Jeremy Paxman: lovable grump or cantankerous luddite?

The <em>Newsnight</em> host can’t hold his tongue – and we love him for it.

One of the best – and worst – things about Jeremy Paxman is his inability to bite his tongue.

Jeremy Paxman finds it hard to keep shtum when he's got an opinion. For many, it's the quality that elevates him beyond the level of A N Other journalist to being a national treasure. For others, though, it's what gives him a rather snotty and supercilious air that chips away at his credentials.

Sometimes I don't know which way I go on Paxman. When he got stroppy about a pair of pants and wrote to M&S to voice his displeasure, I found it rather endearing. You can imagine the righteous anger of an aggrieved Y-fronts wearer seething out of his pores as he wrote the email, his tolerance stretched, like an inadequate gusset, to breaking point. On the other hand, when he grumbled about having to do a weather report on Newsnight it seemed to be verging on the juvenile (though I found it amusing). And then there was his withering rant about how white, middle-class men (The Real Victims, as you may recall from this column last week) were discriminated against in television.

So, into what category does his latest grumpy outpouring – this time writing in Newsnight's daily email about what a bad idea having a daily email is – fall? Is it lovable old Paxo, railing against his daft bosses, striking a blow as the only one who can see past the madness? Or is it Victor Meldrew Paxman, whingeing and whining about anything slightly innovative?

I think it's probably a bit of both. The rebel in me enjoys the way in which Paxman refuses to keep quiet about what he has always thought is a bad idea, despite being forced to push it by his superiors, and the blunt tone is rather refreshing. "The reason for killing it off is pretty straightforward," Jeremy P wrote yesterday, sparks presumably flying off his keyboard: "it's crap." As well as that, you have to concede that an email which arrives after the programme it's promoting has gone to air isn't spectacularly successful.

On the other hand, I think Paxman's a bit too quick to dismiss multi-platform promotion of his TV show. Things like emails, podcasts (as Paxman somewhat Luddishly calls them, "television without pictures") and blogs (presumably "television without moving pictures, or sound") can be a pretty handy way of engaging your audience, as opposed to the one-way "like it or lump it" approach of conventional broadcasting. And in an era when people don't just watch your programme when it's transmitted, but can catch up on iPlayer for a week afterwards, emails arriving a bit late might not be the end of the world.

Still, that rather truculent sign-off is the reason we should cherish Paxman, even if every now and then he occasionally makes us wince. How many of us in our daily jobs have had to put up with some kind of tinkering from the higher echelons which makes no sense at the coalface? How many times have we bitten our tongues and stayed silent, knowing that what we're doing is madness?

Most of us just stay silent and keep our head down. Paxo gives us the chance vicariously to stick two fingers up at the boss – and hurrah for that. We may have to keep our head down, but he's not afraid to say what he thinks – even if he gets it wrong sometimes.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage