Television doesn’t always do people favours. On it, Jeremy Paxman sometimes comes across as abrasive, arrogant even. In fact, he’s neither, and whenever we’ve met up over the years, he’s invariably been polite, attentive and generous with his time. Our paths cross now at the Natural History Museum where Jeremy is chairing the 2nd Riverfly Conference. It’s all about the Anglers’ Monitoring Scheme – an initiative to encourage and teach anglers how to assess river fly populations. To me, it seems hugely complex, as it does to Paxman!
“God,” he says studying the agenda. “I could do with a glossary for all this. I could make a complete ass of myself here. I know how vital it all is but I’m a real amateur when it comes to bugs and beetles.”
First up was the Member of Parliament for Reading West, Martin Salter. Martin chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Angling and he gives a powerful speech… if we’re not going to waste water then we’ve got to pay for it. Angling is a sport that doesn’t punch its weight politically. It’s outrageous that the Anglers’ Conservation Association has less than 10,000 members.
But what does Paxman himself think about the ACA? “One of my passions in fishing is wild fish in unspoilt rivers. I’m a running water fly fisher above all, so I appreciate what they do. They are a great lot, one of the real forces of good that exist. I know the scale of its importance and I’m privileged that you should think of floating my name for the Presidency, but I’m worried that I wouldn’t be able to do such a major job like this justice. Chris Tarrant has always told me how much he regretted not being able to do more, and I don’t want to fall into the same rut.” Indeed, as a Vice President of the ACA myself, I know how excellent Chris was in the role of President. He was a great presence, a great help and the sort of figurehead that anglers everywhere could identify with. His departure from the post was a personal sadness as well as a blow to the organisation.
What doesn’t always come across from Paxman’s TV appearances is his sense of humour. “Typical of Salter,” Paxman says. “He’s leaving already. Scarpering. Pretty much like every member of the Labour Party, he’s only come along for a bit of cheap publicity.” Martin is laughing as he retreats through the door. Politicians have had worse treatment at the hands of Paxman. “He’s totally sincere, you know,” Jeremy adds quietly. “Doing a lot of good. For a politician, of course.”
It’s interesting watching Paxman making notes as, one by one, the speakers spell out their message. You realise that solid research and good homework is central to his skill, a keystone of his success. Paxman isn’t a man who takes to the stage – or the screen – without knowing his facts. Watching him deal with members of the audience, you realise how unnerving the famous Paxman eyebrows are, raising quizzically as you venture a question. You realise what it is about him that makes politicians so queasy. There’s a constant play of expressions across his face telling you very clearly of his disbelief and scepticism. Those eyes really look into you, exposing the charlatan, unearthing the time waster.
But then, over lunch at the museum snack bar, we connect. The fun bubbles to the top again, along with his legendary generosity – he doesn’t even dream of allowing me to buy my own tuna roll and coke. “My dream day?” He muses over my question as a group of school kids pass and gawp. “Well, I’d like to try and get up to see if there is such a thing as the dawn rise. I don’t know because I’m not a dawn riser myself. This would be on the Avon or the Wyle perhaps. Then, it would be off for a serious Walton-like breakfast – lots of black pudding. A few more hours fishing and then I’d be down to the pub – three pints and a good Scotch egg. Good Scotch eggs are hard to find. They would be at their best on a dream day I suppose. Then it would be definitely a kip – under a tree. Very important riverside kips. I’d wake up – and this is a dream day right – so I’d be on the banks of the Ure or the Wharfe waiting for the evening rise. Now I’m back to my roots on the rivers where my grandfather taught me to fish way back. Then a few more pints and, you’ve guessed it, another long, satisfying kip.”
Paxman turns away to talk to some passing school kids. He is one of those people with real presence. He’s a man who combines style with substance – a sharp suit, a brilliant horsefly-eye-green tie, snappy, black suede shoes that my 20-year old godson would die for. You take notice.
What is it about fishing that so involves him, given his intellectual capacity, I wonder? “Strange you should mention that. Last night, after Newsnight, four or five of us were hanging around and my director asked me what I was doing today. I told him about the Riverfly Conference and he looked a bit nonplussed – being a bit of a metropolitan type. So, I launched into what fishing means to me. It’s such a single-minded pursuit. So engrossing. It’s about silence, all about watching the world turning around you. Now you’re seeing otters, water voles, owls as well as fish. About 1.15am, they all seem to get the message and there was lots of nodding of heads, but they probably just wanted to get to bed now I come to think of it. They just glazed over.”
Looking at the cut of that suit, I wonder if Paxman is a tackle buff. “You know, I went into Farlows just the other day and picked up a Loop reel. Gorgeous. A real object of desire but when would I get to use it? My kids keep my nose to the grindstone. They’re a true delight but they mean I’ve got little chance ever to get to the River Alta. In fact, I’ll probably only treat myself to a new salmon rod if a decent royalty cheque ever flutters through the post.”
Back in the Conference we hear a huge amount more about the complexity of rivers and the effects of climate change, sheep dip, flow patterns, run-off, weed cutting, abstraction and even the harmful effect of swans. Chairing the ensuing discussion, you see the man at work. Dafydd Evans, Head of Fisheries at the Environment Agency, is a fine and totally dedicated man. We couldn’t do better but he admits that he might have to ‘tailor’ some resources. Paxman is unleashed. “Tailoring means cutting, doesn’t it? Can we for once have the truth?” Paxman is evidently incapable of letting a top public figure go unchallenged. Those eyebrows rise heavenwards again.
It’s good to have a man like Paxman involved in fishing. We need passion and intelligence in harmony and it’s impressive that he should give up a whole day for a course like this. Perhaps it’s rather more indicative of a man who cares and is turned on sufficiently to realise its significance. And his fee for this piece? “Oh, give it to the ACA,” he says as we’re leaving the museum.
What better way to end the day?