Sunday, 01 August 2021

Tables turned on question master

HE is usually the one asking the questions, but former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman was on the end of a grilling at the Henley Literary Festival

HE is usually the one asking the questions, but former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman was on the end of a grilling at the Henley Literary Festival.

The 66-year-old journalist, who lives in Stonor, was interviewed by his former BBC colleague Anne Robinson at the Christ Church Centre in Reading Road at the final event of the 10th annual festival on Sunday night.

Paxman was promoting his autobiography A Life in Questions but appeared not to like some of those that were asked of him.

Robinson, best known as presenter of The Weakest Link, quizzed him about his relationship with his father who Paxman says in the book beat him as a child.

He said his father had been “distant and cruel” and when he went to visit him in Australia with his own family years later he found little had changed.

Paxman said: “I was disappointed he wasn’t interested in the family he’d left behind and grandchildren he hadn’t met.”

Asked whether he loved his father, he replied, “Whatever love is?”

This led to some terse moments with Robinson, who complained that he was “sneering and difficult to interview”. Paxman responded: “Ask better questions!”

Later, he was asked by a member of the audience: “Do you feel you’ve been an open and loving father?” Paxman replied: “None of your business. We all do our best. I’m not so arrogant to judge myself.”

The presenter said he wasn’t sorry for having asked Gordon Brown in a Newsnight interview why nobody liked him or asking Charles Kennedy if he had a drink problem.

He also criticised the BBC, saying: “It is an infuriating organisation which is too big, bizarrely managed, makes mistakes and refuses to apologise.”

He called for the licence fee to be abolished.

“They need to find something better,” he said. “Clearly it is not feasible taxing a piece of household furniture, there’s no tax on a washing machine!”

Afterwards, Paxman seemed friendly with Robinson and he signed copies of his books for members of the audience who were given them as part of the ticket price.

His talk brought to an end a week of events at the festival involving 150 speakers at a range of venues including the town hall, Kenton Theatre and Fawley Court.

Speakers, who were paid for the first time this year, included politicians Ken Livingstone, Ann Widdecombe and Lord Heseltine, the former deputy Prime Minster who was MP for Henley from 1974 to 2001.

Others included adventurer Ben Fogle, gardener Alan Titchmarsh, author Sebastian Faulks and Great British Bake Off’s Nadiya Hussain.

Widdecombe was promoting her new book, The Dancing Detective, which follows a murder backstage at a TV dance competition.

The former shadow home secretary, who competed on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, said she had enjoyed being back in Henley, having given a sell-out talk at the 2013 festival.

Widdecombe, who travelled from her home in Devon, said: “It was a fantastic event. The audience was in fine form and it was a lively interview.

“I enjoy the atmosphere of the festival and audiences like getting to know people they usually only see on TV.

“There’s an enormous range, in politics alone — you’ve got Heseltine, Paddy Ashdown and little old me. I think the festival benefits from being close to London.”

Livingstone, the former London Mayor, was originally supposed to appear at the Kenton Theatre on Thursday last week but was forced to pull out. After a scramble for an alternative venue, he eventually took to the stage at the town hall the following day to discuss his latest book, Being Red. He was interviewed by TV presenter Matthew Stadlen in front of a capacity audience and discussed antisemitism, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the re-introduction of grammar schools.

Restaurateur Prue Leith spoke at a cream tea event at Hotel du Vin on Thursday about The Prodigal Daughter, the latest novel in her Food of Love trilogy.

Leith, a judge on BBC’s Great British Menu, said: “I came to Henley because I really like the atmosphere and all the writers in the green room say the same thing. It feels like you are having a few days off writing and having a good time.

“I love Henley. I’ve been coming here for years for the festival and the river. My partner is also very keen on small towns and days out.

“I’ve got to the age where you go on jaunts and these towns on the river are fantastic.”

The novel follows the heroine Angelica, who moves to Paris in the Sixties to learn about French cuisine, but Leith says her transition into fiction has confused some of her fans.

She said: “Once I was signing books in Harrods and a woman got to the front of the queue after waiting for 20 minutes and said, ‘this isn’t a cook book!’. I had to apologise to her.”

Maths professor Marcus du Sautoy appeared at the town hall on Thursday to promote his book What We Cannot Know.

The Oxford University don grew up in Henley and attended Gillotts School and said he owed the town “a huge amount”. Prof du Sautoy said: “It’s great to be back in Henley. You go around all the literary festivals in the country but I was particularly looking out to see if Henley had one and I was very glad to see it did.

“It’s great to see the festival taking place in venues like the Kenton Theatre, where I remember doing a production of HMS Pinafore as a boy!

“It’s a weird experience coming back — I’ve got all these associations from when I was a kid but things are different as well.

“I owe Henley a huge amount. It was the Gillotts teachers who excited me about doing science and maths. I’m still in touch with my old maths teacher, who’s 90 now.”

Perfumer Jo Malone spoke at the Christ Church Centre on Sunday about her autobiography called My Story.

She said: “I’ve only been to Henley once before — my husband brought me here for dinner years and years ago.

“It’s so beautiful when you come over the water and you’ve got all those tiny shops and restaurants.

“This is my first book so I’ve never done a literary festival before. I had a wish list from my publishers and Henley was one of the ones at the top.”

Malone’s book follows her life as she balanced her beauty business with family and battled breast cancer. It also contains a scratch and sniff page with one of her scents.

Malone said: “I’m 53 years old and I’ve packed it in! Life is a big adventure and none of us know the cards we will be dealt.”

Musician Wilko Johnson appeared at the Kenton Theatre, talking about his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and how he survived “terminal” cancer.

The Dr Feelgood and Blockheads guitarist stayed behind afterwards to sign autographs for fans and even signed the back of one person’s electric guitar.

Asked “If you scratch Jo Malone’s book you get a scent, what about yours?”, Johnson replied: “Pretty obvious — you get a head full of speed!”

Fogle’s talk about the history of the Land Rover at the Christ Church Centre on Saturday attracted some other star names including Henley’s Olympic rowing gold medallist Will Satch who tweeted a picture of himself with the TV presenter.

Judith Kerr, the 93-year-old author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea had her audience at the Kenton Theatre in fits of laughter at her talk on Sunday. She told them: “The reason I needed a new hip was not because I was old, but because I used to dance the can-can!”

Celebrity baker Nadiya Hussain made a gingerbread man live on stage at her talk at the Christ Church Centre.

The former Bake Off winner also recalled the moment she was left starstruck after her fame on the show led her to meet royalty.

Hussain said: “I thought I was nervous when I met Lenny Henry but then I met the Queen!”

The festival also included several events for children, including a storytime session for babies and toddlers in a marquee in Market Place.

On Saturday, there was a Harry Potter-themed event with an impromptu game of quidditch at the Christ Church Centre.

Tom Ryan, the festival’s programming director, said: “We are really pleased. It’s good to see Henley buzzing and we’ve had nice feedback from residents. The hotels are full and the restaurants are busy so it’s nice to feel that we are able to help the town.

“The festival adds something a bit different. People have an idea of what Henley’s like but the interests here are much broader than they get credit for.

“The authors all say they feel very well looked after when they come here. The venues are relatively intimate and they love going for a walk by the river when they are done.

“We have a fantastic team of volunteers from people at school and graduates all the way up to people who are retired.”

Festival director Sue Ryan said: “Every year we say the same thing but the feedback I’ve got is that this festival was the best one ever.

“Every year it gets more professional with better speakers but it’s not any easier to run!

“Someone asked me why we get such good speakers and I think the audience has something to do with it, they are so knowledgeable.

“The questions for (novelist) Sebastian Faulks showed that everyone had read all his books and had such detailed knowledge of them. We get very intelligent, educated and nice audiences.”

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