Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

…on his attempt to become a spy

Our columnist considers how all experiences, good and bad, shape our lives – including his unsuccessful attempt to become a spy…

Experience is everything is the mantra at Saga, and I suppose it’s right: even those things you have not enjoyed have formed a part of you (though, I could have done without the Parkinson’s.)

I have lived my life in pursuit of experiences; even those that I would blush to recall publicly have had an influence, and for that I am grateful. I hope the person who knitted the Remembrance Day topper for the gold pillar box in Hay-on-Wye – permanently gold to celebrate Paralympian Josie Pearson – feels the same way. It must have taken weeks to knit.

Have you noticed the way in which smaller communities pay much more attention to the duty of remembrance than metropolitan conurbations? I presume Hay would have sent an ill-fated Pals’ Battalions to war: there was hardly a lamppost in town without a poppy, weeks after Remembrance Sunday.

The wonder of books

I had gone to the Welsh borders with my partner to listen to a couple of friends talk about their books at the town’s winter festival. I love the borderlands. The Black Mountains were suitably majestic, fires were roaring and Hamza Yassin, that nice young wildlife cameraman, had turned on the village Christmas lights (slightly too early in my book, but heigh-ho).

Somehow my partner and I ended up sharing the Swan Hotel’s solitary (rather narrow) single bed. Head-to-toe sleeping was a new experience, not one either of us is desperate to repeat.

But the festival was jolly and, when watching a nine-year-old ask Stephen Fry who his favourite Greek hero was, I was reminded about the brilliance of books.

What is it George R R Martin who said? “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” I think he might be right.

I could have been a spy…

Speaking of life and death, I doubt I am the only one caught up in the new series of Slow Horses. It is excellent. The protagonists, all troublesome or reject spies sent in disgrace to Slough House, are labelled losers but they don’t let it get them down. They understand the code of loyalty is loyalty to the people you know.

If I had ever been a spy, I, too, would have ended up in Slough House.

I did try, once. Towards the end of my last term at university I was summoned to my tutor’s rooms. Augustus Caesar (really – his father was called Julius) was rumoured to be the recruiting officer at the university for MI6.

As I recall, our fateful meeting went a bit like this: “Well,” Professor Caesar said, “you’ll be gone soon. Have you got a job yet?”

I hadn’t. By this time, I had been turned down for every job in the civil service, commerce, business and journalism for which I had applied. I was starting to worry.

When the professor asked what sort of thing I was looking for, I decided to chance my luck.

“I think something with a bit of foreign travel. Somewhere I could serve my country. Somewhere I could maybe use my intelligence.”

“Oh,” he said nonchalantly. “Like MI6?” Cue a rather long pause.

“I don’t think so, Mr Paxman.”

I am sure he was right. While the principle behind both a spy and a journalist might be similar – both want to find things out – it seems vital that a spy keeps what they know to themselves. A journalist, on the other hand, wants to share the little they know with as many people as possible.

Rather like a vicar, come to think of it.

I am off soon to Salisbury Cathedral, surely one of England’s greatest buildings. Perhaps as I wander the aisles, pausing to read the various memorials, I will chant one of my favourite poems: Eddi’s Service, by Rudyard Kipling. Because experience is everything.

Eddi’s Service by Rudyard Kipling

Eddi, priest of St Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

The full poem can be read or listened to at The Kipling Society.

Jeremy Paxman

Written by Jeremy Paxman