In vain would you search for Peter Jay in the soulless corridors of Television Centre, White City, west London. The 63-year-old economics and business editor of the BBC prefers to work from his farmhouse on the outskirts of Woodstock, Oxfordshire. As well he might. Blackbirds sing here. The air is sweet with pollen and freshly mown grass. Kindly morning sunlight bathes the flowering chestnuts and swelling fruit. It is a fitting place for a man of such obvious bottom, gravitas and destiny.
Jay’s career has been dazzling if curiously disjointed. His jobs and connections are embedded in the political history and liberal Establishment of the past 40 years: he’s the former son-in-law of Tony Blair’s predecessor as Labour prime minister (and therefore the ex-husband of Lady Jay, that scourge of hereditary privilege and Leader of the House of Lords); the retired ‘chief of staff’ of the deceased swindler Robert Maxwell; and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, a former Ambassador to the United States of America. Jay is undoubtedly a most superior person – a grandee, a member of the Garrick, in fact – and it would hardly be proper for him to spend his working hours among the light-industrial estates of White City. It is said that some of his colleagues at the BBC resent his absence from their midst. They point out that, over the past year, his appearances on the evening news have been about as rare as anoraks in Arabia, yet he still has his own office at White City (even if it is now used unofficially as a changing room for staff who cycle to work) and still, of course, draws a handsome salary.
When I arrive, Peter Jay is in the middle distance, wearing a checked shirt and a bright-red sleeveless jumper, feeding the carp in his pond. Literally a man of stature – a solidly built 6ft 4in – he looms towards me, past a hammock strung between two trees and, with loping gait, leads the way towards the tall barn he has converted into an office and broadcasting studio. One wall is filled from floor to rafters with books. The one opposite is divided in two by an upper deck. The lower half is devoted to framed political cartoons and a large photograph of Jay with the ‘Famous Five’ – Michael Parkinson, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon, David Frost and Robert Kee – the star presenters with whom he launched the ill-fated TV-am in 1983.
As we go upstairs, Jay stoops automatically to avoid the low beams. The upper deck is draped with red ensigns and Union Jacks, there are maritime maps in glass cases and dozens of photographs of Jay sailing the yachts that have been his lifelong passion. He sits down and, though he folds his arms, manages somehow to look as if he’s sprawling. Close up, his skin looks like parched earth; his big sleepy blue eyes are framed by pink lines and pouches, his thick lips fixed in a bland smile. In a recent issue of Private Eye, under the headline TV CELEBRITY CONNED FRIEND OUT OF THOUSANDS BY PRETENDING TO BE THE ECONOMICS EDITOR OF THE BBC, a spoof news story suggested that Jay made sure he renewed his contract with the BBC just before his good friend Sir John Birt retired as director general. What does Jay make of this ribbing? ‘Ah, yes,’ he says placidly. ‘Me being paid a large salary to do nothing. It wasn’t to do with John Birt at all. And considering I’ve been working harder in the past two years than at any other time since leaving Washington, I think it’s ironic. But I love Private Eye and have always accepted that “Sir Peter Jaybotham, 69” is a fine figure of fun. Public figures should be abused. It is healthy and therapeutic.’
The thing he has been working so hard on over the past two years is Road to Riches, a six-part television series which begins next month. That and the weighty book, subtitled The Wealth of Man, which accompanies it. Together they tell the story of mankind’s economic progress, from hunter-gathering all the way to the Industrial Revolution and the Big Bang. ‘After sex,’ Jay says, ‘money is our second appetite. Understanding comes third. But, as Aristotle noted, you may want wine and women but you don’t want them ad infinitum. Only our appetite for money is limitless. Bill Gates is not much less motivated to make the next $100 billion than he was to make the first.’
And then, for the next 60 minutes or so, Peter Jay expounds his ‘cautiously pessimistic’ view of economic history, with easy reference to Aristophanes, Defoe, Malthus, Darwin and Keynes. It is a mistake to take a linear view, he tells me, there are always periods of stagnation and failure. Economies evolve in fits and starts, like a waltz, taking one step forward and two steps sideways. His enthusiasm for the subject is obvious, his knowledge encyclopaedic and, like an oil tanker, once he has set course, he takes some turning round. He’s also pedantic, given to qualifying his comments with ‘as it were’ and stuffing his sentences with sub-clauses.
When I ask if thoughts of mortality might have inspired this magnum opus, he laughs throatily. ‘Do you think I’m monument-building at this late stage in my life? Well, yes, I suppose so. Though I don’t want to seem portentous, a vice of which I am extremely capable. The series and the book were put to me by the BBC, so it wasn’t as if I was thrashing around for a place to build a monument. That said, the sentimental thought has gone through my mind that I have seven children and when their children ask, as it were, what did Grandfather do in the Great War, I shall be able to point to this book on the shelf.’
It is a telling admission. From childhood onwards, great things have been expected of Peter Jay. Yet he has flitted from career to career, never quite leaving his mark, never quite consolidating his hold on the glittering prizes. It didn’t help that his father, Douglas, was a hard act to follow. Lord Jay, as he became, had been a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and President of the Board of Trade in Harold Wilson’s cabinet. But Peter was never denied opportunities to succeed. From the Dragon School in Oxford, he went to Winchester (where he was Sen Co Prae, or Head of School) and from there, after doing his National Service in the Royal Navy, to Christ Church, Oxford. He was President of the Union, took a first in PPE, and soon afterwards married Margaret Callaghan, daughter of ‘Sunny Jim’, who was then Shadow Chancellor. In the same year (1961) Jay joined the Treasury as a civil servant, leaving in 1967 to become economics editor of The Times. He remained there for a decade, combining the post with a five-year spell as presenter of Weekend World, the political television programme of the day, produced by none other than John Birt.
Then, in 1977, to universal derision, his father-in-law (by then Prime Minister) appointed him Ambassador to Washington. He stayed two years, but then Mrs Thatcher won the 1979 election, and he returned to Britain to work as a director of the Economist, before joining TV-am in 1983 as its founding chairman and chief executive. Three years later he made perhaps his oddest career move, becoming from 1986 to 1989 chief-of-staff (‘bagman’, as Private Eye put it) to Robert Maxwell, proprietor of the Daily Mirror. And in 1990 he began his present job at the BBC.
Why has he never settled down? Did he find the goalposts kept moving? ‘The truth is, my career is a chapter of accidents and I have been lucky that it has added up to a diverting and enjoyably random walk through life. Again, do stop me if I start sounding portentous, because it is a terrible vice, but from my schooldays onwards I was encouraged to view life as an obstacle race that one ran all the way to the grave. If you played cricket, you had to be selected for the first team. If you took exams, you had to come top. If you took a degree, you had to get a first. The thing to do was succeed. You didn’t examine why or whether you wanted to. That absurdity was aggravated because I worked jolly hard and so was good at the race. I had a privileged education, of course, and if I hadn’t benefited from it, it would have been disgraceful. But to me the satisfaction was in being able to tick things off my list. I say this in a mood of confession to what is a deplorable state of mind.’
After graduating, Peter Jay was awarded a research fellowship by Nuffield College, Oxford, after failing to follow his father in winning one at All Souls. He managed just one term of a DPhil on the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. ‘I realised I knew the answer to the question I had set myself. And I couldn’t stand the life. I asked myself, “What difference would it make if I didn’t get up tomorrow?” and the answer was, “None at all”. I realised I needed a framework, a full in-tray, a telephone that would ring and make demands of me. I am confessing here to another profound character flaw.’
He decided to join the Treasury. ‘The absurd thing was, I went there mainly because my father wanted me to be a civil servant. He had enjoyed it and thought it a secure job for me.’ Lord Jay died, aged 88, in 1996. His obituary noted that he recoiled from idleness and luxury. ‘He was a strong character,’ Jay says, shaking his head at the memory. ‘And he had obsessions. But I wouldn’t say “hero” was quite the right word. He was an inspirational teacher. Stimulating. I have a more vivid recollection of his childhood than I do of my own. We shared a huge number of jokes and references and I’d say we were close. But he wasn’t the sort of father who, as it were, changed the nappies.’
Jay is known for his short fuse and once ticked off a Times sub-editor who complained that his economics column was unintelligible. ‘I am writing for three people in England,’ he said loftily. ‘And you are not one of them.’ Apparently, the three were two Treasury mandarins and the Governor of the Bank of England. Did Jay always write for such a limited audience? ‘I was writing that particular article to a limited audience.’
If he joined the Treasury to win his father’s approval, did he leave it as an act of filial rebellion? ‘If it was, it was a pretty weedy act, because my father had also worked for The Times.’ It was perhaps inevitable that eventually Jay would try to follow his father into politics, and in 1970 he sought selection as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Islington South-West. ‘It was a farce,’ he recalls, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. ‘I didn’t even come close to being selected. But I made an important discovery about myself, that I absolutely didn’t want to be a politician. It wasn’t just sour grapes. All my life I had assumed as an unconscious inevitability that I would have to be one – in the end – then I began to notice I was doing everything possible to postpone the day. Becoming an MP ruins your family life and it’s ill rewarded. And I’m just not the committee-minded, consensus-building, wheeler-dealer type you need to be.’
Islington was not Jay’s first taste of failure. ‘The real failure for me,’ he recalls – and it seems to pain him still, ‘the thing that absolutely was a shock and which considerably changed my personality was when I failed to get an All Souls fellowship. I had been encouraged to expect it. It was like being poleaxed. I was stunned. That sounds incredibly arrogant, but then I was an incredibly arrogant person. Experiencing that early failure was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Goodness, that sounds pompous!’
Though he claims to welcome the mockery of Private Eye, Jay does seem sensitive about his reputation for pomposity, constantly referring to it. If he was prone to arrogance as a young man, though, it seems forgivable. After all, in 1973, he was voted not just Financial Journalist of the Year but also Political Broadcaster of the Year. The next year he was voted Male Personality of the Year by the Royal Television Society. At the age of 37 he was tipped by Time magazine as a future world leader. On top of this, people started telling him that, as a television celebrity, he had sex appeal. How did he keep his feet on the ground? ‘Television, which I take seriously and think important, was never part of the obstacle race for me. Weekend World was fun and well paid, but I regarded it as a recreation, as naughty moonlighting from my Monday to Friday job on The Times. It was like going skiing all the time, I felt guilty about it. I don’t think I had much sex appeal as a presenter, or indeed as anything else but, anyway, it wasn’t the glamour that attracted me, it was the money. It helped me pay for boats. I could double my earnings by working weekends as well as weekdays. Besides, I loved doing two hours’ live studio work. It gave me a buzz. I loved, loved, loved doing it.’
What effect did his working a six-and-a-half day week have on his wife and three children? ‘It took a huge toll. It was a mistake and I regret it. I shouldn’t have done the television. I would come home on a Sunday after an adrenaline-pumping live broadcast and I would still be buzzing from it. I might have been, say, interviewing the Prime Minister, and I would have been feeling like David Beckham in the Cup Final. It’s intoxicating and, when it stops, the batteries are drained. You go home to a family who have not watched the programme because it was much too boring and you might as well have just come in from washing the car. The psychological demands of changing down to their gear were high. And I would have to find the physical energy to take a lively interest in what they were doing, rather than collapse. But they were the ones who paid the price for my absence, not me. I paid when I saw the effect it had on them.’
Behind him, on top of a bookshelf, is a blue leather briefcase emblazoned with the Diplomatic Service crest – a memento from his days in Washington. Had he seen that job as a chance to repair things with his family, make a new start? ‘Yes, in the sense that it was something we could do as a family, but no, in that the working demands were even greater. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. My favourite joke at the time was that they needed a younger man for that job. It was physically crushing. That you were living over the shop helped. Even though the working day began at 7am and continued with telegrams till 2am the next day, you came across your children all day, they were under your feet. And Margaret and I were able to do a lot more things together, which we hadn’t been able to do in London. I described her as my co-ambassador because her contribution was enormous. But by no means was it a kind of holiday.’
Was he shocked, or embarrassed at all, by the accusations of nepotism over his appointment to such a senior diplomatic post? ‘Of course, but once I overcame my shock at being asked by David Owen [then Foreign Secretary], I said I would have to talk to Jim first, because I knew it would cause immense political embarrassment. Jim said, “You let me worry about the politics.” So then I had to ask myself, “Can I go through the rest of my life living with the knowledge that I have turned down such an opportunity?” A friend of mine said I should think very hard about it for a millionth of a second and then say yes.’
Peter Jay’s time in Washington lives on in the memory of journalists. There was a satisfying element of French farce to the ambassadorial household. As a Sun headline put it: HOW THE KNOW-ALL CAME A CROPPER! Margaret Jay had an affair with Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalist who, with Robert Woodward, uncovered the Watergate scandal, and Peter Jay had an affair with his children’s nanny, who bore him a son. The scandal inspired two novels – one by Susan Crosland, the other by Nora Ephron, Bernstein’s wife. (The Jays were divorced in 1986, and in the same year Peter married Emma Thornton, a garden-furniture designer 16 years his junior. They have three sons. What emotional toll did the break-up of his marriage take? ‘Huge is the one-word answer to your question. But I think wallowing in it or going on about it doesn’t help very much. It happens to millions of people and they all deal with it in their own way.’)
Oddly, Peter Jay seems to have few regrets about his association with Robert Maxwell, a man who had been declared unfit by the DTI to run a public company as long ago as 1971, and who went on to embezzle the Mirror’s pension funds. Why is he still so loyal? Is it that he doesn’t want to be seen as a dupe? ‘I did feel a loyalty to Maxwell, and a certain affection for him. He was larger than life, a pre-moral figure, a kind of woolly mammoth stalking through the primeval forests unaware of the kind of things other people fussed about as being good or evil. But what he was not was a crook. Clearly in the last 18 months of his life, after I had gone, something happened which drove him to the most outrageous conduct, for which no possible extenuation can be given.’
When the job at the BBC was offered in 1990, Jay must have been hugely relieved. His life had come full circle, it seemed. A chance to pontificate to the nation once more, to win over middle-aged female viewers with his craggy, sea-saltish sex appeal, to let his grandchildren know what he did in the great battle of the ERM. He’s an economics editor again, with three young children. ‘There can be huge frustrations and lots of backbiting at the BBC,’ he reflects. ‘But it is a wonderful place to work. Now that this series is in the can, I’m intending to go back to my normal routine on the newsdesk. I hope I shall continue doing this for the foreseeable future. After all, Alistair Cooke still seems to be doing OK.’
But Alistair Cooke, I want to say, is not an economist. Before I can do so, Emma Jay calls us from downstairs. Lunch is ready. Should we have it outside? Yes, Peter replies. ‘My heart always sinks when you say that,’ Emma says, ‘because it all needs carrying.’ ‘Oh, we’ll do that,’ Peter says blithely. By the time we join Emma outside, though, the garden table has been laden with vegetable flans, pies, salad, freshly baked bread, and two bottles of red wine. The afternoon heat is soporific. No wonder he has put up that hammock.