Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

…on owning very little stuff

At the time of life when he should be making a will, our columnist is buoyed by the fact he owns few possessions – not even Derek the dog.

I blame the poached eggs. Or possibly the seasoned yogurt. In any event, it was certainly the consequence of too much brunch. In my dream, we had eaten Turkish eggs, and Jill’s last words to me had been: “Please don’t share it with the dog or he’ll have diarrhoea.”

I awoke, troubled by visions of Derek emptying his bowels, while I, bizarrely, mouthed the words of a 19th-century Frenchman. (With a “thinks” bubble, it would make a reasonable cartoon.) There had obviously been a computer malfunction somewhere in my brain leading to this odd clash of Turkish food and French philosophy. 

No one does philosophy like the French. It reminded me of that old anecdote about a visitor from France who asks an Englishman, after hearing his answer to a polite-sounding inquiry about how things are done here, “that’s all very well in practice but how does it work in theory?” No race on earth has been more responsible for the creation of crackpot theories of one kind or another. Just think (but not for long, I beg you) of structuralism. 

On this occasion I woke mouthing the words not of some kind-hearted fellow such as Rousseau or Voltaire, but of the politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. You may already have guessed what they are, for the godfather of anarchism has a very short list of bon mots attributed to him. It was ‘property is theft’.  

Who would gainsay the sage of Besançon? Like other axioms, if stated baldly enough it seems unarguably right. We come into this world with nothing but our birthday suit and a shriek. And we leave, similarly naked, accompanied only by a rumoured rattle. 

On the whole, I’m glad my possessions are rather meagre; I have never been a great fan of hand-me-downs.

Yet English history is built upon property rights. Perhaps giving houseroom to thoughts of Proudhon, even in my dreams, was part of that inevitable gentle regression into childhood – if not quite to those earliest days in one’s birthday suit. Although, I admit, I do find myself singing the occasional out-of-season harvest festival hymn in the shower. 

In reality, I am at the stage in life when one is advised to make a will, and, apart from the roof over my head, I realise I have nothing much. No one has ever owned a view and I look forward to my children being as thrilled by some of them as I have been. There’s some fishing tackle, an interesting rock or two, some books and a painting of Napoleon attributed to Franz Winterhalter, which I thought for five minutes was genuine. You will understand why I gave the sage of Besançon houseroom. 

There used to be an advertisement for ritzy watches which read that you never really owned one; you merely looked after it for the next generation. Whenever I saw that advert I wanted to give the smug-looking, privileged Swiss boy who featured in it a bunch of fives.  

On the whole, I’m glad my possessions are rather meagre; I have never been a great fan of hand-me-downs. 

And although, as a good Battersea boy, Derek would not see eye-to-eye with Pierre-Joseph, he will never “belong” to anyone. You can take the dog off the streets, but you cannot take the streets out of the dog. He will still be his own dog when I am long dead. 

Jeremy Paxman

Written by Jeremy Paxman