A Life in Questions



“It seems to me that the way to remove people's cynicism is, when asked a straight question, to give a straight answer.”

Jeremy Paxman

A Life in Questions

A Life in Questions

Jeremy Paxman is Britain’s bravest, most incisive political interviewer. The no-nonsense star of BBC Newsnight, Paxman is a supreme inquisitor, a master at skewering mammoth egos with his relentless grilling. Few figures in public life have escaped. From John Major to Theresa May, from Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, Paxman had them quaking in their boots.

His working life has been defined by questions. ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ was at the front of his mind as he conducted every interview. But it wasn’t just politicians. Paxman’s interviews with Dizzee Rascal, David Bowie, Russell Brand, Vivienne Westwood are legendary. He discussed belief with religious leaders and philosophers, economics with CEOs and bankers, books with writers and art and theatre with artists. After 22 years on University Challenge, Paxman is also the longest-serving active quizmaster on British television.

Now, in these long-awaited memoirs, he spills the beans behind four decades in front of the camera. He offers reflections and stories from a career that has taken him as a reporter to many of the world’s war zones and trouble spots – Central America, Beirut, Belfast, to the studios of Tonight, Panorama, Breakfast Time, the Six O’clock News. Filled with candid stories about the great, the good and the rotters that have crossed his path, his memoirs are as magnetic to read as Paxman is to watch.

Candid, uncompromising, compassionate, reflective and astute, he writes of the principles that have governed his professional life, the inner workings of the BBC, the role of journalists in political debate, the scandals and rows he’s been part of, the books he has written and the series he has made. In a book that tells some terrific stories and laughs at much of the silliness in the world, A Life in Questions charts the life of the greatest political interviewer of our time.

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Inspiration for this book

What do we know of our lives? I am certain my blood group is A Negative, because the nurse vaccinating me before some trip to a war zone sent a blood sample off for testing. I noticed that, in private, we all scrawled our blood group onto the back of our helmets, in case something awful happened.

I know I passed my Eleven-Plus, took two attempts to get good enough marks at my Common Entrance exam, failed Maths and Latin O Levels at the first attempt, got pretty average A Levels, won an exhibition to Cambridge and got a 2:1 in my final exams. The mere facts which categorise you aren’t interesting. If only one could tell children that once you’ve finished your exams, no one cares much about how you did, or even asks to see your certificates. Instead we expect them to play the game we played.

When the time came for me to start work I applied for the obvious jobs, but without much enthusiasm. I was then astonishingly lucky. One of the irritating characteristics of life is that it can only be understood looking backwards, yet you must live it looking forwards. Though it didn’t really seem like that at the time, I now see that there was only one occupation suitable for someone who, like me, was driven by curiosity and loved words. For over forty years I have followed the same trade, whether in radio, television, newspapers or books.

As my own shelves show, the world has a surplus of books. Why perpetrate another? I have no great prescription to dispense. But it’s been fun, and along the way I met some interesting people and heard some terrific stories, which I might as well share before I forget them. I have no scores to settle, no unfinished business. I just did things that seemed interesting at the time. A collection of memoirs offers the chance to try to set the record straighter than it might be otherwise, and to laugh at the silliness of so much of life.


“ Funny, sad and revealing ”
David Aaronovitch
— The Times —
“ Intelligent, well-written, informative and funny … A book to chew on, dip into, quote from and exploit in arguments ”
Andrew Marr
— Observer —
“ He writes with wit and penetration, and every page of Empire can be read with relaxed pleasure ”
— Spectator —
“ Bursting with good things ”
— Daily Telegraph —
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Illustration of a cherubim

“ 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 ”

Jeremy Paxman

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— Why Do You Talk Like That? —

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 pinkwashed, 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 whitepainted 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.