, others will have discrepant memories from my own. As Bertrand Russell said, ‘When a man tells you he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring he is an inexact man.’

‘The world is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think,’ that pipsqueak eighteenth-century writer Horace Walpole is supposed to have said. He ignored the fact we can all both feel and think, and I find that what made me weep at the age of twenty made me laugh at fifty. Both responses are right, but as time passes the fierce clarity of youth gives way to a more textured palette, primary colours fading to pastel pigments. I don’t like the fact that I have mellowed, but I cannot deny it. For all the sound and fury, there are very few people indeed that I actively dislike: in fact, looking back over the decades I could count them on the fingers of one hand. Assuming I could remember who they all were.

There is, then, nothing all-encompassing about what follows. It’s just some stuff that happened, what it felt like at the time, and, maybe, what might be learned from it. I have taken the decision not to write about my family, because what they choose to disclose of their lives is up to them.

As for sources, I have kept many diaries over the years, though some of them were clearly begun as New Year resolutions and petered out by March. Some of the incidents recounted here come from those diaries, some from memory, and others from responses to the sort of letter Auberon Waugh sent when he was invited to produce his memoirs: ‘I have been asked to write my autobiography. Does anyone know what I’ve been doing?’ The following were generous with their recollections: Steve Anderson, Peter Barron, David Belton, Keith Bowers, James Bray, Neil Breakwell, Jasmin Buttar, Julia Cleverdon, Frank Considine, Lucy Crystal, Richard Danbury, Peter Davies, George Entwistle, Tim Gardam, Jim Gray, Peter Gwyn, Robert Harris, John Hay, Meirion Jones, Rhodri Jones, Laura Kuenssberg, Anita Land, Adam Livingstone, Barton Macfarlane, Hannah MacInnes, Sally Magnusson, Linda Mitchell, Eddie Morgan, Shaminder Nahal, Andrew Nickolds, Jeff Overs, Charlie Potter, Celia Reed, Peter Snow, Jillian Taylor, Kirsty Wark, Peter Weil and Michael Whale. Carly Wallis, the one person without whom Newsnight would fall apart, kindly sent me screeds of paper detailing what happened during my twenty-five years there. To those I have stupidly left off this list, many apologies. I hope it goes without saying that any mistakes are all my own work.

I am grateful to my literary agent, David Godwin, for the occasional lunch, and to Arabella Pike for her encouragement, skill and charm in steering the thing from manuscript to bound copy. Neither is to blame for anything I have got wrong or misremembered.

* (#ulink_23311c22-2d5b-5228-b8d4-c371afc3d161) Muldoon lost power in 1984 after calling a snap election when three sheets to the wind. The event became known as ‘the schnapps election’.


Why Do You Talk Like That? (#u68cf631f-bd42-5296-a021-92a97315e6e0)

Some people claim to remember their own birth. I don’t believe them, and I certainly can’t do so. The night my second younger brother was born, and the day I arrived back from school to find I had a younger sister, I recall vividly. Where I left the book I borrowed from the London Library last week I have no idea.

When I was growing up we lived in an absurdly pretty pink-washed, mullion-windowed cottage at the edge of a village green in Hampshire. Rose Cottage really did have roses around the door, and at weekends we could watch the local team play cricket on the green without leaving the front garden. There was a big old fig tree in the garden which splattered ripe fruit onto the ground each September, and a pump in the middle of the lawn with a white-painted seat around which I learned to ride a bike.

In the cottage next door lived Mr and Mrs Ball. Mrs Ball was very old, and baked a lot. The only thing I can recall about Mr Ball was that he drowned kittens in a sack. Mother wore her long black hair tied back in a bun, and rode a black sit-up-and-beg bicycle with a child’s seat over the back mudguard which I occupied as she pedalled the four miles into Fareham for groceries. What little I remember of Dad – he was away at sea a lot – is of a curly-haired figure in loose trousers and lightly checked cotton shirt. There was a black-and-brown family dachshund named Dinah.

My first education was at the redbrick Victorian primary school at the end of the village green. Mum would walk me down to the playground, and was there at the gate when classes finished. The teacher sat at a raised desk, and the classroom was high-windowed and cavernous. I cannot help that it all sounds such a clichéd picture of a vanished England, but that’s just how it was.

My father, Keith, was stationed at the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth, and was away at sea when I was born. In the final days of her pregnancy my mother, Joan, took the train north to be with her family, and I was delivered in a nursing home near Leeds. At the time, Yorkshire County Cricket Club operated a selection policy under which only those who had been born in the county were eligible for selection. My Yorkshire father occasionally offered this as an explanation for my mother’s long pilgrimage from the Solent to Leeds, though he never seemed to take that close an interest in the game. While I failed to acquire any great skill with bat or ball, I never lost an unreasonable pride (insufferable smugness?) about having come from God’s Own County, even though I never really lived there.

We were not a close family – as Mother told it when she was older, there was one occasion when Dad returned from sea service and I ran away screaming, because I had no idea who he was. This must have distressed him, but relations between us never really improved much. I suppose the family would have been classified as middle class, but there was always a slight sense that we were hanging in there by our fingernails. The constant refrain of my childhood was ‘We can’t afford it,’ which I now recognise wasn’t really a declaration of poverty so much as mere Yorkshireness, although it didn’t seem so at the time. We shared the generally improving standard of living in the fifties, but did not live extravagantly: there was only one foreign holiday, in 1959, when we took a boat from Southampton to Vigo, in Spain – on the return journey the ship carried great numbers of Caribbean immigrants, whom my brothers and I, never having seen a black person, found fascinating.

As a family we did not number doctors, dentists, bank managers or similar worthies in our circle. No one in the immediate family had been to university, though one of my mother’s sisters had spent some time at RADA, hoping to become an actress. It was a very brief career which distressed her parents almost as much as her incomprehensible decision to become a Roman Catholic. But my father was a naval officer, and while Mum’s father had started out as a travelling salesman, he ended up with his own canning factory and a small country estate in North Yorkshire. It was he who paid the fees when I, my younger brothers Giles and James, and my sister Jenny later went to private schools.

All children like to imagine their parents have heroic histories. In my childhood I believed Dad to have spent the war on convoy duty, protecting the supplies which came from North America to Britain, or those sent from a remote Scottish sea loch to Russian allies in Archangel and Murmansk. Of the many miserable fates which stalked the war generation, unannounced death from a U-boat torpedo in the icy waters of the North Atlantic has always seemed one of the worst. I imagined Dad as the sort of figure played by Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea, binoculars hanging around his neck, standing on the bridge of a destroyer in a naval duffel-coat, with mountainous seas breaking across the foredeck, calmly ordering ‘Full ahead both’ into a voice tube as a torpedo wake glows white under the briny. But when I unearthed his records a few months ago his military career turned out to have been rather more prosaic. He seems to have volunteered for the navy straight out of school, giving his civilian occupation as ‘bank clerk’. The records show early training at a requisitioned holiday camp at Skegness, from which he emerged as a rating, followed by another training period at an airfield in Luton, as he hoped to become a navy pilot with the Fleet Air Arm.

This did not come off, possibly because, as he later told his sisters, he was grounded for ‘hedge-hopping’ and flying his aircraft beneath the arches of bridges. Perhaps it was actually for more humdrum reasons – only a very small proportion of those who wanted to become wartime pilots were successful. At any rate, in March 1941 he began a less glamorous naval life as a ‘Writer’ on board HMS Fernie, a largely administrative role aboard a destroyer assigned to escort shipping in the Channel. As it did for many people, my father’s war doubtless passed in bouts of intense fear and excitement, separated by very much longer periods of great tedium. By the following year he had been promoted to ‘Leading Writer’, in which capacity he was shuffled from one ship or shore base to another, either at home or abroad. In 1944 he is recorded as serving in the Persian Gulf on board a series of vessels, including converted Norwegian whaling ships and at the Royal Navy base in Basra, Iraq.

He emerged from the war with five medals, recognising service in home waters and the Indian Ocean. Children generally imagine all medals to have been won in much the way you gain a VC. In fact, most of them testify to more mundane activities. When I was about eight I remember approaching him as he sat slumped in an armchair reading the paper and asking whether he had ever been shipwrecked. ‘Six times!’ he replied, and reburied himself in the newsprint. He was really saying ‘Leave me alone!’ But I so wanted to believe him.

At the end of the war, huge numbers of men were demobilised and returned to civilian life. But Dad decided to swim in the other direction, and applied to be commissioned as a Royal Navy officer. In October 1945 he was appointed Temporary Acting Sub Lieutenant. A group photograph of sixty or so young officers gathered at the naval base at Gosport shows him in the third row, one of the few lieutenants with war service medals – an indication that his time in the ranks had resulted in his being older than many of his peers. Within a few years he had been promoted to Lieutenant and given the posting sought by every naval officer, command of his own vessel, a motor torpedo boat.

Quite apart from the awful loss of life, the war deprived a generation of young men and women of the opportunity to enjoy their youth. I imagine the period after the end of hostilities to have been the happiest time of my father’s life – the navy then included great numbers of men who would never have joined in peacetime, there were endless practical tasks, the company of shipmates, and – by contrast with his wartime service – freedom from the prospect of imminent death. But what was he like as a Royal Navy officer? In the time I knew and tried to understand him, the blunt, salty humour of the wardroom always seemed his natural environment, and the reports from his commanding officers talk of him as a cheery mess companion, with a well-developed sense of the absurd. Another report, though, worried that he was sometimes too hard on his men. Whether this was because not so long ago he had been one of them is only speculation, of course.

None of the reports answers the great enigma of my father’s early life: why did he decide to give it all up? There is no one left to ask. Perhaps it was because his war service in the ranks meant he was older than most of the other ‘snotties’ commissioned with him. Did someone tell him that his late start meant he’d never make it to the very top? I have a suspicion that marriage and the fairly rapid arrival of three children made him think he ought to be spending more time at home. It vaguely troubles me, thinking about it, that I cannot imagine him feeling that he wanted to be at home more. Whatever the reason, it was a disastrous decision.

Though he continued to play the sailor all his life (the naval cry of ‘Two, six – heave’ accompanied any manual labour in the family, such as pushing the car), in 1954 he resigned his commission, bought a motor scooter and took a job as a typewriter salesman. Just about my earliest memory is of being woken by a commotion one night, slipping out of bed and creeping downstairs to see my father standing in the kitchen in a pool of blood. The back of his pale gabardine coat was stained a dark brown, and Mother was helping him take off his peaked crash helmet. When she succeeded, more gouts of blood fell onto the stone floor. Accidents can happen to anyone, but the contrast between this bloody spectacle and the glamorous wartime figure I had imagined in uniform, sword and even a cape, seemed for years to demonstrate the unhappy consequences of the decision he had made. My abiding feeling is that leaving the navy was the biggest mistake of his life. We cannot pretend to be what we are not, and my father was by no stretch of the imagination a family man. Like many others who never had a chance to enjoy their youth, being a sailor was his métier. He should probably never have pretended to be anything else.

Whether or not this was the reason, he had an appalling temper. He 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. In the most intense row – or at least the one I recall most intensely – he sent me to my room for disobeying him, and when I stood my ground, he tried to drag me upstairs. Within a minute or so all that was left of the shirt I had been wearing – it was a black-and-white check – was the collar.

It is in the nature of childhood that we only know what we know. The phrase ‘dysfunctional family’ could certainly be applied to ours. But then, it describes just about every family in the land. Did I love my father? My feelings ranged from resentment to passionate hatred. It was not a sophisticated reaction, but I was too young for sophisticated reactions. Now, I see a damaged man. Many years later my younger sister told me that she had once walked in on him lying on the floor of the bathroom, sobbing. He asked her to leave him alone, which she did at once. It was a traumatic moment for both of them, and was never mentioned again.

Ours was perhaps not so different from many other families of the time, with their largely uncomplaining mothers making do and mending, and insisting that if you didn’t eat what was put in front of you for supper you’d get it again for breakfast. There were certainly moments of tenderness – the Saturday-morning visits to Woolworths in the local High Street with Dad to buy twisted little greaseproof-paper bags of salted peanuts, the times he’d help us build model warships, or his snorting laughter at The Goon Show on the radio. Jenny, his youngest child, seemed to bring out the best in him, and he could arrive home with posies of violets or anemones for her. But he could also change in an instant.

He had lost his own father, to whom, according to his sister, he had been devoted, when he was only eight years old. The death had apparently plunged the family into a financial crisis – an eccentric aunt once told me that even when he was on leave during the darkest days of the war, my father never went home because he had become convinced that his mother had decided to remarry for money. Although he was educated at a school in Bradford established for the sons of Methodist ministers, he had an absurd affectation of pronouncing selected words as he imagined Southern posh people pronounced them – so a waistcoat he always called a ‘wiskett’, and a hotel ‘an ’otel’. In material terms he had ‘married well’ – although Mum was certainly not posh, her father being a self-made man who spoke with flat Yorkshire vowels and talked of ‘having a luke in the buke’. With the marriage came a cushion of prosperity, but I have a strong feeling – though without any evidence to support it – that Dad later came deeply to resent the fact that it was his father-in-law who paid our school fees, and we all believed that the house was in Mum’s name.

Certainly, my childhood impression was of a man incapable of expressing affection, concerned with keeping up appearances and permanently on the edge of an explosion which might well be expressed in physical violence. In my late teens he was taken into hospital for some undignified operation on his bum. When I went to visit him I had only been there three minutes when he said, ‘You can go now. You’ve done your duty.’ He understood duty a lot better than he understood affection. Perhaps as an adult I might have come to forgive and forget and understand, but by then he had left England for the South Pacific.

It had been a wartime romance. Mum was working as an ambulance driver at Grantley Hall, an enormous seventeenth-century mansion near Ripon in North Yorkshire, requisitioned for use as a convalescent home for wounded servicemen. Dad’s sister Margaret was also working there, and it seems to have been through her that Joan and Keith met. It was an on-off courtship which lasted for several years before finally leading, in 1949, to marriage. Shortly before she died Aunt Margaret told me that Dad had said that if he didn’t marry Joan he probably wouldn’t marry anyone. Joan was twenty-nine when they married, he was twenty-seven, and the relationship seems to have been troubled from the start. Although they did not separate until over twenty years later, there had been some sort of tension on their honeymoon in the Scilly Isles, when, as Mother told us later, she felt Dad paid too much attention to a Wren whom they had met on a ferry between the islands. Children rarely imagine their parents being troubled by sexual feelings, but the incident clearly still rankled with Mum decades later.

Dad’s elder sister, our maiden aunt Kathleen, whom we visited many times, remained loyal to him to the end. She lived in a tall Victorian house in a leafy corner of Richmond in south-west London – or, as Richmondites then insisted, ‘Richmond, Surrey’. In practice she lived in two rooms on the ground floor, with the rest of the place let out to various slightly desiccated characters, from Sheila, a French teacher who rented the basement, to Mr Lewis, a bald, plummy chap who occupied rooms on the top floor, accompanied at weekends by his younger friend from the Isle of Dogs. Kathleen had bought the house after the war – a bargain, apparently, because of bomb damage. There were ancient Persian rugs on the floors, a payphone in the entrance hall, and extraordinary pieces of furniture she prided herself on having bought from junk shops and then repaired. Some of them were rather beautiful, and others just rather odd.

Long residence in Richmond had stripped Aunty Kathleen’s voice of any Yorkshire twang, and she spoke like a duchess slightly perplexed at the way the butler had laid the table. She was one of that great tribe of solitary women, stalwarts of clubs and voluntary organisations, whose representatives you could find in every corner of Britain in those days. I discovered from one of the nurses at the home in which she spent her last couple of years that there had once been a young man called Albert, but he been killed during the war. There were legions of women like her, forced to make their lonely way in the world, acquiring the necessary no-nonsense bustle that made it possible, but somehow always carrying a slight whiff of sadness about them. Several years ago, when I was giving a talk in Cheltenham about the English identity crisis, a middle-aged woman in the audience asked, ‘Have you thought about how much the problem of English identity is bound up in the disappearance of the maiden aunt?’ I hadn’t. But she was definitely on to something. Though they were often sniggered at, these women bereaved in youth carried forward an idea of nationality that is very hard to locate in any other group of individuals. With my mother’s unmarried sister Muriel, and Dad’s two unmarried sisters Margaret and Kate, I had a total of three maiden aunts.

Aunt Kate was accident-prone. At some point she had broken her right leg, and her injuries never healed properly, so that every time she went outside the shin shone through her hosiery in a lurid shade of purple and black. Once she somehow managed to track down a distant relative in training for the Catholic priesthood and arranged to meet him at the entrance to the coffee shop in Brown Muff, the great department store in the centre of Bradford, the nearest city to his seminary. As the young man shook her hand she felt the elastic in the waistband of her knickers break, and they began to slide down her thighs. She strode towards the table she had her eye on for tea, and with ‘Just a minute’ to the putative priest at her side, reached up under her skirt, grabbed her pants and stepped out of them. That sort of thing was always happening to her, like the seven attempts she made to pass her driving test at the age of fifty-something, at least one of which included her reversing her primrose-yellow Triumph Herald into a six-foot-deep hole in the road, watched by half a dozen astonished labourers. She was wonderful.

When we were children she often came to stay, taking us all on walks which somehow always ended at an ice-cream parlour. Once a year she would meet us off the train at Paddington and take us to the Boat Show at Earl’s Court, where we ogled floating gin palaces and she considered various labour-saving devices she might install on Kirsty, her horribly unstable little cabin cruiser moored on the Thames. She usually decided that she really didn’t need them, and our excursions on the boat retained their fish-paste-sandwich flavour to the end of our teens. Mercifully, none of us had been on board when her previous boat, Lorac, caught fire and sank – an event indelibly linked in my mind to Sir Francis Drake’s ‘singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ at Cádiz in 1587, which we must have just tackled in a history lesson. Kirsty met her end one day when Aunt Kate asked me to row across the Thames to the mooring and bale her out after several days of heavy rain – Kate had broken her arm, and couldn’t do it herself. On board the boat I lifted the decking and was baling away when a vast pleasure steamer passed by, sending out a great wash. I lost my balance, stuck my foot through the bottom of the hull and unleashed a Buster Keaton-style fountain in the cockpit, after a few minutes of which Kirsty settled on the bottom of the river.

None of us quite knew what Aunty Kathleen had done before the war, during which she served as a nurse. Apart from the Richmond and Twickenham Times, which she read from cover to cover, mainly for the items of staggering unimportance reported as if they were the invasion of the Sudetenland, the only other publication in the house was the Draper’s Record. In the 1960s she acquired an old barber’s shop which she turned into the ‘Kate Paxman Boutique’, appealing, she explained, to ‘the sort of women who’d like to shop at Harrods, but can’t afford to’. (Harrods at the time was still considered a smart shop.) The business seemed to do all right – there must have been some shopkeeping gene on that side of the family, because Aunt Kate’s stepsister Margaret kept a haberdashery shop in Selby.

In her last few years poor Aunt Kate developed a brain tumour, which triggered what she tried to laugh off as ‘the shakes’. She endured the pointless interventions of brain surgeons with a stoicism which humbles me even now.

In early 1957 – the year that the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan declared that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’, my father took a job with a steel company and uprooted the family from Hampshire to the Midlands. With help from Mother’s parents we moved into a tall, gloomy house in the Lickey Hills near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, alongside what had once been a main road to Birmingham. High Lea was an austere brick Victorian building, which must once have dominated the hillside on which it stood – it had the stamp of a man who’d done well in Black Country metal-bashing and would rather like people to know. It still had tumbledown stables, haylofts and garages, a kennel block and a paved yard. There were acres of garden, paddock and orchard, a vile-smelling septic tank at the bottom of the adjoining fields, and an enormous lime tree on the central lawn. Another lawn surrounded a circular ornamental pond which was drained after my infant sister had been discovered one day lying almost drowned among the water lilies. There was also a tennis court, the surface of which had been wrecked by grazing horses.

Suburbia was creeping in upon the metal-basher’s mansion, and the land around the big house was increasingly occupied by infill housing. It was a time when living standards were rising, which showed itself in the new religion of do-it-yourself. The Messiah was Barry Bucknell, a dull man in striped tie and cardigan who seemed never to be off television, instructing his disciples how to tear down Victorian cornices or ruin the interesting features of doors by nailing hardboard all over them. Every man aspired to a bench and a vice, and Dad was soon sending away for kits to make glass-fronted bookcases and a not-very-attractive workbox in which Mum could keep her wool, thread, buttons and stuff. Dad was not a very effective devotee – he seemed to hammer his thumb a lot, and he didn’t look after his tools particularly well. A corner of our vegetable garden had been sold off to another DIY enthusiast who built an entire new house which, although he moved his family in, never seemed to be finished – the man lost interest, and settled for living among piles of bricks and timber with a big black dog called Bimbo which didn’t do much except fart.

Like most houses of the time, High Lea had no central heating, and the place rang to constant cries of ‘Close the door!’ Once we had stopped toddling, all the children were given domestic chores, the worst of which was bringing coal up from the basement. Every few months the coalman would empty jute sacks of coal down a chute which ran from the front garden into the cellar. The task of shovelling it into a scuttle for delivery to the sitting room was unpleasant, not only because the place was cold and damp and lit by a single lightbulb, but because it was infested with frogs. When you struck the shovel into the heap at the bottom of the chute something black and sparkling with coal dust was liable to leap up at you.

That aside, High Lea was a terrific place. There were endless war games among the ruined outbuildings, and den-building and camp-outs in the garden with my closest friends, Paul Davies, who lived with the smelly black dog in the permanently unfinished house in the sold-off corner of the garden, and Gerald Mullen, the son of an Irish assembly-line worker at the Longbridge car plant a few miles away. When, a year or so after our arrival, we recorded a message on the new-fangled reel-to-reel tape recorder Grandpa had bought, my brothers and I sounded as if we had been born and bred in the Black Country.

My mother’s mother, who had been born in a Glasgow slum and escaped by joining the Salvation Army, once told me of Mum’s insistence that ‘Only the best was good enough for you children.’ In that belief my brothers and I were sent to different schools from my friends Paul and Gerald. For a couple of years we attended The Mount, a local pre-preparatory school of which I remember little, which probably means it was a happy place. The only clear memories I have are of my youngest brother reciting verse after verse of Hiawatha from memory over tea, and an occasion on which he was cornered by a gang of girls who pinned him to the ground so that their leader – now doubtless a highly respectable grandmother – could clamber on top to kiss him. On our first day of term there we returned home to find that Mum had given birth to a baby girl who would be named Genevieve – which, after Jeremy, Giles and James, at least had the advantage that when someone was to be shouted at, there was a reasonable chance that the first syllable might come out right.

The next stage of 1950s private education required ambitious parents to commit their children to the care of a bunch of drunks, pederasts and cashiered army officers at a local preparatory school. There is said to have been a question posed in the New Statesman of the time: ‘Has anyone ever met a sane prep school master?’ I do not know whether any was found, but there were certainly very few at the Lickey Hills Preparatory School.

The place had originally been built as another Victorian mansion for a successful Birmingham businessman, and over the years had had various classrooms added on to the original structure. The headmaster was – or appeared to a small boy – a tall man with straight brown hair swept back from a face which seemed to have been sculpted from sandstone. He wore cavalry twill trousers and tweed jackets, and turned an exceptional shade of violet when angry, which was much of the time. When he was in this state you could see the pulses in his temples throbbing. I imagine something had happened to him in the war.

But then, something had happened to more or less every grown-up in the war. Colonel Collinson, who taught us French (more precisely, he taught us how to make an invisible margin down the middle of the page, on either side of which, at some vague date in the future, we might perhaps write French words and their English counterparts) was missing a finger, and Mr Thomas, our gym master, was minus an eye – if you asked him nicely he’d pop out his glass replacement and let you have a look inside the socket. It was hard to imagine Mr Steer, the classics master, in uniform, since he found it hard enough to puff his way up the three steps into our classroom, pinching out his roll-up at the door with mahogany-brown fingers and slipping the dog-end into a matchbox which then went into the pocket of his astonishingly filthy houndstooth jacket. There were a few older masters who might, I suppose, have seen action in the First World War, and the occasional young man about to go to university or seminary – the only thing I learned from them was that the Prayer of Humble Access in the communion service was ‘almost certainly blasphemous’.
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