Freelance writer Joanna Bell, a long-time fan and from the Border county of Louth, pursued him relentlessly until he agreed to be interviewed and give his thoughts on Ireland and the Irish, the peace process, the British political system and… accents.
We meet in a West London coffee shop with Jeremy wearing a three-piece tweed suit on his tall and well-built frame. He has an imposing air off screen as well as on screen. To break the ice I present him with a bottle of Yellow Spot Irish Whiskey, distilled in Dublin. He tells me he is a big whiskey fan and carefully examines the bottle. I confess that I took a swig beforehand to calm my nerves which is why the seal is broken. He laughs and says he doesn’t mind at all.
I remind him of the time he held up the Irish World on Newsnight back in 1994 when it was the first front page to say the IRA ceasefire was most definitely going to happen, the beginning of Sinn Fein’s conversion to the ballot box rather than the Armalite.
“I’ve heard Sinn Fein are (now) the most popular party in Ireland,” he says referring to a more recent Irish World front page.
That immediately prompts me to ask if he sees any similarities between Sinn Fein and UKIP in this country?
“I don’t think they are similar at all, voting for Sinn Fein is political, it is slightly different, they’ve come on a long journey those guys, from the days when I first knew them, back in the 70s. I remember when the ceasefire was declared, I flew to Belfast on the day, went down to the Sinn Fein office and I was surrounded by a noisy republican crowd.
“I realised it was the first time I’d seen a crowd of happy republicans, they were normally serious, resolute, sometimes menacing, and now for the first time I saw the crowd happy, and I realised something profound had changed.
“I went into a room, where there were three men whom I had last seen together in the seventies – I can’t give you their names. Then, they wore those jeans that were a bit too short. At least two of them were serious smokers. They were all hard line Marxists. There weren’t many laughs. If I’d suggested in 1979 that they’d stop the fight before they got their 32-county socialist republic I’d have had a pretty tricky situation on my hands.
“I realised they felt the revolution had gotten old, and they didn’t want their kids to have the sort of life as they have had.”
As someone who has written extensively about the English what could Jeremy Paxman tell them about Ireland and the Irish?
“I lived in the north of Ireland for three years, and I’ve had holidays in Ireland for many years, there’s fantastic food, they’re nice people, there are pubs, terrific walks, nice fishing, there are so many reasons why Ireland’s a wonderful place (your planning laws not being one of them). And you don’t go there for the weather: there was one year when it rained every single day for three weeks. I find what you call the ‘soft’ days a bit testing.
“We (the English) can be pretty stupid when it comes to alcohol – I don’t know why I haven’t seen it in the Irish pubs as much as here, I love the Irish tradition of the pub, of the ‘spirit grocer’ and the literary pub, of the conversation that starts in one pub and ends up in another.”
How does he occupy himself now that he is no longer the face of Newsnight?
“I have lots of jobs. There’s something fantastic about thinking ‘I’ll do that because its fun, and that because it will pay the rent and that because it’s a good cause’ I’d recommend being your own boss to anyone. But temperamentally I find it hard to sit still.
“The world is a wonderful place and I’m driven by curiosity. Who wants to sit about vegetating? There are far too many old people sitting around sucking their teeth. they’re a menace. They’re everywhere, cluttering the place up, not doing anything, talking about …I don’t even know what they talk about, except that they get in the way.
“Pension ages are being adjusted, but we are living far too long, and I feel sorry for the young people who are having to live with the consequences of old people hanging around, working their lives away to keep old people in pensions.
“Politicians know that old people vote, so they make promises to them. Huge numbers of young people don’t bother to vote, which is stupid because they’re letting someone else choose who governs them. Old people genuinely believe ‘oh I’ve paid into my pension all my life’ so somehow it’s in the bank account but that’s not how it works, it’s never worked like that, because politicians have mismanaged the whole thing, they just have spent the contributions as they come in so working age people are paying to support those who don’t work. Both young and old are victims of the system.”
I ask what’s on his iPod?
“I was given a Leonard Cohen box set at Christmas, some of it is absolutely exhilarating, it is very thoughtful, it’s very good. I saw Leonard perform, when he decided to go live again when his accountant, or his manager ran off with all his money, so he had to get back on the road at the age of 80.
“There were women that were figuratively throwing their knickers at him, it was amazing this old boy, in a double breasted suit and a broad rimmed hat …and he gave three hours, and it was fantastic.”
Do women figuratively throw their knickers at you?
“Certainly not! Sadly I’m not a poet, or a singer, not even that much of a performer. People think they know you because they recognise you, which is nice – most are very friendly even though they don’t really know anything about me.
“My great discovery of the last 20 or 30 years, is the absolute reverse of what the media tell you about human nature. The media presents us with constant violence and nastiness, and if you take it all seriously, you’d think there’s every chance you are going to get murdered in your bed, which is not true. Just think: these things are news because they’re very rare. News is anything that is out of the ordinary, most people are decent and it’s just a question of giving them the opportunity, the incentive to be nice”.
Who is the next Jeremy Paxman?
“I haven’t the faintest idea, nor is it my business. I fell into it. I spent a long time reporting on the road, first of all from Northern Ireland, then all over the world really. I needed to do something else, I was writing a book, someone said ‘do you want to spend a few months presenting the news on TV?’ I did it, I found it rather dull, and then another opportunity came, which was more than newsreading and then another door opened which was interviewing people and applying the same skills I applied on the road, which is really about asking very simple questions, was a way to go.”
I ask him if he would have had the same opportunities if he had a regional accent?
“I don’t see why not, I was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. My accent is the product of my education, which I suppose was privileged, though my parents weren’t at all wealthy (my grandfather paid, I think). In schools like the one I went to ‘received pronunciation’ was the thing. It may be rather unfashionable, now.
“I think their accent is one of the reasons for the the success of so many Irish people in the British media.
“There’s that line in My Fair Lady, ‘The minute an Englishman opens his mouth people can make judgments of him’. People can’t make such a judgment about an Irish accent because the English have this love-hate relationship with the Irish.
‘We saw it in the Rugby game between Ireland and England. It was a great, great game, and the Irish deserved to win it, but you could tell it was played in quite a nice atmosphere.
“The last time I went to an England-Ireland game was in Twickenham about three years ago, I took my son and we were seated among a group of Irish fans – you couldn’t find a nicer bunch of people they were absolutely delightful.
“England has, in general, cast a very long shadow over Ireland but I think deep down we quite like each other and so if you appear as a broadcaster with an Irish accent, people are quite disposed to being kind towards you, that’s the secret of Terry Wogan’s success. Talk, the gift of the gab, it’s Ireland’s gift to the world.”
There’s one question everybody wants to know, and its whether you are going to go into politics?
“As far as I can see, it’s been made up in the papers, hasn’t it? I often think that it would be a fine thing to get involved. But I’ afraid I’m just too spikey to think that any one party has all the answers.”
But could he not see himself in Parliament?
”In a party of one.”
He heads off with his bottle in his pocket muttering that he might have to conceal it under his jacket. A few days later, with impeccable English manners, he emails me to thank me for the delicious Irish Whiskey.