Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Meeting Jeremy Paxman

Wow. An actual meeting with famed and feared TV inquisitor and interviewer Jeremy Paxman! Who may have retired from Newsnight, but still to this day scares the pants off contestants on University Challenge, mainly because they know that his personal knowledge and IQ exceeds the collective total for the entire college team, and that he doesn't need to glance at the card with the answer on it.

Beyond dispute, he knows all there is to know about everything. Who would dare challenge him? That indeed is what the 'challenge' in the programme title actually refers to: it's not about duelling college teams. It's about whether they can - all of them - survive half an hour with an arch-interrogator who takes no prisoners and eats students alive.

Do I over-hype the terror this man inspires? Well, consider the facts. Reflect on Mr Paxman's impatience at anyone pressing the University Challenge buzzer who can't immediately supply the correct answer. And how he or she who fumbles, or is inarticulate, or is cocky, or flippant, or just ignorant, becomes the butt of acerbic remarks that would shrivel anybody's self-confidence, let alone their private parts. As for his scorn, only fools tempt him to display it. You can't get the better of this man. Try, and you die. And your postgraduate career will be blighted. Because, of course, the moment of being belittled or sarcastically mocked will be preserved on YouTube for the rest of us to laugh at forever. And that includes future employers.

Even practiced charlatans of national stature could never prevail against him. When quizzing smooth and slippery politicians, he exposed their lies and prevarications with no-limits persistence and barely-concealed contempt. He was never impolite, nor rude to the point of complaint, but his skill at deploying the cruel weapons of interrogation has not often been equalled. I am surprised that it was ever possible to continue one's political career after the typical mauling he could give.

And yet he was also capable of great charm, and (on other programmes) there were occasional glimpses of kindness, and a surprising sentimentality.

This then was the man I was going to meet. And when I say 'meet' I mean that it would be no more than a few quick words at an evening drinks reception laid on for the Friends of the Appledore Book Festival, in the hour before Jeremy Paxman was 'interviewed' on stage about his latest book, by broadcaster and presenter Jeremy Vine, the patron of the Appledore Book Festival, who had also brought out a book.

(Paying £20 to attend the drinks reception would enable a Friend to see the onstage conversation for no extra payment, and in reserved seats with a great view. The ordinary public had to stump up that £15 - if they managed to get tickets at all, that is - and they'd have no wine and canapés beforehand)

My 'meeting' with this Great Man would amount to just a few quick words, plus hopefully a photo-opportunity, if such could be contrived. Did I dare to approach him? I was nervous but game. That said, I'd have to look alluring, or at least worthy, and I'd need to rope in an accomplice to hold my phone for me, and secure a photo with it. I didn't think Mr Paxman would be up for a heads-together selfie.

This wasn't going to be a relaxed and fairly intimate ten minutes' chat at a dining table, as was the case with Ian Rankin a week earlier (See Lunch with crime author Ian Rankin, on 24th September). It would be a stand-in-the queue affair, and I'd have to hold his attention. I might well get coldly ignored. It was a high-risk project.

The drinks reception was not being held in Appledore, which, though charming, did not possess a venue large enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to see the two Jeremys in conversation. Instead the event was being held in the well-appointed and equipped theatre at Kingsley School, a private establishment in nearby Bideford. The pre-event drinks for Friends only were to be in the School Library. I judged that going posh would be perfectly correct. I made my preparations accordingly in the caravan. This was my outfit. Tigerlily was set up to take a photo from a small easel I'd bought at an art shop in Barnstaple, but I still had to bend down to get myself in the picture without looking distorted by the low perspective.

Yes, it's a Phase Eight dress, and I'm wearing my pearls. Thank goodness for the caravan wardrobe!

Arriving at the School, I stashed the cardigan into my bag, and checked out my general appearance in the girls' loo.

Well, you may disagree, but I can't remember looking so glamorous. Thank you, Slimming World!

Then it was the reception in the library. I met up with local friends Paul and Rachel, and a couple who remembered me from last year, and we sat together while Festival stewards and helpers - mostly known to me - brought out an apparently endless steam of yummy canapés, all prepared by the School chef. He did us proud. It wasn't good for my weight-loss regime, but hey. Here's a shot of local friend Jayne with trays of goodies.

Then Celia with some more. We seemed to be getting the first crack at these trays every time!

Then Jayne again.

Here's a shot of Paul, soon after the kickoff, getting some drinks. I don't know why he's pulling a face.

The food and drinks were all free for Friends, and they kept coming. I decided (for Slimming World reasons, as well as drink-driving reasons) to limit myself to just a glass or two of wine, but couldn't help stuffing myself with the canapés. Well, I was hungry, and I didn't want to sashay up to Mr Paxman with a rumbling tummy. It might put him off. Jayne didn't let me down.

Then a moment arrived for The Man to appear. In he came, complete with a lady for company, plus a little dog. People stood around him in awe.

The lady - presumably his wife - was stylishly attired in black. She had a following of her own, and was holding the lead of the dog, a young and pretty brown-and-white spaniel. She seemed much younger than Jeremy Paxman. I put that partly down to her lovely clothes and beautiful face, whereas Jeremy Paxman, as you can see, was casually dressed, had developed a paunch, and was growing a beard. Why men grow beards when older beats me. It's such a mistake. The beard never looks smart, and always has a lot of grey in it, which is incredibly ageing. They shouldn't do it.

He didn't seem very happy. He seemed aloof, possibly bored, although I suspected that it might have simply been that his publisher had signed him up for too many of these promotional events, and he was heartily sick of them. I bet many writers get very, very tired of following the book festival circuit. It must for some become an ordeal to be gone through only because their publishing contract demands it. I have to say that Ian Rankin had given every indication of thoroughly enjoying himself, but he might be exceptional. Even Jayne passing by with a tempting tray of amazing sausages didn't dent Jeremy Paxman's air of not really wanting to be there. Perhaps he wasn't feeling well?

That's Rachel, just the left of Jayne's head. And off to the right is Jeremy Vine, with yet another local person I know, Brenda, talking to him.

I will say that Jeremy Vine continues to impress me as a very nice man, a very good listener, the last person to look out of sorts and ill at ease.

There were other celebrities there too, some of them from North Devon. One I knew was David Carter, the historian, and I grabbed him for a picture. 'Just in case I don't get the chance of another shot with a celeb,' I explained.

Well, it was time to tackle Mr Paxman. I discussed strategy with Rachel. We both wanted a few words with The Man, and both wanted the other to take a picture of the Decisive Moment, but with our own phones. This is Rachel limbering up for her shot.

Look! She's got a smile out of him! There's hope. It was my turn next.

Right, I'm all set.

'Hello, Mr Paxman! I really like your little dog. What's his name?
'Derek! Really? That's an unusual name for a dog.'
'No, it isn't.'
And the lady holding the lead must be your lovely wife?'
'She's not my wife. She's my partner.'
'Oh. I'm sorry. How silly of me.'

Ah. This wasn't going terribly well. Best not ask him whether he was enjoying himself. Thankfully, Rachel intervened.

'Come on, Lucy! A picture with Mr Paxman!'

Oh no! I wasn't quite ready! Caught in a ridiculous floppy pose! And with such a dippy expression! All my careful preps had been wasted! I'd blown it. But even so, The Man had put his hand over my shoulders, and was giving the camera a friendly face. Was there perhaps a touch of irony in his eyebrows? And what did that mouth say? Well, for better or worse, that was my one-off souvenir. I couldn't ask for another picture. I retired back to the benign company at our table, and consoled myself with another canapé.

In due course it was time for the public event, the onstage conversation between the Two Jeremys. We trouped out and then down some stairs into what seemed to be a basement or lower-level auditorium. It was rapidly filling up. As a Friend, I was ushered towards one of the front rows, and ended up next to another lady on her own called Sylvia. A very pleasant person. Here we are looking at the stage.

A couple more views of the audience before the place filled up completely.

After an introduction from the School Headmaster, the two men took their seats on stage beneath a big screen with a projection of a smiling Jeremy Paxman on it.

Jeremy Vine had a copy of Mr Paxman's new book A Life in Questions with him, with passages bookmarked, and clearly these were going to be prompts for a discussion on this or that aspect of Mr Paxman's career. It should have gone well. But his interviewee seemed disinclined to reveal much, and made it all hard work for Mr Vine. The body language was eloquent, I thought.

It was, I think, with some relief that Jeremy Vine finished his attempts to get blood out of a stone and instead asked the audience for their questions. Jeremy Paxman seemed to prefer this part of the proceedings, too.

There were some very good questions, such as 'Who would you have liked to interview, but never did?' It seemed that Jeremy Paxman was something of a philosopher, and respected chiefly the best thinkers of his time, a lot of them religious thinkers. Some he had met, some not. He expressed only contempt for the political rogues that had come his way. He had taken it as a personal insult, and an intellectual insult too, to be given patent falsehoods in response to perfectly proper questions put to those in power and authority. Nothing wrong with that. The audience was at one with him on the need to expose the pretentious and the pompous, and those who had something to sweep under the carpet. Oddly, there was not a single question about University Challenge, and what he might have thought about the current state of education.

Then it was all over. The Great Man left the stage with applause. But it wasn't all over for Jeremy Vine. Down below the stage a young woman had appeared, Becky Bettesworth. She was a West Country artist, and she had designed the cover for the 2017 Appledore Book Festival Brochure. She had with her an easel, and a large framed version of that cover design, as a gift for Mr Vine. It was clearly a surprise.

That's another local friend of mine left of Becky in the shot - Sara - who has been deeply involved this year with running the Festival.

I was really pleased for Jeremy Vine. He was a very well-known BBC presenter, but had been playing second fiddle to Jeremy Paxman all evening - though without showing the slightest annoyance. But if his self-esteem had taken a secret battering, then this gift would have eased the pain.

I liked Becky's hair-dress. And I recognised the Appledore scene she had painted. Here it is, my version, a photo I took on a sunny day in October 2015.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Honiton lace

In mid-September, at the start of my West Country holiday, I was in south-east Devon, and one day I spent a couple of hours in Honiton, a place I usually ignore. It's a proper town, with decent shops and things of interest; but personally, given a choice between (say) Sidmouth and Honiton, Sidmouth will win hands down.

Still, it doesn't pay to have fixed ideas on what places have to offer, as they do change as time goes by, often for the better. Or, if one visited them before in company, then going back there alone and being free to wander about according to one's own inclination and whims might make all the difference.

Well, I won't say that this visit to Honiton transformed my opinion of the place, but I did at least discover the town's Museum. This post is about what I found inside.

Honiton Museum has the usual local history stuff, with nods towards all the local trades and industries of times past. But the principal exhibition - and it really is something to make a fuss about - concerns the lace-making that used to make the town famous. I didn't know a lot about lace. This then was a chance to see some of the best ever produced in this country.

It had an entire lower floor all to itself, filled with glass display cabinets. It paid to take it all slowly, and read every explanatory note. It was fascinating.

We'll get to that eye-catching scarlet nightdress in a moment. First, three pictures that reveal the best and worst of lace-making, and how competition from modern factories impacted on the quality of the hand-made product.

As always, click on these pictures to enlarge them. Example 1 was the best. Example 7 the worst. You can imagine the poor harrassed lady who made the '7' handkerchief rushing against the clock, and probably having to work on into the night, in bad light. High-grade lacemaking would have been an exacting occupation, hard on the fingers and hard on the eyes, and definitely not something you could hurry, however skillful and nimble the hands. Hand-production, even if well-organised, was still a cottage industry, and hopelessly slow compared with what machines could do. It may have remained true that the finest, most desirable lace - lace fit for a queen indeed - was always hand-made lace, but machine-made lace nearly killed off the Honiton product. 

Still, it survived as a luxury item with a great reputation. And when Mrs Wallis Simpson (the American lady who married the abdicated King Edward VIII in the late 1930s) wanted to embellish a scarlet nightdress, it had to be with Honiton lace. Here's the stunning result. The note explains why wearing such clothing was so important to her.

It must have taken Edward's breath away, every time he saw her in that particular garment. He'd never finish his cocoa on those nights.

Nearby was a light blue dress from Regency times. Its outer layer was a fine net of lace, beautifully decorated with little leaves and flowers.

Exquisitely done. And read how long it must have taken!

That's right: eight hours of eyesight-destroying labour to produce just that tiny piece of net in the centre of the picture.

In Victorian times, lace was still very much in vogue, at least for those who could afford to dress well. Another exhibit was a relic of the days when strict mourning rules applied, rules made fashionable (in fact obligatory) by the example of Queen Victoria herself after Prince Albert died. The note suggests the garment here was one that might be worn in the third year after the husband's death. A prim but expensive dress, covered in black lace, complete with a black lace shawl and a black lace head-covering. Presumably the necklace was made of jet from Whitby.

If not in mourning, then cream-coloured lace might be worn, such as this cap, shawl and flounce from around 1860. Their design is elaborate, and the ensemble must have been a costly purchase, to be worn proudly.

I was glad I saw all this. Lace-making, if done as well as this, was clearly an art. I am always envious of anyone who can make such beautiful things. My Mum might have managed some of the simpler items, as she was very good at needlework, knitting, crocheting and anything similar. Her daughter has of course inherited none of her creativity or skill.