Newsnights former chief inquisitor doesnt like personal questions. So why write a revealing memoir about his distant father and feelings of failure?

I think Jeremy Paxman wants to be known, but only on his own terms, and these terms are tidal and possibly a mystery to himself. He worries, for instance, that his obituary will be headlined Man Who Asked Same Question Of Michael Howard 14 Times Dies. Except it wasnt 14 times, he notes beadily in his new memoir, A Life In Questions, already anticipating the posthumous lies that might be told: The repetition of that number proves that what matters is who produced the first account. (For the record, it was 12 times.)

Paxman worries about his public image but then starts fights: with Marks & Spencer, for instance, over the support offered by their pants. (The clue to his willingness to do this, I think, is also in his memoir, where he notes that Ruby Wax told Options magazine in 1994 that he has huge genitals. I do not know how she came upon this information, and I do not ask.) Paxman still keeps a copy of an old interview with Best magazine in which he said he found clothes really boring. By way of revenge, Warehouse founder Jeff Banks then nominated him one of the worst-dressed men in Britain. That man should loosen up, Banks said, and get into some soft linen.

Perhaps that was true once. When we meet, in the Langham hotel opposite Broadcasting House in London, where Paxman has worked, on and off, for more than 40 years, he doesnt seem to want to talk about his memoir. It is a riveting book when he writes about himself, but halfway through he seems to lose interest, or courage, and speaks about what he did, not how he felt, which is less interesting. I do not really care that late-night news producers live in a state of nervous collapse; I expect it. He loses his tone, but it comes back at the end when he returns to his father, Keith, a man incapable of expressing affection, whose ghost runs backwards through the book.

I sometimes see Paxman working in the London Library; he is usually intense, and friendly, probably because I once implied he was a feminist in print, and said his face was ravaged by ennui. Today he is apprehensive, and early; a schoolboy at the dentist, wearing clothes that Jeff Banks would not hate. He looks around the bar with fascinated eyes. How, he asks, would places like this function if it were not for people who came here to better themselves and understand service? He ponders the foreign staffs potential visa arrangements, and begins to ruminate on Brexit. He voted to remain: I just wish someone had had the guts to make a decent case. What would he have asked David Cameron the night after the referendum vote, had he still been at Newsnight? Arent you a man who sacrificed his country for his party? he says, swiftly. He imagines Camerons potential answers, and I remember how much I miss him on Newsnight.

Paxman is fierce, even more so because he is not the raging caricature of myth, although he will put it on when it amuses him. He is kindly and interested, if occasionally derisive. If I were Paxman, and I have thought about this a lot since we met, I would have asked him: Did your emotionally distant father lead you to a career where you excelled, specifically, in seeking out and humiliating figures of authority? But I am not Paxman, so I tug at the edges, often pointlessly.

He joined the BBC in 1972, going from Radio Brighton to Tonight, to Panorama, to the Six OClock News to Breakfast Time to Newsnight; he was, for seven years, a war reporter and, along the way, he married and had three children. (He says nothing about his family in the book; his marriage is alluded to only in a picture caption. What they choose to disclose of their lives is up to them, he says.) His mother once told him she remembered him watching television with her, and seeing Julian Pettifer a very glamorous young reporter in Vietnam jumping out of a helicopter and saying, I want his job. I realise now, looking back, that journalism was a square peg in a square hole for me, but I dont have any recollection of this.

Being an outsider can make you a good journalist though, I suggest. He answers with a rebuke: I once sat behind you at Labour party conference and heard you shamefully applauding some platform speaker and I thought, This isnt what we do. You probably stood up and applauded, I dont know. Resolutely remain seated and do not applaud. Ive moved on, I say weakly; I wouldnt do that now. He comes back: Cast a cold eye on life and death, eh?

Jeremy
Reporting in Belfast with Gillian Chambers in 1976. Photograph: courtesy of Jeremy Paxman

He will not tell me who he votes for, although he was Labour at university. Ive voted for just about every party. I havent voted Monster Raving Loony party. I have no intention of telling you how I voted in every election. Last time? Next time? No, I dont think so. He laughs again. I ask him which politicians he admires. His answer is: the ones whose cause is lost. I think that many of the people I most admire have not got right to the very top, he says. Getting to the top there is a long silence requires a compact with the devil. He pulls back slightly: They are not all charlatans or shits, but we should just [Its] like supping with the devil, you know.

Has he ever hated a politician? No. He sounds very cool and very far away. Ive never felt hatred. Im quite surprised you asked me. What right does anyone have to feel hatred? Of course not. Ive never hated anybody. He repeats this: Ive never hated anyone. I probably have said, I hate you, when younger. Its an utterly unproductive emotion. Whats the point? Who cares what some pipsqueak journalist thinks? Except that the epigraph to his memoir is by Hilaire Belloc:

Here richly, with ridiculous display,

The politicians corpse was laid away,

While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged

I wept. For I had longed to see him hanged.

Paxman is more comfortable talking about politics than about himself. (He has begun to respond to questions on any other subject with: Youll have to do better than that!) The comment that they [politicians] are all the same reflects this widespread malaise that there is something not working about politics, he says. He distrusts this requirement to reduce everything to simple binary choices. It is insulting to the intelligence. We know deep down that its incredibly complicated. The problem of funding the NHS, for instance: No one will engage with this. I think people are sick of the idiom, sick of the promise of jam tomorrow. Its imaginary jam, imaginary bread. In a healthier democracy, he thinks, We wouldnt be standing on our back legs [in parliament] saying that everything our interlocutor is saying is rubbish. Its not true.

Instead, he wants a parliament made up of spiky individuals. I want to be surprised. I want to feel there are people there who are making up their minds based on the issues. Its become almost totalitarian. Journalism, he believes, is withering, too. The trade connives at its own irrelevance. This lifestyle stuff, the preponderance of comment over disclosure. If we arent telling people things that make them go, Crikey, whats the point?

Paxman will admit to mistakes. He is ashamed, for instance, that he opened his 2010 general election interview with Gordon Brown with the words: People dont seem to like you. Like a boy who has done his time, he says, Ive fessed up to that in the book, havent I? It was unkind. It was a bit unkind.

Because, I add, some people did like Brown: his wife, for instance. You apparently did! he shouts. But this is his slightly garbled defence: What you are trying to establish in an interview, its always about something. People make up their mind about politicians on the basis of what they feel personally about things. I think it was a mean, mean question, but how he dealt with it told us something. Brown dealt with it by saying, Youre such a nice guy, Jeremy.

Paxman was always harder on politicians than on anyone else. They were immune from his sensitivity and he accepts that he may have added to the public distrust of politicians, though it does not keep me awake at night. He asked David Cameron what a pink pussy was, as if he didnt know. He asked Silvio Berlusconi, off camera, if it was true he had called Angela Merkel an unfuckable lard arse. What Berlusconi replied, he doesnt say.

In his memoir, Paxman writes that he once asked Theresa May, also off camera, Are those fuck-me shoes? I bet you Theresa May has no recollection, he says now. I bet she has. Do you know about shoes? he asks me. He seems genuinely curious. I now understand they are kitten heels, arent they? He has an appetite for trivia, but then he is interested in everything. When he insisted Marks & Spencer underpants had declined in quality, the then chairman Stuart Rose invited him to lunch, bringing in male models in different underpants and inviting Paxman to feel the quality. This was a private lunch. Roses on-the-record assessment was that, as men get older, their balls hang lower.

***

Jeremy Paxman grew up poised between classes, which makes for a good journalist, but not, I suspect, a happy child. His father was a naval officer and, later, a salesman of limited success who ended up living on the other side of the world. Keith was so emotionally distant that, on one return from sea, the infant Paxman didnt recognise his father and ran away screaming. (His sister, he writes, once found their father crying on the bathroom floor. He asked her to leave, and they never spoke about it.) Keith could not bear to be disobeyed. I was thrashed by sticks, shoes, cricket stumps, cricket bats or the flat of his hand, Paxman writes. 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 was the collar.

Jeremy
Paxman, on the right, with his younger brothers and his father, Keith, a man incapable of expressing affection. Photograph: courtesy of Jeremy Paxman

His mother Joans family eventually made money, from a canning factory; this paid for private schools for the four Paxman children. They grew up in crumbling houses in Worcestershire and Yorkshire; they were middle class, but hanging in there by our fingernails. They lived in full mimicry of what were presumed to be our betters.

There is a lot about Keith in Paxmans book, but almost nothing about Joan. I loved my mother, but everyone does, dont they? he says. It is a genuine question. He relates how his parents met, and talks about Joans hair and how it changed throughout her life. The images move through his head. I remember this rather elegant woman with jet-black hair, she wore it in a bun, then cut it short when it went grey. She was very conventional. Her characteristic refrain was, We cant afford it. The three boys he is the oldest were always fighting. Joan was run ragged. A busy, active person constantly running around stamping out this fire. He searches for a photograph of her on his telephone, and shows it to me. She is handsome, and indistinct in a group of female relatives, but she looks strong. Very Yorkshire, he says.

Unexpectedly, he opens up: I think, growing up, I never felt that I belonged anywhere and I havent really felt that until probably about the last 10 years, or 15 years, or something like that. People develop very simple-minded ideas about all this, and only you know what youre really feeling inside and I always felt inadequate. I always felt, Am I going to cut the mustard here?

Eventually, he learned the tricks of going into a room and not being frightened. But well into my 40s, I would expect to go to a party and lurk in the corner, cornered by the most boring person in the room.

What changed? Im 66 years old, he says, and the pensive mood flies away. Whats that thing George Melly said? The best thing about growing old is losing your libido, like being unshackled from a lunatic! Does that resonate with you, I say, being unshackled from a lunatic libido?

Not really, no, he says in his poshest voice. Paxman has an arsenal of voices, a rainbow of derision and engagement. This one makes you or one, he might say feel like a twit. Im not going to discuss it. He then ruins this statement by giggling. You brought it up, I say. More fool me, he says.

Whats the point of worrying about these things? he asks. He is talking about inadequacy again. There is nothing to be gained by worrying. The implied expectation of sympathy, and I dont think any of us deserve sympathy. I think of his father on the bathroom floor, unable to ask for sympathy, even from his child. I feel very lucky that Ive had a job which enabled me to go to amazing places, meet interesting people and I dont think I deserve any sympathy, really. This is the Miss World Defence; in his memoir, he writes that he had therapy, and took anti-depressants, for several years.

Does he ruminate on why he was depressed? Did I ruminate on what? he asks. It is an enormous what. On the reason for his depression, I remind him.

I never ruminated, he says. Its a fact of life. Its only in the last decade or so that I really thought seriously about why one has the feelings one has. I tried to think about it. What the reason is for responding to things in a particular way. He is speaking very slowly. He is starting to open up and then he isnt.

In
In El Salvador in 1982, with cameraman Alan Bulletproof Stevens. Of war reporting, Paxman says: I made no bones about it. I got too frightened. Photograph: courtesy of Jeremy Paxman

He bangs on the wall of the bar. Thats a very hollow-sounding bang, he says and laughs. He bangs again. This rooms going to fall down! he shouts. Someone do something about it, quick! I suspect he will continue to bang until I change the subject. The waitress comes over to suggest we have tea.

Thats great, lets have the tea, if we may, please! He is still shouting, but he is polite. He is very kind when he wants to be; in his memoir, he recalls that the matron of his school, Malvern College, was unhappily in love with a tutor, and she wept over the teenage Paxman. He was bewildered, but let her. He also chose, at school, to help local children with special needs learn to tie their shoelaces, rather than play soldiers. I think the matron was his first real interview, though unasked. He asks the waitress for Earl Grey.

I say weakly, Lets move on. I am a coward, and although he is probably relieved I have stopped asking about his depression, I suspect he despises me for it, too. Instead, I ask about his feelings of not being accepted, specifically at Cambridge University, where he studied English and edited Varsity magazine, and where, he says, he used to pose by a bridge, as if tempted to jump off. He gives a deep sigh. It sounds like, Neeer. He couldnt see the life before him then; now that he can, the past feels different. I loved it! he explodes. I absolutely loved it! Three years to sit around reading wonderful books, occasionally holding forth and spending a lot of time with people of your own age, most of them much cleverer, and having to think about things it was fantastic!

I was unhappy, he adds, as I have been unhappy much of my life. Im not saying Im looking for sympathy, but I recognise that actually it was a wonderful, wonderful time. The happiest days of my life, I suppose.

I mention the bridge. Why are you furrowing your brows like that? he asks. He laughs again. I wanted to ask, I say, when the depression first manifested. I dont know, he says. Ive nothing else to say about it.

In the introduction to his book, Paxman mentions that he shoots squirrels from his toilet through the bathroom window. I ask him about this; but my question is apparently misleading. There is a key clause missing, he says. The seat the lid, or whatever is down. The seat is down when this occurred.

What else annoys him, aside from squirrels? He pauses, searches for an answer, gives up and shouts: Virtually everything! He has an anecdote to illustrate it: I was just in John Lewis, trying to buy a toaster, and I said to the woman, Whats the best kind of toaster? These ones are quite good, arent they they are made in Britain? And it was extortionate, 160 or something. I said, No one is going to pay 160 for a toaster unless they are off their head!

Jeremy
On the set of Newsnight in 2006. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

I listen to him rant and, as I do, wrap my nicotine gum in paper and put it in my bag; I do not want to leave it on the table. Thats disgusting, he says. Now you will have to open your handbag [to clean it]. I bet its full of old bits of chewing gum.

Virtually everything annoys him, he repeats, but some things make me feel very happy. On the tube as I was coming here, there was a man and a woman and a baby in a pushchair, and they were making faces at the baby and the baby was laughing. He sounds terribly sincere. I thought, Thats wonderful. Im sorry, Im rabbiting on. God save us from people who go through life indifferent to things. We want to feel. Being irritated by things, or being made happy by things, is a sign that you are noticing. Do you want to go through life not noticing things?

I love this image of Paxman; now that he is no longer tormenting senior politicians, he is watching babies laugh on public transport, and he is moved by it. Perhaps this is the truest Paxman.

Im not sure why he left Newsnight in 2014, after 25 years, or what he thinks of it now; he isnt telling. He spends an age deciding what to tell me and eventually says, I dont see it. I like to go to bed early. Which, incidentally, means I can say I dont know what I think, because I dont see it.

My own theory is that he got too happy for it, as standup comics do; once you have mellowed, you cannot summon the rage. (In the book, he writes: I dont like the fact that I have mellowed, but I cannot deny it.) Later, he says, Its much more important to have friends than enemies.

Or perhaps it was the weather that finished him? At the end of his tenure on Newsnight, Paxman was required to comment on the weather and he did so, at peak sarcasm. He gasps silently when I mention this, and lets out a great, That was absurd! Weather reportage, he says, has turned into, a form of nannying, you know, I cant stand it. He turns to me and says softly: Its going to be cold tomorrow, so do make sure you wrap up warm. The voice is perfect; I believe he cares that the theoretical viewer is wearing a sweater. Or (it is hot the day we meet), Do be sure to take your bottle of water with you. So why did he do it? He gives two answers: I thought it was funny, he says. And why would anyone refuse? Presenters should do what they are bloody well told. But remembering again the indignity, he booms: Oh for heavens sake!

He adds that he shouldnt have let this attitude show. If you are right and its for others to judge that you become immensely sarcastic and dont take things seriously, you are letting your colleagues down. He is veering still, as I suspect he always has, between classes, because that is what was expected of him when he was young: between the establishment and the revolutionaries. If he never chose a side, this is what makes him hard to read, and easy to watch.

We are almost finished, so I ask when he felt closest to belonging. He complains, somewhat tangentially, about the deification of the media: It didnt exist 60 or 70 years ago. But I suppose I belong there. Im not sure I want to belong, actually. But I suppose Ive got used to it and I quite enjoy it now. I dont want to belong. Now he sounds youthful in his contradictions.

I am allowed only one more question, so I ask about his seven years as a war reporter; he writes in the memoir, that, eventually, I couldnt sleep properly, and when eventually I did manage to drop off, I awoke not even knowing what country I was in. In my dreams men with guns in Africa, Ireland, Latin America and the Middle East got all muddled in my head. I didnt exactly have a breakdown, but it felt like one.

This question irritates him, so close to the end. This is like the depression question, he shouts. Give us a break! But he answers: I admire those people who put up with it, but I couldnt do it. I made no bones about it. I got too frightened. Youve got to be able to control your imagination, and I couldnt. I didnt feel a sense of loss when I quit, but I did feel a slight sense of inadequacy. But then Ive always felt that. It was just another thing one couldnt do particularly well.

He gives a huge laugh. I think the laugh means he doesnt mind any more, and I hope it is true.

A Life In Questions by Jeremy Paxman is published by William Collins at 20. To order a copy for 16.40, go to the Guardian Bookshop.

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