What I've Learned: Jeremy Paxman

To mark twenty-five years of Esquire, we recall twenty-five men who have shaped the country since we first went to print. Here, Paul Wilson talks to the no-nonsense anchorman who struck fear into every politician in the land

Most Popular

There are several irritating things about life. One is that you have to live it looking forward but can only understand it looking backwards. Another is you may not think you are a very different person to what you were when you were 25, but your body tells you that you're not. But by and large, I am part of the luckiest generation that has ever lived.

All judgements about how the world should be run are made by people who are just as fallible, just as noble-minded, just as vainglorious, just as foolish as you or me or anyone else in the room. When we think there is something different about those who determine our fates, we are making a very serious mistake.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The only reason I've ever done anything is because it seems interesting at the time. I once got to 20,000 words of a novel, a sort of state-of-Britain thing, just for fun. I decided it was rubbish, printed it out and burned it in the back garden. It was cathartic. It reminded me slightly of Harold Macmillan, who discovered the letters between his wife and her lover and burned them all. Putting something out of your mind and saying, "Well, I don't really want to think about that."

Most Popular

I don't believe that what I have to say to the world on a day-to-day basis is inherently more interesting than what anyone else has to say. This whole social media game has about it an intrinsic arrogance.

Asking "why" is the only important question. Most of us, in my trade, spend our times asking how or when or what. Really we should be asking why and that does interest me a lot. I don't know what the answer is. I went to a funeral yesterday, at a crematorium but it had a religious context, which attempts to give meaning — not to the corpse, obviously — to something that will happen to us all, but I'm not sure it succeeded. I wish it did. I would like to know.

I was born in Leeds because both my parents were from Yorkshire. My father used to say that this was because, at the time, Yorkshire County Cricket Club could only play players who were born in Yorkshire. Sadly, I wasn't much good at cricket. I really wish I had been. I am perfectly happy to confess to an unreasonable pride in being able to claim to be a Yorkshireman. Yorkshire people are wonderfully arrogant and I plead guilty to that. Born in Middlesex? What's the point in belonging to Middlesex? There's no point at all.

I don't talk about my children or anything like that. My view is perfectly straightforward on this. Anyone else is entitled to say what they like or make public what they like about themselves, but it's not up to others. I've never asked anyone about his or her private life.

I'm not a fan of the French. It is a ridiculous country. Ours is a pragmatic culture, theirs is a theoretical culture. And they're very easy to wind up. A bit like the Jocks, you know? It's good fun winding up the Jocks. Although I am a quarter Scottish: like everyone in these islands, I am a mongrel. If I was a Scotsman, I would see nothing to fear in independence at all. I don't see anything to fear from the break-up of the union. It would be a good thing for the English, to force them to address what it is that makes this lazy country what it is. I'm not worried about that. Telling people something so that they can say, "Well, I never knew that." That's the thing.

The great lie about fly-fishing is that banal response people have: "I couldn't do it because it requires too much patience, which I haven't got." It actually requires no patience at all because you are constantly engrossed; you're watching a trout that's coming up and you're trying to work out what kind of fly it's taking and whether you've got an imitation you can drop on the water in a plausible fashion. It's a deeply unglamorous activity but I enjoy it.

There are politicians with whom I would be happy to spend an evening. I don't have politicians as friends. You must be able to trust your friends.

Seeing people shot or seeing dead bodies, people who have died violent deaths, creates an impression in you that you can never, never erase. [Working as a BBC TV news correspondent in conflict zones] I came to feel sympathy for and admire but nonetheless look rather sceptically at those freelance photographers who live for the next cover of Time or Newsweek or whatever, and were therefore required to be near the action. TV requires you to be near the action, or it did then. Writing, you can do some way back, although I had several friends who were killed writing. I don't think you ever really blank these memories from your mind.

I love students and am amazed by their enthusiasm. I know it's not fashionable to say you like students, but I don't care. I'm impressed by what they know and occasionally astonished by what they don't know. The best of them understand that University Challenge is a quiz that has to be taken seriously but it is only a bloody stupid quiz.

I don't feel old and I have no intention of getting out of the saddle, as it were. Although there is a good argument for saying that old people should. We've got a big problem with old people in this country. There are far too many of them around, they get in the way and distort the whole democratic process. People go on about lowering the voting age to 16. I can't see any point in doing that. I would just stop old people voting. Politicians defer to them, because they know they go out and vote. The first concession they make is to guarantee that young people, or younger people, will have to carry on working in order to pay old people's pensions. Clearly, as long as people are working, they should have a say in the government that forcibly removes money from their wallet. But once they're net beneficiaries, they should be stopped from voting.