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Jeremy Paxman


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity .

He enjoyed his time at university although now he thinks that he and his friends were given a privileged (and free!) education of a kind that is no longer available to today's students. He came down from Cambridge with no clear idea about what to do with the rest of his life. He was turned down for every job in the civil service, commerce, and journalism he applied for. He was also rejected by the BBC, but the person who got the post that he had applied for changed his mind, so Paxman joined the BBC as a trainee. There was no guarantee of employment after the three-months' training period, but during this time he was attached to the local branch of the BBC in Belfast and a job in the Belfast news-room came up; he applied and was appointed.

After his years in Northern Ireland reporting on the Troubles Paxman worked as a reporter in other war zones, including Beirut, Uganda, and Central America. He summarises this period fairly briefly before turning to his life in domestic television, which is clearly what will mainly interest his readers. This takes up the second half of the book. We get a detailed account of his experiences, not only on Newsnight, for which he is probably best known, but before that on Tonight, Breakfast Time, Panorama and other programmes. But the one he has enjoyed (and still enjoys) most is University Challenge.

There is a lot about what it was like to work on Newsnight and conduct the interviews for which he is famous. But Paxman says he was not sad to leave the programme after a quarter of a century, feeling it was time to move on to other things. Indeed he might have left earlier were it not for the crisis in the BBC caused by 'the Jimmy Savile shambles'; quitting at this time 'would have made me look like the proverbial rat.' He gives a fairly full account of this unfortunate episode, during which there were rumours that Newsnight might be taken off the air.

The book has a nice chapter that provides answers to questions Paxman is often asked, such as 'Do you tell interviewees the questions in advance?', 'Do you still get nervous?', and 'Do you wear your own clothes?'. There is also information about some of the letters Paxman has received from viewers. I particularly liked the woman who insisted that he must be dyeing his hair, on the grounds that her father dyed his hair and he was the same age as Paxman.

Paxman has plenty of critical things to say about the BBC but a note of exasperated affection comes through, and he recognises its central importance to British life: 'it is a much-loved institution which has become part of the viscera of the state.' His book provides a vivid insight into the workings of the Corporation as well as the personalities of the innumerable people whom he grilled in his Newsnight interviews.

His writing is more chatty and informal here than in his other books. The tone is very much what one would expect from his TV personality, witty, urbane, gently (and sometimes not so gently) ironic. (Paxman identifies irony as an quintessentially English characteristic that foreigners often fail to understand. 'It is a terribly hard thing to learn.')


%T A Life in Questions
%A Paxman, Jeremy
%I Willian Collins
%C London
%D 2016
%G ISBN 978-0-812830-2
%P xvi+336pp
%K biography
%O hardback, photographs

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