It is something of an August ritual. The suits and faces from Televisionland migrate to Edinburgh where, infected by the general atmosphere of alternative politics and comic skittishness, they go a little too far during a speech or a question-and-answer session. Newspapers, desperate for copy, whip up a “debate” about what has been said and ring up the usual suspects – a small coterie of rent-a-quote TV veterans. A predictable row breaks out before, like a summer thunder storm, it passes. In spite of their innate pointlessness, these silly-season episodes now and then provide a small moral lesson which has absolutely nothing to do with television.
So it has been with this year’s Paxman debate. The Newsnight host said: “The worse thing you can be in this industry is to be a white, middle-class male.” Mariella Frostrup said it was women who had the tough time; she, for example, was obliged to leave The Culture Show after a dispute concerning her breast-feeding schedule. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said broadcasting was run largely along the lines of the old caste system, the caste in question being white, Oxbridge and male; she, for example, had learned to her cost that anyone questioning their views would be blackballed. Anna Ford said Paxman was suffering a mid-life crisis; she, for example, had found women of Paxman’s age were not allowed to become old on television.
So it rumbles on with a familiar, bleating me-me-me sound emanating from the media herd. Outside their closed, self-absorbed world, nobody gives a damn or pays much attention.
But Ford has made a rather good point. The idea that Paxman, 58, is suffering a sort of midlife crisis – admittedly a rather belated one – is rather convincing. The man is clearly bored to distraction. He has done it all – humiliated politicians, made jokes, become the thinking woman’s crumpet, written books, chaired a quiz show which allows him to sneer at the young. He is a man in his prime, professionally and personally, but with nothing new left to do. The world-weary air that he conveys when presenting Newsnight is not an act.
So, to keep tedium at bay, he increasingly resorts to small acts of public exhibitionism. He casually lets slip a contentious remark and stands back to watch others scrabble over the crumbs of controversy.
These psychological spasms are becoming more frequent. There was the great undies debate, caused by Paxman’s complaint that M&S pants caused him “gusset anxiety”. More recently, he dismissed Robert Burns as “king of sentimental doggerel”, prompting huffiness in Scotland. The latest fuss, which stirs gender, class and the media into the mix, is the least interesting of the three.
As many people contemplate their lives as they prepare to return to work, the case of a TV star’s mid-life crisis is informative. Paxman appears to be experiencing a problem common among people who should be satisfied with their lot, but are not. The best cure is almost always a radical change of professional direction.
Fate is a cruel prankster
There is something peculiarly poignant about public figures whose reputation is coloured by the relatively trivial manner in which they died. The knowledge that Evelyn Waugh breathed his last while sitting on the lavatory, for example, makes it difficult to look at photographs of the pop-eyed novelist without imagining him straining angrily and, in the end fatally, on the loo.
Jim Fixx, the great American health guru of the 1970s, was largely responsible for introducing jogging into fitness regimes, but is now best remembered for the way he died – from a heart attack at 52, having been out for a run.
A similar fate would seem to await poor old Dave Freeman, who has just checked out at the age of 47. Ten years ago, Freeman, with his co-author Neil Teplica, came up with a brilliant concept for a travel/self-help book: 100 Things To Do Before You Die: Travel Events You Can’t Miss.
Some of Freeman’s suggestion were dashing and dangerous. Something called “land-diving” in Vanuatu was recommended, as was running with the bulls in Pamplona and going on a voodoo pilgrimage to Haiti. “Life is a short journey,” the book reminded its readers.
And so it proved to be for Dave Freeman, pictured left. He died as a result of a household accident at his home in California, having fallen over and banged his head.
There should be some great moral message to derive from this sad and cruelly domestic end to the life of a man who inspired such adventure in others. But it can only be that, rather too often for comfort, fate can resemble an unkind and obvious sitcom.
Your next date will read you like a book
Book publishers, edgily aware that the nature of their market is changing, are forever surfing the internet in search of new ways to use online services without losing readers. One of the brightest ideas for some time has come from Penguin, which has just come to an arrangement of mutual benefit with the dating agency Match.com.
A reliable way of discovering whether someone is compatible with you, Penguin and Match will soon be telling us, is to check the potential lover’s reading habits. A website will be created to restore “the importance of the written word to modern courtship”. It could work. Discovering that someone shares your literary enthusiasms is a strangely intimate pleasure, and is probably as good a guide to future happiness as anything.
Of course, there will be cheats. If the idea catches on, some sleazy opportunist – me, perhaps – will put together an instant guide called 50 Great Books To Get You Laid. In the meantime, women looking for book-based romance will need some basic guidelines. A man who adores Jeremy Clarkson’s wit will almost certainly lack a sense of humour. One who mentions a love for Ulysses is a serial liar. Male readers of Margaret Atwood are surprisingly untrustworthy.
On the other hand, neither men nor women should dismiss out of hand potential dates whose literary taste runs to authors with controversial sexual politics. Those who curl up with Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Mary Gaitskill’s jaunty tales of sado-masochism, Susanna Moore’s brilliantly kinky In The Cut or Howard Jacobson’s eye-wateringly rude No More Mr Nice Guy are invariably straight as a die in real life and excellent bets, romantically.