David Randall: We didn't cause the bust, Jeremy Paxman

Rant lacks logic, says his varsity pal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Imagine my surprise, on opening Monday's Daily Mail at page 29, to find myself defamed across a double-page spread.

There, under a 1972 picture of me and a few other Cambridge contemporaries surrounding a beaming young Jeremy Paxman was the damning headline: "The Most Selfish Generation in History". It heralded an article by Jeremy castigating his own baby-boom generation for, among other things: immaturity, an inflated sense of entitlement, irresponsibility, self-absorption, pollution, an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, and grand larceny of state funds. It was, perhaps, only for reasons of space, that arson in the royal dockyards, treason, and offences under the Keeping of Domestic Animals Act were omitted from this list of charges. Perhaps he is saving these for the Express.

Well, where to start in responding to this libel on me and millions of others? Let us start with Jeremy himself, a man I sort of knew at Cambridge, and have met once since. Back in 1972, as editor of Varsity, the university newspaper, he recruited a staff of misfits, freaks, and weirdos, among whom I numbered. My task was the humour column. I wrote and delivered it. He read it and laughed (or pretended to), and I went away. Never once did he lean forward on his chair in that now familiar fashion and demand I defend my choice of typewriter ribbon. Nor did he ever grimace with exasperation, and repeatedly and scoffingly ask: "Are you telling us, Mr Randall, that the pun in paragraph five is not a resigning matter?" He was the soul of appreciation, and the spirit of his team was sufficiently good to warrant a reunion a few years ago. (My wife was impressed by how much younger he looked off-screen.)

In the years since, I have never had cause to doubt the sincerity of his views, whether on Victorian art or contemporary male underwear. However, the logic of this is that the opinions expressed in his article were not manufactured, but his own unfortunate convictions. He actually believes, as do many, that those born between the late 1940s and 1965 have consumed but not invested, and so squandered their own children's inheritance. Gorging themselves on near-free higher education, cheap housing, jobs for all, North Sea oil, and the moreish pleasures of the recently invented sexual intercourse, they greedily ate all the cakes on the national plate, leaving only a few smears of jam and desultory crumbs.

It is a startling thesis, but intellectually not quite up to the standards of Varsity. It takes two points in a chronology (Jeremy's generation and the present one) and not only mistakenly supposes cause and effect, but ascribes retrospective motive, arguing that we forty, fifty and sixtysomethings, having arrived early at life's midnight feast, wilfully scoffed the lot so no one else could have it. Thus, we are, according to Jeremy, the Billy Bunters of history.

But, a moment's thought tells you that his argument really amounts to no more than this: that, in a recession, those aged 45 to 65 are rather more responsible for the state of things than the average school- or college-leaver. It is, I suspect, the old Newsnight/Today programme blame culture at work. Something's happened, so someone must be persuaded into the studio, put in the dock, and harangued into an admission of guilt.

One wonders if Jeremy – worrying too much about the present state of things – has not, in a moment of high stress, gone to the mirror and self-interrogated, forcing from himself by relentless questioning a signed confession that the current bugger's muddle is all his fault and that of his fellow baby boomers. "Oh come off it, Mr Paxman," he perhaps scoffed, "are you really asking us to believe that it's not all your generation's fault?" Oh dear. And such a nice man.