When his television career is over and Jeremy Paxman finally fades from view like the Cheshire cat, he will leave behind not a smile, but a sneer.
The Paxman sneer is a thing apart, a unique creation deserving of a reputation of its own. Polished and perfected over the years, it is a triumph of miniaturism. It conveys a world in a fleeting moment. Whether it assumes the form of a contemptuous curling of the lip, a brief snort, an elongated ye-es, the extra syllable heavy with sarcasm, or, on special occasions, a combination of all three, it conveys scepticism, superiority, self-satisfaction, scorn, smugness. It is, in short, the spirit of the BBC reduced to an atom.
Paxo, as he is known to his colleagues, though whether the diminutive is bestowed with affection or not I cannot say, may not have invented the inversion by which the interviewer became more important than the interviewee, but he embellished and perfected it. No viewer, however inattentive, can be in doubt that when Paxo interviews a politician it is he, Paxo, who is the more honourable, honest, intelligent, gifted and, let us not be mealy-mouthed, blessed of the two. Gloria in excelsis Paxo.
There are those, I feel sure, who cannot get enough of Paxman, who thrill to that long nose and cold eye and rub their hands in eager expectation as another victim is offered for ritual evisceration. Equally, there must be others who, on seeing Paxo, shrivel and turn away like a salted snail. Speaking for myself, I no longer watch Newsnight, not because of Paxman, but rather through fear of hearing Kirsty Wark, whose voice is enough to render a corncrake mute with admiration.
I for one, then, shall be unaffected should Paxman decide to present the programme without a tie, as is his stated wish.
“Is it time for Newsnight men to stop wearing ties?” he asks in his blog. “It has always been an utterly useless part of the male wardrobe. But now, it seems to me, the only people who wear the things daily are male politicians, the male reporters who interview them – and dodgy estate agents… The main reason we remain trussed up is simply the dead hand of convention… Increasingly, ties are simply bits of cloth which we hang around our necks when getting married, attending a funeral, or when called for a job interview.”
Ah, the dead hand of convention, responsible for so many things and ever ready to crush in its cruel grasp all that is cool. You may not think of Paxo as cool. Too old for a start, too middle class, and too buttoned up. But if we are to take him at his word, his aspect belies his true self. Behind that frown and wrinkled lip lies abandon yearning to be set free. If only convention would release him from its grip, he would discard his tie and with it his undeserved reputation for stuffiness. Allowed that simple gesture he would join the likes of Andrew Neil, Rory Bremner, and the entire Shadow Cabinet in a brotherhood whose open necks proclaim a defiance of convention. Or do they? If, in order to make a point, every male declined to wear a tie, would that not, too, be the work of the dead hand of convention?
Perhaps not, because Paxman has another test that we should apply, that of usefulness. The tie, he says, is an utterly useless part of the male wardrobe. If, however, we follow him down this path it may prove to be a dangerous one. The test of use, if applied to clothing, would leave us with no criteria other than warmth and the preservation of modesty, in which case a simple, drab rustic tunic would meet all our needs.
Usefulness would deny colour, self-expression and the pleasures of fashion. What use is a collar on a shirt, a lapel on a jacket, a stripe in a suit? I assume Paxman exempts women from his utilitarianism, that he would allow them their buttons, bows, frills, laces, their delight in all manner of accessories, and apply his roundheaded asceticism only to men.
In truth, of course, it is not the tie that offends Paxman, but what it represents. Increasingly, the wearing of a tie is strongly suggestive of an attachment to what the departed Tony Blair famously excoriated as “the forces of conservatism”. It is the antithesis of relaxed and enlightened liberalism and by implication an enemy of egalitarianism. Tie wearers are the last remaining obstacles in the path that leads to the promised land of classlessness and social justice. As such, they deserve nothing less than the most disdainful and withering of Paxmanite sneers.