Jeremy Paxman went to the Cheltenham Literature Festival to deliver a rousing talk reevaluating common preconceptions about the First World War.
Unfortunately the audience was distracted from the issue at hand by an urgent – perhaps you might say a growing – matter: the beard.
“I haven’t decided!” the Newsnight anchor retorted when one festival-goer inquired how long he intended to cultivate his facial thicket – which has aroused much controversy and Twitter speculation in recent weeks. “My only resolution is that I’ll make my own mind up, thank you very much, matey!”
Returning to the subject at hand, Paxman regretted that “Blackadder caricature” of the cowardly general – Stephen Fry’s simpering General Melchett – is now taught in a lot of schools. He believes the generals had good reason to keep their distance.
“The reason they were a long way behind the action was because communication was so terrible. There were no portable radios. There were telephone lines but you would have to lay a line which in the middle of combat was extremely difficult. Otherwise you were relying on runners, messenger dogs, carrier pigeons, or various weird forms of cemaphore. Communication was terrible and if you were in the frontline yourself you really had very little idea what was going on beyond your particular sector.”
“So a general really had no choice if he was to have any kind of strategic plan at all. I’m not saying their strategic plans were brilliant. I’m saying that they were merely as confused as everybody else was. If you were to have any sense of what was happening strategically you had to be some way back from the frontline.”
The broadcaster also ventured that the First World War would not have lasted as long had mass media existed, and that it hampers our capacity to understand it in hindsight. “Because it’s actually quite difficult to comprehend from our perspective why it is that such vast numbers of people should have kept faith with this enterprise that was so clearly murderous. Because we lack the capacity to see that this was something that most people did not know the nitty-gritty of.”
“The reality of war in the trenches was largely unknown to people here and we are unable, I think, to imagine a situation in which we are unaware. Because we’re so accustomed now to seeing everything first of all, in colour; secondly, in moving pictures; and thirdly, almost instantaneously. I think we lack the capacity to understand that distance between events and perception of events.”
When another audience member asked for literary recommendations, Paxman revealed he had little time for First World War novels, preferring memoirs. Even his great friend Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong came in for short shrift, as did Pat Barker’s acclaimed Regeneration trilogy – “Personally I’m a bit fed up of the idea that all British officers were repressed homosexuals.”