For any political anoraks, it was nice to see the brief resurrection of David Butler in a ‘Newsnight’ interview last week; the one-time analytical mainstay of the BBC’s General Election night broadcasts – the go-to man if seeking facts and figures about swings in marginal seats – was asked for his opinion on the current campaign. He reckoned the about-turn in Labour fortunes was the most surprising development he’d seen in any run-up to polling day since 1945, though he was still of the belief that the Conservatives would retain power. Last night on Channel 4 and Sky, we sadly had no David Butler and had to make to do with Jeremy Paxman.

Oh, dear. If ever the old phrase ‘never go back’ had any real relevance, it was in Paxo’s return to political interrogations after a two-year absence; he was akin to the former high-school hunk turning up to a reunion with a paunch and a bald patch, yet for a good couple of decades, Paxman was a giant, simply untouchable when it came to getting blood out of elected stones. Few MPs emerged unscathed from a Paxman grilling; he could make them squirm in a way that made other political interviews seem like scripted ego-stroking on ‘The Graham Norton Show’.

He was the natural inheritor of the mantle that had so long belonged to Robin Day, possessing the same pompous vanity yet equally capable of going for the jugular like no other interviewer when faced with such meticulously coached evasiveness. It seemed he was just as frustrated as the viewers by politicians who were incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question and he attacked their spin-doctored defences like a battering ram pounding the walls of a besieged medieval castle. We cheered him on because he was doing it for us – our man in Westminster. When it was announced his successor as the main ‘Newsnight’ frontman would be Evan Davis, I remember thinking it was a bit like when Peter Davison succeeded Tom Baker as Doctor Who – a lightweight for a heavyweight; but now I wonder if the Davis approach isn’t preferable.

Semi-retirement making cosy Sunday evening documentaries about Victorian paintings and British waterways appears to have blunted Paxman’s once-impeccably precise interviewing instincts, and last night he was closer to a Rory Bremner impersonation of his former self. He interviewed both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – separately, as he had with David Cameron and Ed Miliband in 2015 – and came across as someone with a vague memory of how this thing works, adopting a blustering, belligerent tone of basic rudeness without any of the subtly sneaky assassin’s nuances that had proven so effective in his heyday. I was so dismayed by his embarrassing show midway through that I actually switched over and watched ‘Coronation Street’ on ITV.

What once happened to David Frost – whose initial mercilessness when confronting crooked public figures slowly morphed into a chummy chinwag technique as a legacy of sucking-up to too many showbiz stalwarts – now seems to have happened to Paxo. The Corbyn interview was the one I saw in its entirety last night and Paxman’s refusal to allow Jezza to attempt an answer without butting in and bombarding him with another question was reminiscent of Terry Wogan’s tactics on his 80s chat-show; it was as though all those years of anticipating evasiveness on ‘Newsnight’ meant he can no longer ask a question without expecting a non-answer and doesn’t even give the politician the opportunity to be evasive – yet enabling them to be evasive had always presented Paxman with his trump card in the past.

What this approach inadvertently did was to make the viewers side with Corbyn, and for Jezza this was something of a life-saver, as I wasn’t very impressed by his performance when he took questions from the audience; he appeared unexpectedly nervous in the way David Cameron had during the first leaders’ debate of 2010. After Labour’s surge in the polls following Team Theresa’s humiliating U-turn on a key manifesto pledge, Jezza seemed taken aback by the swift decimation of the Tory lead, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his sudden advantage. However, once he sat down for a Paxo grilling, Corbyn was far more relaxed and his demeanour when faced with someone who had the air of an angry old man still coming to terms with decimalisation was one guaranteed to win the audience’s sympathy.

I suppose it made sense to employ somebody with such an impressive track record to handle the interview segment of the programme, and who has more of an impressive track record over the last couple of decades than Paxman? But there’s a clear division between mocking students on ‘University Challenge’ as they struggle with questions Paxman himself has the answers to printed on a card in front of him and giving the country’s two main political leaders the kind of interview the public wants to see when both have chickened out of sharing the podium with each other. We didn’t get that last night. Maybe they should have hired Andrew Neil to do it instead.

© The Editor


autumnToday’s the day the world recognises the onset of autumn via the arrival of the September Equinox; at one (brief) time it also marked the start of the French Revolutionary Calendar, though that hasn’t had any relevance for over 200 years. Most of us here tend to associate the end of summer with the changing of the clocks, even if we don’t return to Greenwich Mean Time until the end of October. By then, the ‘Indian Summer’ we often enjoy at the beginning of September (and we’ve certainly experienced with record temperatures this September) is being slowly ushered away by the chilly autumnal breezes that scatter the leaves and necessitate the hibernation of the summer wardrobe.

The changing of the seasons as we approach the back-end of the year is usually greeted in Britain by ‘senior citizens’ with resigned shakes of the head and accompanying pessimistic observations uttered in a dismal, Eeyore-like tone, as though the transformation from one season to another was a newfangled innovation like decimalisation. ‘Ooh, it’s getting darker on a night now’ or ‘Ooh, I had to put the central heating on, it was so cold last night’ or the classic ‘Ooh, it’ll soon be Christmas.’ But this is always a curious juncture of the year, when the football season is well underway yet the cricket season is still active, if drawing to its conclusion; and because the clocks have yet to be put forward an hour it still has the feel of summer.

Admittedly, it does often seem as though the last three months before ‘Christmas Month’ are ones the country yearns to speed through, as if everything the year has to offer is already over and done with. In many respects, the great events that mark the calendar year generally tend to take place before September, so it’s no wonder that is the impression given. With the possible exception of February, October and November are the most overlooked of months and ones it feels like everybody views as unnecessary inconveniences they just want to get out-of-the-way. The retail sector certainly does its utmost to bypass them; bar the brief interlude of the newly-Americanised institution of Halloween, Christmas is shoved down the shopper’s throat from almost the very moment August has evaporated. We have to be constantly reminded how we’re inexorably careering towards December 25, though I can’t quite fathom why anyone over the age of ten would give a toss.

Perhaps the problem when one has lived long enough is that certain times of the year inevitably retain the associations they had when we were children; and yet they are utterly illusory now. Whenever we reach autumn, I find it hard not to anticipate its arrival as it was back then, even if virtually all of those archaic associations are long gone and redundant in 2016. Belated realisations that the pleasures derived from what once constituted autumn are pleasures I can no longer access possibly generates the aforementioned Eeyore response in those who experience a similar disheartening sensation. Autumn therefore becomes little more than an ominous prelude to the bleak winter of astronomical fuel bills and freezing water pipes – hardly something to celebrate.

There are somewhat negative connotations within cultural corners too – ‘the autumn of my years’ being a term signifying the beginning of life’s slow descent into reflection, regret, senility and death. Frank Sinatra sang of himself as being at that stage of his life in his finest late recording, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, yet he lived for another thirty years after committing it to vinyl. Few would want to volunteer for the dubious accolade of being in ‘the autumn of my years’, however; it suggests surrender, raising a white flag rather than raging against the dying of the light, a mournful, terminal train ride towards a destination with a longer stretch of track behind it than in front of it. What a depressing thought.

Jeremy Paxman’s recent spat with the OAP population of this country was portrayed as the deliberately offensive Clarkson-esque rant of a man in denial of his own advancing years, though I understood to a degree where he was coming from. As with every age group from teenagers onwards there is an assumption that ‘we all want the same thing’ and that we will adhere to the portrait of us painted by the advertising industry, which not only simplifies everything to the lowest common denominator cliché, but assumes that everybody belongs to an easily identifiable demographic. Passing 60 being summed up by images of stairlifts, walk-in baths, Werther’s Originals, slippers, cardigans and chunky sweaters is indeed appalling and unappealing. That to me was what Paxman’s rant was about, the apathetic acceptance of someone else’s ideal of maturity rather than having a go at oldies in general. With life expectancy longer than it has been in living memory, falling back on those outdated images and implying the last (potentially) thirty years of life will look just like that is enough to provoke a rush of flights to Switzerland.

Overseas autumn holidays are now quite commonplace, with October in the sun viewed as a preferable alternative to October at home. Yet, October in the sun is much the same as April in the sun or August in the sun; it’s the bloody sun. A country with a climate that doesn’t alter from one season to the next, certainly not in the dramatic manner with which it does here, just wouldn’t feel right or as rewarding to me. The bliss of one is a reward for the hardship of another. It’s almost as though the welcome gift of spring, for example, is earned as opposed to given. But maybe that’s simply due to us being on an island and we enjoy/endure the island climate.

It’s all-too easy to dwell on the downside of autumn and what it represents in purely climactic terms; and yet, I spy with my aesthetic eye the most visually rich of seasons when autumn transforms the landscape. The bruised fruit ochre shades of marmalade make a walk in the park an atmospheric excursion through the shifting carpet laid by the wind from the dry-roasted crispy cast-offs of the trees. Nature can always have the power to marvel if we raise our heads above the parapet of concerns imposed by man and machine.

© The Editor