I never imagined I would feel sorry for Jeremy Paxman. Not that he would welcome that from me or anyone else. I was no fan of his blunderbuss style of interviewing on Newsnight
, nor his rude putdowns of anyone he considered an idiot on University Challenge
or anywhere else. But it was saddening to see how Parkinson's is affecting him at the age of 71 in the ITV documentary, Putting Up with Parkinson's
, last Tuesday.
I had noticed on recent episodes of University Challenge
he was beginning to show signs of age, but only learned what was actually wrong with him from the television listing of the documentary last week. He had seemed much less animated, was more obviously reading from his autocue, seemed less pugnacious, less rude, more complimentary of contestants, more kind perhaps.
In the documentary we saw him walking his dog, Derek, a bit grumpy about the animal's weaving from one side of the pavement to the other. But when the camera drew back the perception of his uneven gait, general slowness, hunched shoulders, and hearing his account of increasingly random falls he couldn't remember anything about afterwards, were affecting.
I have an interest in the condition. A male cousin my age died of it at the end of 2019 and the husband of another cousin, a few years older, died of it at about this time in 2021. Both had lived with it for several years. Their wives said the first time they noticed something was wrong was when their husbands started shuffling about, dragging their feet. The husband of another friend is now living with it. Paxman would have none of this 'living' with the condition. 'Putting up' with it expresses it better for him. The fact that there is still no cure, however, is daunting.
During the programme he met an anaesthetist's widow, who, amazingly, seems able to detect the condition by smell. She first noticed it in her husband and was also able to detect it in others, not only those who had been diagnosed with the condition but also individuals who had it but had not yet been diagnosed. She detected it in Paxman too. 'You're a high two' she said, working on a scale of four. She suggested he would feel better with more exercise. In the hope of finding an eventual cure, she is now working with a research professor in Manchester, who was initially sceptical of her claim, but changed her mind when she was proved right in every case she was tested on.
Paxman has a more faraway look these days, a settled cast of anxiety. A feature of the 'Parkinson's Mask' the medics call it. Even when he laughs, you see the tension in his facial muscles.
But he gamely considers his options, like attending a ballet class where he flails around to his abiding embarrassment with fellow sufferers, including the co-writer of The Vicar of Dibley
, Paul Mayhew Archer. He talks medicinal cannabis with Ozzy Osbourne's wife, Sharon, whose husband has the condition. Mood enhancing drugs seem to help his depression. One bright episode was his discovering a natural aptitude for bowling at a local club. 'I always associate bowls with old people,' he declares to a group of members. 'Well, we sort of are,' came the rueful response. He has now joined such a club and on present form looks as though he may knock out rival bowls with the same accuracy he used to skewer evasive interviewees on Newsnight
A more grisly element involved his being shown the sliced up brain of a former sufferer that had been left to medical research for the study of the effects of Parkinson's. The actress, Jane Asher, president of Parkinson's UK, had previously contacted him about leaving his brain for the same purpose, but he hadn't signed on the dotted line. He has now.
The documentary was deeply moving and I suspect it was quite difficult to do. Very brave really. Even as he fumbles with buttons and says he can no longer type, he has retained his sense of humour, remains upbeat and highly articulate, although finally about to relinquish his role on University Challenge.
I've also been watching Michael Palin's new travel series on Iraq. During lockdown, we enjoyed watching his earlier travel series from the 1990s when he was in the prime of life, light on his feet, full of curiosity and ever the comedian when confronted by incidents of cultural dissonance.
This series is different. More sombre, more reflective. He is older too. Seventy-eight while filming. He's had heart surgery and his wife hasn't been well either. That's the personal bit. But it's also about the state of Iraq itself. A vast, largely desert country, watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, often referred to as 'the cradle of civilisation' and by the Greeks as Mesopotamia.
He delights in visiting places with biblically resonant names familiar from Sunday school and children's encyclopaedias of the 1950s, like the ancient ziggurat of Ur of the Chaldees, and Babylon, where the walls of Nebuchadnezzar's palace were rebuilt by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Samarra, with its ancient mosque and precipitous 52-metre-high spiral minaret, which he resolutely climbs, and the great Shia mosque dedicated to Imam Hussein at Kerbala he marvels at, belong centuries later to Muslim times.
In the north, he spends time with Kurdish communities celebrating their spring festival of Nawruz. He reflects on the British discovery of oil in Kirkuk in 1927 and the subsequent squandering of the proceeds of that. He commiserates with clever young women patiently taking on the traditional gender segregation that still hampers their struggle for equality.
Some years on from the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, it's still a dangerous place. Tourists don't yet go there. When the Americans withdrew, ISIS moved in and the city of Mosul, though recovering in upmarket cafés and restaurants by the river, retains acres of devastation, among which people still live. Some children stepped forward and smiled and a small boy offered Palin a shot of his catapult.
The ruined palaces of Saddam Hussein on high ground everywhere testify to his monstrous ego and preference for a clear view over his domain. Posters by the Tigris at Tikrit memorialise the 1,700 young cadets massacred by ISIS in his wake. Constant military checkpoints en route keep watch for ever present active pockets of ISIS insurgents hiding out in desert enclaves. In Nazariya, he draws back the curtain of his hotel bedroom window to discover a bullet hole, the cracks around it still spread weblike across the pane. 'Terrible things happened here. You just can't escape it,' he says.
He covers a journey of 1,000 miles from Lake Hazar in Eastern Turkey, the source of the Tigris, down to Basra and on, via the Shat El Arab waterway and the labyrinthine channels of the Marsh Arabs, to the ambitious construction project of a container port at El Faw on the Persian Gulf. Iraq's economy currently depends on oil and religious tourism. 'Oil was never good for this country,' says one of his minders. 'It was always the source of problems and war.' This projected cargo port could open a new era of trade and prosperity, if corruption doesn't hamper its development. A school for gifted children in Baghdad which focuses on science and medicine introduced some youngsters with an impressive command of English and ambitions to do well. I felt though for the one gawky lad who proclaimed his preference for poetry and literature.
It was a fascinating and powerful travelogue, and showed another side to the country from the one we are more familiar with from dispiriting news headlines. It was a challenging trip for Palin, whose curiosity and mischievous sense of humour remains undimmed, and an education to watch.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh