A Life in Questions
Jeremy Paxman

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But demonstrations were definitely no laughing matter. Later that week protesters disrupted a dinner at the Garden House Hotel, also intended to promote Greek tourism. Eight of the demonstrators were sent to prison or borstal by a gouty old bully of a judge. The university was outraged, but still Varsity reported another sit-in at the university Senate House (this time about some urgently-felt, but more trivial, concern than the military takeover of a European government) as an action by ‘militants’. It was true that most students simply went about their normal lives during the demo, but the tone of the coverage left the newspaper uncomfortably straddling the fence. In fact the whole university was a bit like that.

There were demonstrations every other week about something or other. Many were led by a placard-waving Charles Clarke, with shoulder-length hair – like some Moses leading his people to a Promised Land whose precise map reference eluded most of us. There was usually a point at which another longhair, Bruce Birchall, would start marching back through the crowd with a chant of ‘Anarchy! Anarchy!’ A few years ago I read that he had died after a career spent playing chess and directing alternative theatre. He had been diabetic for some time, and there was some argument in chess chatrooms about whether that had been the cause of his personal hygiene problems, which were evidently serious.

Prince Charles had just spent a couple of years apparently studying archaeology and anthropology in the beautiful surroundings of Trinity, but St Catharine’s was a long way short of being the most glamorous college. Though it was also in the centre of town, it was unfashionable, built of brick rather than the honeyed stone of Trinity, had only one proper court, was sporty, and seemed to be dominated by geographers and engineers. But it was a friendly, straightforward place, and things were a great deal better than they had once been – there were three years at the start of the nineteenth century when the college had been unable to muster any students at all. In 1861 it had also been the scene of such a huge row between two Fellows, each of whom believed he should be Master of the college, that the university ostracised the successful candidate. Since the Master held his office until he died, the college did not recover until after the First World War. The august Victoria County History commented in 1950 that ‘the undergraduates shared the general odium, and not unnaturally came to be drawn in great part from an inferior stratum and to fall in number … Several of those still alive are gratefully conscious of the beneficial effect upon their characters of this struggle against adversity.’

The dozen of us from the inferior stratum who arrived to study English nearly twenty years after those comments were supposed to be answerable to a taciturn Cornishman who ran the Extramural Board. We realised what we were missing when we were invited to tea on our first Sunday by the great Yeats authority Tom Henn, who had retired from the college the previous term. A brilliant man from a down-on-their-luck Anglo-Irish family, Henn had risen to the rank of Brigadier in the Second World War, during which a bad landing in a military aircraft had left him with a severely arthritic hip. As we sat on the floor around his armchair he recited Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ from memory, pointed his stick at a pimply youth from Barnsley and asked, ‘Can you imagine, boy, can you imagine being fucked by a swan?’ He could not.

But then, most of us couldn’t imagine being fucked by anybody or anything. Every room had a ‘bedder’ who came in to clean each day – there were occasional, almost certainly invented, stories about students bedding their bedder. But they were generally matronly middle-aged women: mine was a bustling, motherly figure called Joy, and she lived up to her cheery name. Within the university, men outnumbered women by a ratio of about ten to one. As I discovered when I invited a girl I had met in an English lecture to supper, most of the women were much cleverer than the men. Though I suspect she had been as nervous as I was, there was no second date. Homerton, the Cambridge teacher training college, which was dominated by women, was a better proposition, as were the numerous language schools, which seemed to be full of glamorous Europeans – but then Joy arrived in my rooms one morning, sniffed the air like a questing Labrador and said, ‘You’ve ’ad one of them foreign women up here, ’aven’t you?’ On another occasion a pair of what were definitely girls’ knickers appeared in the sitting room, but neither my room-mate Peter nor I could think how on earth they had got there. One good friend who made occasional sorties to London in his Morris Traveller – generally with a tailor’s mannequin in a flat cap in the passenger seat – returned with tales of forbidden fruit, one of his insights being that the skin of a Japanese girl was softer to the touch than anything we could imagine. He later married one. Eventually, in my second year, I fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl who worked part-time in the Copper Kettle coffee shop. The relationship with Noel lasted for much of the rest of my time at Cambridge.

The system was quite clearly unsustainable. I had been asked to send in a mugshot for the college records before arriving in Cambridge. It was sent back to me with a letter from St Catharine’s saying that some ‘tonsorial adjustment’ was required, because my hair was too long. But once you were installed in college, there was nothing anyone could do about how you looked. Gowns were still required at college dinners, attendance at a set number of which was compulsory in order to be eligible to graduate. (Other meals were buffets, the most notorious components of which were chunks of mechanically recovered meat known as ‘pork nasties’, which I rather liked.) All the dons were men, a chaplain lived in college, and students could sign a chit for any number of bottles of gin or whisky – the first thing I did on receipt of my (quite generous) local authority grant was to pay off the previous term’s bar bill. We could rely on Wilf, a genial North Country night porter, to tie those of us who’d had too much to drink into an upright chair so we didn’t drown in our own puke. But the system only worked as long as everyone agreed on how it should work, and by the late sixties and early seventies fewer and fewer of us were prepared to agree that things were as they were because that was how they were.

To the ordinary undergraduate, the university hardly existed: you had applied to a particular college, and it remained the only place that really mattered. You ate there, slept there, and if you played sports, unless you were quite startlingly good, you played them for the college. The English faculty, to which the dozen of us studying the subject were notionally affiliated, was based in an expanse of concrete a ten-minute walk from the centre of town. It organised lectures on a very random basis (on one occasion my room-mate and I were the only people in the hall – we’d gone along because we felt sorry for the crumbly old figure who was speaking). Some of the lectures, though, were terrific, notably those given by A.C. Spearing, who used to act out Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English. The University Library served superb cheese scones which one could eat with much brighter girls from the women’s colleges, like Julia Cleverdon (now a dame, perhaps the best-connected person in the land, and invariably described as ‘formidable’) and Liz Archibald, who was clearly there for more than the scones, since she subsequently produced Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations, and became head of a college at Durham University.

But the governing body of St Catharine’s wasn’t entirely sure that English was an academic discipline at all. Perhaps they had a point – it often seemed to me that the main consequence of studying the subject was to remove most of the pleasure of poetry and prose, in order to make whatever point suited the fashionable school of the time, whether ethical, linguistic, philosophical or political. It probably had something to do with the decline of religious belief that English literature could be co-opted into the service of Freudianism, Marxism, Situationism, Structuralism, or almost any other kind of ‘ism’. To dullards in the senior common rooms, the schisms that splintered the English faculty did nothing to enhance the academic credibility of the subject. But the opportunities offered by three years in which nothing more was required of you than to read and think and write were wonderful. More supposedly ‘respectable’ fields of study, like law or engineering, seemed drudgery by comparison.

Inside college, separate societies were expected to encourage a diversity of interests. The literary society was the natural one for me. Trinity had Byron and Tennyson after whom it might name its literary society. King’s had Rupert Brooke and E.M. Forster. Queens’ had T.H. White. All our college had was James Shirley, a minor seventeenth-century playwright of whom most of us had never heard. True, there was a rather unexpectedly distinguished modern theatrical tradition at the college – Ian McKellen, Howard Brenton and Peter Hall (and later his daughter Rebecca) had all been Cats students. But since we were mainly a sadly unliterary college, the job of organising the talks of the Shirley Society was not sought after. My room-mate, Peter Davies, was driven at one point to invite the General who had just commanded the British Army in Northern Ireland. He arrived unsure where Shirley was, and delivered a recruiting speech to a roomful of truculent longhairs, one of whom exclaimed ‘Horseshit’ before leading a small walk-out.

We found a better – if much thirstier – speaker in the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, a lovely man who finished his poetry reading with a suggestion that we all go to the bar. When the bar closed an hour or so later Peter, the poet and I adjourned to our shared sitting room, where we had laid in a bottle of whisky. It did not last very long, and sometime around midnight Peter and I were reduced to breaking into the drinks cabinet of one of the Fellows and helping ourselves to another bottle. We returned to our third-floor rooms to find the great poet standing on the windowsill and pissing into the street far below, periodically shouting at angry passers-by to hold their whisht.

How harmless it all seems now. But the older you get, the harder it is to recapture the intensity of youth. The university was wonderful, but the Black Dog was still around. An email from Peter the other day reminded me of how it often seemed at the time:

You had discovered Nietzsche and it was very fashionable to be in a semi-permanent state of what was called ‘ID crisis’. You managed to marry your ‘search for self’ and nihilism in a quite alarming and quietly dramatic way. ‘Jeremy’s down on Silver Street Bridge, again,’ someone would burst in on me. And there you would be perched on the parapet in your long regulation coat like one of Dylan Thomas’s forlorn, angst-racked cormorants. You would usually send us all away, but sometimes you would look at me and say, ‘It is completely and utterly meaningless, isn’t it?’ I would nod rhetorically and suggest a final pint of Greene King at The Anchor. You would usually oblige and your cormorants would die as we got sozzled at a ‘lock in’.

There is no denying it was a privileged life, and why ordinary tax- and ratepayers should have been expected to fund it was just another absurdity in an already rather preposterous life. The arrangement was hardly sustainable when – as then – just over one school leaver in ten went to university, but it became completely impossible once a political judgement had been made that half of school leavers should have a higher education. The charging of fees was inevitable, even if it is unjustly applied. And since when has a mountain of debt been considered a sound basis for adult life? It is not surprising, perhaps, that many students try to reduce the burden by living at home. But the great skill of the older universities is that the students teach each other – in an ideal world that would be true of all institutions of higher education. There is something about communal living which can encourage thought, tolerance and understanding.

University teachers complain that twenty-first-century student fee arrangements have turned higher education into a business, and students into customers. They are right, of course, and they belong to a trade that has seen its status plummet dramatically. In the late sixties and early seventies the universities still clung to the notion that they were communities of scholars, implying an entirely different relationship between old and young. If universities are to function as businesses, young people are surely entitled to give consumer assessments of what they are getting for their money. Is it acceptable to be charged £9,000 a year simply to hear a not-very-good-lecturer recycle the same talks he has given for the last decade? That was a question which would never have occurred to us. But then, we were getting it free of charge.

* (#ulink_b89060f8-ba42-5661-97b3-aa8750eaba09) Many years later I received a letter which began, ‘Dear Mr Paxman, I know you are Jewish. But have you ever considered the virtues of Roman Catholicism?’ I replied that I hadn’t, and furthermore, I wasn’t Jewish. When I made the story public, the author Chaim Bermant wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which he argued that I was indeed Jewish because I had a large nose, was successful, had a name which ended in the suffix ‘–man’, and – the clincher – ‘he denies it’. You can’t win.


Why is it Like That? (#ulink_a818558e-8717-5e92-9955-a2a5da997ad3)

Towards the end of my last term at university I was summoned for a glass of dark, horribly sweet sherry with my tutor, who was responsible for my ‘moral welfare’. Augustus Caesar (really – his father was called Julius) was also the Senior Tutor of the college. He taught geography at Cambridge for thirty years – rather well, apparently – seemed the height and shape of a cruiserweight boxer, spoke with a growling Hampshire burr, smoked a pipe more or less permanently, and wore a series of shapeless tweed jackets. He was also rumoured to be the recruiting officer at the university for MI6.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’ll soon be gone. Have you got a job yet?’

I hadn’t, and he asked what sort of thing I was looking for.

As I had at school, I still had a feeling that somewhere there was a party going on to which I had not been sent an invitation. But the fact that organisations were actively soliciting applications indicated that I might at least get into contention. The problem was what happened next – I had by this time been turned down for every job in the civil service, in commerce, in business and in journalism for which I had applied.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘something with a bit of foreign travel, perhaps. Somewhere I could serve my country. Somewhere I could maybe use my intelligence.’

‘Oh,’ he said idly. ‘Like MI6?’

I tried to assume an expression which might be interpreted as either innocence or worldliness. To no effect.

He smiled. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said with a genuinely worldly shake of the head.

Looking back on it, I suppose I should applaud the intelligence services for their selection skills. A couple of friends got much further in the recruitment process, even having meetings at a so-called Liaison Department of the Foreign Office, before dropping out, one of them explaining to Gus Caesar, ‘I don’t fancy all that cheesewire stuff.’ (Which drew the response, ‘Oh, don’t be so silly, there are people to do that sort of thing for you.’) At least one other contemporary went the whole way – when I looked him up years later he was listed as a trade attaché somewhere unlikely. I would have been a useless spy. 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 out to pass them on.

I have rarely looked at anything – particularly received wisdom on a topic – without asking ‘Why is it like that’? Journalism is the trade I have followed for the last forty-odd years, and while I’ve had occasional urges to do something different, they never lasted long. To think that I once considered trying to run a pub makes me squirm – I would have been so rude to the regulars that the business would have been bankrupt within a year. Instead, I have been amused and amazed, troubled and terrified, and have laughed a great deal. My work has taken me to astonishing places and provided a close-up view of some extraordinary events. I’ve been very lucky.

At the time I became a journalist, the trade was held in very low esteem, which is probably where it belongs. To judge from the false glamour now sprayed on the media, you’d think that journalists, disc jockeys, reality-show contestants and associated low life performed a useful social function, equivalent in value to the life-saving skills of paramedics or the discoveries of Nobel Prize-winners. They do not. I have suffered all my working life from impostor syndrome, unable to quiet the nagging voice inside asking, ‘And what, precisely, do you bring to the party?’ I have never walked up Downing Street to interview a Prime Minister, or sat in the Ambassadors’ Waiting Room at the Foreign Office, without wondering what on earth I’m doing there.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe passionately in the importance of free-flowing information. Every journalist has to be convinced that a well-informed democracy is a healthy democracy, and that a great part of the trade’s function is to hold to the fire the feet of those who have the nerve to tell us what to do. But we are no more important to a healthy society than the men and women who keep the sewers flowing. In fact, now I come to think about it, we have much in common with them. Too often, journalism is the cloaca maxima of the political world.

At the time I entered this trade, journalism’s position somewhere below the salt was well understood. It was not a profession, and the image of the reporter had hardly progressed from that of a man in a grubby coat with a press card stuck into his oily hatband. The BBC was considered slightly more respectable. But only slightly: my father’s boring golf-club joke when I started work there was to introduce me to his friends as ‘one of those communist homosexuals in the BBC’. Real work was making things or managing things, not observing or commenting on them. I have never really lost a nagging sense that he was probably right: if we are ever to establish what has gone wrong with the British economy, we shall have to examine what the educational system has done to the spirit of enterprise.

In retrospect, I can see that whatever I did as an adult was bound to be something to do with words and with finding things out. At the time I just blundered around, firing off half-hearted job applications here, there and everywhere, and consequently being turned down by almost everyone – including, I think, a multinational firm of distillers whose headquarters I had spotted through the rain on the train from Cambridge to London on an industrial estate, and which seemed an awful portent of life as a wage-slave. One of the very many employers who turned me down was the BBC, a benign-seeming institution – a cross between the Church of England and the Post Office, as I once heard it described – in which it was said you could have a lot of fun, as long as you were willing to sign the Official Secrets Act, be vetted by MI5 and wear the occasional cardigan. I duly applied, and went along for a selection board in front of four or five grown-ups, chaired by a personnel manager in pinstripe suit and stockbroker-belt vowels. I was rejected.

The BBC was not alone; I also collected polite rejection letters from the Diplomatic Service (where the selection process included an interview with a psychiatrist who seemed to my untutored eye to be barking mad), from two well-known Hong Kong trading companies, from independent television, from several manufacturing firms, and from every newspaper group hiring graduates that year. In fact, by the time I left university in the summer of 1972 I had drawn a blank all round. The only employment I could find was a temporary post as a ‘tutor’ on a Cambridge summer course for foreign students. The work was pretty minimal – one talk on contemporary poetry (the English faculty’s view was that poetry stopped in 1945) and living in one of the colleges where the students stayed, in case there was a fire in the night. I was rather smitten by a French girl who attended the end-of-course dance wearing skin-tight white jeans and nothing on her top but a scarf attached to her necklace and tucked into her waistband. (I later made the mistake of going to visit her in Paris and discovering that she was a great deal more interested in the female English teacher who had accompanied her from France to the course.)

As the leaves on the trees began to brown I realised that the state of well-breakfasted indolence into which I had fallen for the rest of that summer in Worcestershire couldn’t continue when one day my father put down his paper and announced, ‘If you think you’re going to carry on living here indefinitely, you’ve got another think coming.’ I thought hard and fast. Nope. There was no prospect of a job anywhere.

Then, like a prop in a bad play, the telephone rang. It was a woman with a cut-glass accent from the BBC in London. Although she – of course – never said anything so clumsily explicit, it was clear that the person who had been offered the job that wasn’t offered to me had decided to do something else with their life. If I could get myself to London I could start on a training course to learn to be a journalist. Salvation! I bought my first suit – a hideous shade of aubergine purple.

What the BBC really wanted, it turned out, was sub-editors for the radio newsroom. The training was largely carried out by Keith Clarke, a retired sub-editor who seemed to have either a cigarette or an extra-strong mint in his mouth at all times, and Eric Stadlen, a worldly Hampsteadite who had spent many years producing a World Service programme called Radio Newsreel, whose theme tune – a military band playing a rousing march called ‘Imperial Echoes’ – took you straight back to the Britain of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in their prime. Eric, who had been born in Vienna and had fled Hitler at the time of the Anschluss, was something of an imperial echo himself, and began most of his comments with, ‘When I was on the Reel …’ He often arrived for work having played poker all night.

The six trainees he was educating were taken on occasional excursions to meet the weather forecasters at the Met Office, to Parliament, and to the Black Museum at Scotland Yard – where an ancient detective showed us assorted murder implements, and the tub in which the Edwardian swindler and bigamist George Smith had drowned one of the brides in the bath. The rest of the time we spent learning shorthand, acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of the law, and having dinned into us useful practices, such as that ‘We say Argentina, NOT The Argentine.’ After several months we were allowed to help out in the radio newsroom, writing a sentence or two about what were judged to be relatively unimportant events, for inclusion in the HRU (Home News Roundup) or FRU (Foreign News Roundup). These were then read out by a newsreader who looked as if he seriously missed the days when announcers wore evening dress to broadcast the news. Afterwards, for reasons I never understood, the news bulletin was retyped on a rotary duplicator for circulation to dozens of people who never looked at the thing. I eagerly appropriated the roneo’d printout of my first two broadcast sentences – about the latest of the industrial disputes which were then a constant feature of British life – and promptly realised that I had no idea what to do with it. Woodward and Bernstein it was not.

The few months working in the television newsroom were more amusing, but no closer to the cutting edge of journalism. The radio newsroom had been located in Broadcasting House, the magisterial BBC headquarters in central London, its entrance adorned with Eric Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel and the motto ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’ looming over the entrance lobby. The television service was based in a strange circular building near the White City dog track in West London, and seemed to promise a less deferential approach to power. Here, trainee journalists came under the tutelage of Dick Ross, a young New Zealander in sneakers, jeans and a hooped sleeveless sweater who didn’t seem to take anything very seriously.

But although the journalists at Television Centre wore casual clothes and affected a more cavalier style, again, no one chose to rattle the bars of their cage. The Senior News Editor, wearing a pair of Bakelite headphones, was not to be disturbed at his desk when a Test match was being played. The Chief Sub spent a lot of time on the phone to his broker or his mistress. Everyone smoked, usually cigarettes, but one or two of the writers who fancied themselves philosophers would turn up with pipes and suck noisily. The newsdesk was occupied by an ever-changing array of sub-editors, some of whom worked night shifts in one part of the organisation, immediately followed by day shifts in another. Their skin was the colour of soggy newsprint, and they spent much of the day in a state of barely controlled fury.

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