National treasure Jeremy Paxman has a TV series and a book out: The Victorians. Books, so I’m told, are some kind of primitive TV show in paper form. You can fast-forward and rewind them just like your Betamax. But none of the pictures move unless you jiggle the book about. And all the voices are in your head, which tends to annoy all the other voices in your head. You know, the ones telling you to jump off that bridge or burp in that cathedral.
By a stunning coincidence, I was in Ely cathedral a few hours ago (with Andrew and Richard) listening to Jeremy Paxman burping for an hour about his book and TV series. It’s a straightforward but interesting premise: how paintings of the Victorian age reflected reality – or not.
Paxo’s just as opinionated about the paintings as he is about the politicians he interviews. He happily dismisses one or two as “tripe” but maintains that they’re interesting nonetheless. Unsurprisingly he’s a very confident, engaging speaker and he spoke for an hour with barely a reference to his notes; certainly a master of his subject, projecting slide after slide of contemporary paintings and belching innumerable factoids thereon.
He has, I think, rather a romantic view of the era. Of course he knows and speaks of how the mass migration to the cities led to appalling slums and workhouses and ridiculously short lives, and of the hypocrisy of the times: high-falutin’ morals but 3000 brothels in London, for example. But he sees the Victorian age as the time that Britain was greatest: hard graft and enterprise took us from an agrarian economy in the 18th century to the mightiest industrial nation on Earth and a global empire a century later. He’s not shy in saying that he thinks we’ve lost that drive, along with the empire, today.
He took questions afterwards, most of which stuck to the topic of the talk. There was one about University Challenge (he turned down the job initially as he thought Bamber Gascoigne should do it again, but it turned out they’d spoken to him about it months before) but nothing hugely revelatory. Oh, he pretty clearly thinks faith schools are a Very Bad Idea, which got him a round of applause from the blasphemers, heathen and sinners in Jesus’s house.
Avaragado’s rating: half an apple
Several hundred people attended, and most of them were of the older generation. That didn’t stop them sprinting to the front when the time came for autographs. It was like the grim reaper had walked through the front door, you wouldn’t think they could move that fast.
We decided to go for a pizza rather than queue for an hour for an awkward exchange of pleasantries and his 322nd signature of the evening. We had thought that we were getting free tapas, but that turned out to be a figment of Andrew’s imagination. Voices in his head, probably.