John Redwood

The aromatic whiff of a log fire and the sound of shoes crunching up a gravelled drive are all that disturb the drizzly Saturday afternoon air in this secluded, woody enclave of Berkshire. It is growing dark and the glow from the sturdy Thirties redbrick house is welcoming, So, too, is the trim, fine-featured chatelaine with the twinset and silver-blonde bob who appears in the porch and opens the front door before there is need of a knock.
‘I think there’s one toasted tea cake left,’ Gail Redwood says as she leads the way past a row of waxed jackets, around her husband’s furry, clown-size reindeer-head slippers (a novelty Christmas present), and on into the drawing room. ‘And there should still be a tolerable cup of tea in the pot.’
As PG Wodehouse might have said, if not actually disconcerting, this scene of charming domesticity is far from being concerting. For a question mark hangs over it like a bruised cloud: why on earth are the Redwoods inviting a journalist – a journalist, for goodness sake – into their gracious home for a rare and privileged glimpse of their soft furnishings? After all, the Majors never allow anyone within 100 yards of their log fire in Huntingdon; the Blairs do, but only as far as the office at the back of their house in Sedgefield. The answer is obvious; and even more so when the 45-year-old Right Honourable Member for Wokingham – and leader of the Eurosceptic Tory right, since his challenge to John Major a couple of years ago – heaves into view.
He is looking casual (in slightly faded blue cords, open-neck shirt and woolly, speckled, cream pullover) and relaxed – or at least trying to look relaxed, because he has a gangly body and at first, as he stands by the fire, its language seems a little self-conscious. Perhaps to give his hands something to do, he turns and throws a log on to the fire, making it spit and crackle. More likely, though, he does this in order to offer a glimpse of the human face of a politician who has suffered more than most from accusations of appearing too cold, too logical, too, well, extraterrestrial – for, as we know, ETs don’t throw logs on fires.
The face on offer, then, is the one he would like us some day to be watching on our television sets before we tuck into our roast beef and Yorkshire puddings of a Sunday: the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, at home, in a jumper, by a fire, reacting to the latest Blair outrage. John Redwood doesn’t say this, of course, but then he doesn’t need to. The remark he does open with, however, suggests that he may still have some ground to cover on the road to looking more human, more ordinary, more of the people. Above the copper fireplace, framed by the dark wood panelling of the wall, is a painting of Elizabeth I. When asked about it, Mrs Redwood makes a topical joke: ‘Now, she was the original Spice Girl!’ And we all laugh. But when Mr Redwood takes up the theme – ‘Yes. Made a fortune from the Spice Islands!’ – the room falls silent, a gust of wind picks up outside and from somewhere in the far distance comes the melancholy sound of a dog howling.
The comment is just too brainy, too literal-minded, too academic. And it reminds you that, from the collar up, John Redwood stands alone. This is the man who, cursed with a First in History from Oxford, made matters worse by becoming a Prize Fellow of All Souls at the age of 21 and, worse still, by dashing of a doctorate in Philosophy in the evenings (while working during the day as a merchant banker). This is the man who, at 32, was appointed head of Mrs Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit and, in an idle moment, worked out how to return Britain’s nationalised industries back to the private sector. This is the man who, in order to relax, plays chess with two computers, one he knows he can beat, one he is sure he can’t.
And as if the bulging forehead isn’t enough to live down, John Redwood has also acquired, along the way, a reputation for being socially awkward – even socially unaware, to the degree that he cannot spot a political minefield when it’s staring him in the face. On that fateful Monday morning in June 1995, for instance, when Redwood launched his impromptu leadership bid, the Crazy Gang, as represented by Tony Marlow (wearing his loud striped blazer) and Teresa Gorman (goggle-eyed in her fluorescent green dress), managed to insert themselves into Redwood’s overcrowded press briefing. In the confusion – and social awkwardness – of the media scrum that ensued, the maladroit Redwood allowed himself to be photographed in front of Gorman and Marlow. The flashbulbs popped and the damage to his credibility was done.
But perhaps getting into awkward places is something inhabitants of Planet Redwood do simply for their own amusement. For in the drawing room there is a long blue sofa, which seats four people, and I find myself hovering near to the end seat. As Redwood invites me to sit down, he sits down, too, in the next space. Almost touching, and with our backs deep in the upholstery, we talk for a while without making eye contact, staring at our knees instead, like two strangers on a bus. After a few minutes, I perch on the edge of my seat, swivelling round to face him, and he – gratefully, I suspect – half-turns round to do the same, one ankle tucked under the opposite knee, his head propped up on his hand. Gail Redwood comes over and tactfully occupies the acre of space at the other end of the sofa.
At close quarters, John Redwood’s speaking voice is measured and subdued, in contrast to the laugh he occasionally emits – haha! – which is short and strong. But there are none of the erratic shifts of pitch that characterised the voice we so memorably heard in his leadership press conferences. As one writer put it: ‘The man has an unreal use of volume and emphasis, which he unleashes on words! without warning. He speaks like a man trying to stop himself falling asleep.’ Mock him though they might, even Redwood’s political enemies would not deny that he is an honourable man, loyal to his party. But when John Major challenged him, and others, to ‘put up or shut up’ he says he found himself left with no option but to resign. ‘I took that comment to mean that the views I had been expressing continuously in private were no longer acceptable. I thought, “Well, I can’t live with this. I can’t work in a Cabinet where I’m not allowed to say that VAT on fuel is wrong or that we’re not allowed to make up our own minds on a single currency.” People were saying I was radical or risky and yet I was the one sticking to traditional Conservative values and, indeed, to our 1992 manifesto pledges.’
But ‘risky’ is not the adjective most used about Redwood in his leadership campaign: ‘scary’ was. Indeed, his cold intellect – along with his inscrutable, lupine features and quizzical eyebrows – earned him the nickname Vulcan, after the home planet of the emotionally challenged Star Trek hero, Mr Spock. At first, Redwood says endearingly, he didn’t understand the joke, then a friend explained it to him and he found it funny. But to this day there still seems to be some confusion in Redwood’s mind as to who Vulcans are and what they stand for. Thus:
Mr Redwood – ‘I took it to mean that they didn’t have any dirt on me and, because to err is human, I couldn’t have come from this planet, but from another one. It was a backhanded compliment.’
Mrs Redwood (perhaps thinking about dead sheep or Welsh windbags): ‘There are a lot worse things you can say about a politician!’
Mr Redwood: ‘Yes, I don’t think staying cool under pressure, keeping a clear head, is a fault in one who might be called upon to lead. Of course you have to understand how people feel about things as well. It was very mischievous of some journalists to suggest I don’t have passions and feelings. I do have a sentimental side. I can be moved by classical music, for instance, although not to tears.’
Mrs Redwood: ‘No, it’s films that make John weep! He was in floods when we watched Shadowlands and The Remains of the Day!’
Mr Redwood checks his side parting with his hand, folds him arms, hunches his shoulders, and mumbles a few words of admiration for Sir Anthony Hopkins before taking the passion theme down a less personal route: ‘I feel very passionately about the need to preserve a self-governing democracy in this country…’ Alongside the sofa is a grandfather clock which the Redwoods commissioned, complete with a carved acorn, the symbol of Wokingham, on top. As Redwood’s patriotic theme is developed, the grandfather clock announces that it is five o’clock and in so doing reveals itself to have the same arrangement of chimes as Big Ben.
‘… and British identity is related to our lives together as a very successful people that has always been on the right side…’ Ding-dong-ding-dong! Dong-ding-dong-ding! ‘… a people that has always gone to war to resist tyranny. British identity is related to one sovereign…’ Bong! ‘… one church…’ Bong! ‘… one parliament…’ Bong! ‘… one set of laws…’ Bong! ‘… and the English language…’ Bong!
That’s Vulcan humour for you – or so it would be nice to think, for Redwood, with the insouciance of the comic, gives no hint as to whether he is aware of the chimes that so affectingly accompany his speech. A more glaring example of Vulcan behaviour emerged on the Thursday that John Major resigned as leader. Westminster and Fleet Street went into a frenzy trying to find out whether Redwood would stand against him. For four days Redwood exhibited disturbingly alien cool: not bothering to answer his phone; nonchalantly choosing instead to play village cricket. Had the man no nervous system? ‘Although I felt calm,’ he now says, ‘I agonised and agonised and agonised for those four days – apart from during the cricket match on the Sunday when I could switch off completely and enjoy the game – I went strawberry-picking on the Saturday, but they didn’t spot me! Haha! I didn’t make up my mind until I spoke to the Prime Minister on the Monday morning – he didn’t seem to want to talk very much and I thought it was a time that maybe a conversation would have been a good idea.’
The Vulcan nickname, of course, owes much to his dogged love of logic. From 1973 to 1987, for instance, he worked in the City, first at Flemings, then at Rothschilds, places where employees often stay late regardless of whether they have deals to do. ‘I used to work very hard,’ Redwood remembers. ‘I concentrated, got my work done and left at 5.30pm on the dot because that’s what my contract said. Yet colleagues used to criticise me for it.’ He doesn’t seem to see why. Any more than he sees the inadequacy of his answer to the unoriginal but morally imperative question about his support for capital punishment: hypothetically, would he be prepared to pull the lever himself Although the answer he gives doesn’t actually start with a ‘But that’s illogical, Captain’ it is, nevertheless, a response Spock would be proud of. ‘I have no intention of applying to be a public hangman. I can see no circumstances in which I would have to do it or be expected to do it.’ Try again. Surely, given his academic training, he can offer a sophisticated justification of the death penalty on moral or utilitarian grounds? ‘Can I? My main reason for supporting capital punishment is that most of my electors do.’ And again. Just because a lot of people believe something, doesn’t make it right. ‘No. But then it doesn’t conflict with my view.’
Sometimes, though, a Vulcan’s logical mind can get to the heart of an issue more efficiently than can the woolly, obfuscatory mind of an Earthling. Redwood, for instance, was the first to start referring to the innocuous sounding ‘single currency’ as the ‘abolition of the pound’, a phrase which has since entered the language and which, with its brutal clarity, brought home to a lot of people what a single currency actually means. Again, for many people, Redwood put his finger on the exact cause of the Church of England’s current malaise when he said that it seemed embarrassed about its spiritual and moral role in the community. By contrast, John – and Gail – Redwood are anything but embarrassed about their enthusiasm for Christian family values. ‘You can’t trust people who say they believe in family values if they are doing the opposite at home,’ Mrs Redwood says in a soft level voice. ‘It would be so crass, so hypocritical.’
The couple met in the first week of their first term at Oxford and, although Gail Redwood says she doesn’t think it was love at first sight, she does add, with a wry tilt of the head, ‘Oh, I suppose it was fairly soon after.’ Mrs Redwood is refreshingly scornful of the expectation that a politician’s wife, even one who qualified as a barrister, should be seen but not heard at Conservative Party functions: ‘Nothing worse than being introduced to people who make superficial conversation with you because they think you won’t have anything interesting to say,’ she says with a peeved arch of the eyebrow. Even so, she is – and John Redwood must know she is – a ‘secret weapon’ to rival even the Prime Minister’s wife. For she combines the down-to-earth modesty and charm of a Norma Major – she will say, for instance, that she never has time to think about clothes and isn’t even sure where the clothes she is wearing came from – with the high-powered career of a Cherie Blair (Gail is company secretary of British Airways, as well as being a mother to Catherine and Richard, the couple’s two teenage children).
Drifting across the hall from Redwood’s study is the sound of a television showing highlights from the Scotland v Wales rugby match. We are still sitting on the blue sofa and, as he pops into the study to hear the final score, I cajole him into admitting who he wants to win. With disarming honesty he says: ‘Oh, I don’t really care now that I’m no longer Secretary of State for Wales.’ Then, pulling himself together, he adds: ‘Oh, I suppose Wales!’ A chance to examine the bookshelves in Redwood’s study reveals few surprises: lots of history books, half a dozen video tapes of Commons debates, the odd book on wildlife and butterflies and countless volumes with titles so dull they swim before the eyes, blurring into one big, bedtime read from Hell: Inflation; Nationalised Industries; Privatisation: Theory and Practice; Foreign Exchange Rates…
Apart from a small Welsh coat of arms hanging up in an alcove, there is little evidence of John Redwood’s time in the Principality. Dafydd Wigley, president of Plaid Cymru, once said that Redwood ‘went down like a rat sandwich in Wales’. Presumably the feeling was mutual, given reports that Redwood only stayed one night in Wales during the first five months of his office, preferring instead to commute back to Berkshire. (He said at the time that he was the first politician to be criticised for wanting to sleep with his own wife – a pretty good and pretty human joke.)
But perhaps the real reason Redwood has so few tokens of Wales is that they remind him of the buttock-clenching moment he was caught on camera trying and failing to mouth the words to the Welsh national anthem. Although he was considered to have been a firm but fair Welsh Secretary, even his best friends could not claim that he ever really empathised with the Welsh people. ‘The reason they said that was that I had no time for Welsh nationalism and I didn’t learn the language,’ Redwood says when this is put to him. ‘I took a decision at the beginning that I was not going to have time to learn it to a high enough standard – and there is nothing worse than an Englishman wrecking the language. It was better to be honest.’ Even so, Eric Howells, Tory chairman in Wales, once observed that Redwood has trouble relating to ordinary people. ‘Well that is wrong,’ Redwood tells me. ‘I see myself as coming from the marketplace.’
While it is true that his father was an accounts clerk and his mother a shop manageress, there is something a bit patrician about Redwood’s manner. It is almost as if he, like Coriolanus, is secretly contemptuous of the many-headed multitude, as if his nature is too noble for the world. He doesn’t see it this way, though. Indeed, he prides himself on his patriotic, Euro-bashing, hang-’em-high populism (‘What’s wrong with having popular views?’ he says. ‘I’m a democrat, for Heaven’s sake!’) But doesn’t he empathise with Coriolanus just a little bit? ‘No!’ Redwood laughs. ‘I did learn some of my politics from Coriolanus. And Macbeth. But I could never be Coriolanus. He is far too certain. I want to shake him and say, “Who the hell do you think you are? Get down there, boy, and talk to the people.”‘ The thought is interrupted as Joe, the Redwoods’ well-fed cat, ambles over for a stroke.
The grandfather clock chimes 7.30pm and the Redwoods show me the corner of the drawing room they have devoted to watercolours of Oxford. In another corner there is a tape and CD collection which mostly features the sort of classical recordings that move John Redwood (though not to tears). There are quite a few middle-of-the-road tapes – Kate Bush, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Cliff Richard – and a rather alarming number of recordings of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. The most up-to-date album seems to be by Beverley Craven.
But there are no tapes by Lightning Seeds, which is surprising given that John Redwood once wrote an article for the Guardian in praise of them and other Britpop bands like Oasis, Blur and Supergrass. ‘For me to be writing about Britpop’, it began, ‘might seem about as likely as John Prescott writing an article on how much he appreciates the Latin verse of Virgil.’ Much to the chagrin of Lightning Seeds, Redwood went on to quote their lyrics (‘Everything’s blue now, oh lucky you… there’s nothing to lose’) saying that it was a message to Tories. The Guardian columnist Matthew Norman, who had suggested the article, made it his mission in life to discover the boundaries of Redwood’s Britpop knowledge. (Norman regularly rang him up to test him. And, even though Redwood lists one of his recreations as ‘not reading the Guardian’, and even though he knew he was being teased, he always played along, answering Norman’s pop trivia questions as best he could. Norman believes that, had he not pushed his luck too far one day by calling Redwood out of an important meeting just so that he could ask whether the Smurfs could ever recover from the defection of Father Abraham, Redwood might still be the Guardian’s youth culture correspondent to this day.)
A cynic would say that, of course, this is what you’d expect from a politician who’s trying to get elected: be human, not Vulcan; be normal, not desiccated; show you have a sense of humour, not that you are stuffed to the gills with serious purpose. A cynic would say that this is why he tells me he painted the ochre walls of his drawing room himself and that, since moving into the house three years ago, he has become quite handy at DIY. And that is why he says that, although he enjoys decorating, he prefers to unwind by chopping logs (like Gladstone, curiously enough). This is why he says he likes to do his own shopping at the supermarket and why, when the question that floored George Bush – Do you know the price of a pound of butter? – is tried on him, he has a ready answer. ‘No, I don’t because I don’t buy butter. I buy Olivio. See! I even know the brand name!’
But the cynic would be wrong. John Redwood really does seem to enjoy doing these things. He does have a hinterland. The jumper isn’t just for show. And, contrary to one’s expectations, he is quite wry. On one wall of the dining-room next door there are half a dozen large cartoons that chart the history of Redwood’s political career. One shows John Major as a weathervane dressed in lederhosen with Helmut Kohl as the menacing raincloud overhead. Two depict John Redwood naked: one, captioned LOVE LOCKED OUT, shows him standing forlornly in front of No 10; the other depicts him as The Thinker. ‘I don’t know why I always have to be naked in these,’ Redwood says. ‘I’m surprised they know what I look like without clothes on. As far as I know, it’s never been revealed.’ Again, not a bad joke.
Have these cartoons of a naked Redwood – a little vulnerable and innocent, perhaps, but with a certain moral purity and openness – got it right? He tells me that he believes he is not a calculating politician but one who acts on instinct. Perhaps the truth lies between the two: that he is a canny politician. After all, he did come away from the leadership challenge looking more courageous than Portillo and less treacherous than Heseltine (‘I wasn’t an assassin because John Major put his job on the line. He invited a contest. As soon as I lost, I went on TV and said, “I admit defeat, long live John Major.” You couldn’t do more than that. I think that the party was sympathetic to me because I had done all in my power to have a decent, honest contest.’)
And decent, honest contestants – like nice guys – often finish last, even if they lose romantically. On the opposite wall, above a mantelpiece with a bust of Beethoven on it, there is an exquisite oil painting on wood, dated 1756, which Gail Redwood inherited from her father, an auctioneer. The painting is of that other conservative young pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. As a History scholar, Redwood will not need reminding what happened when, almost exactly 250 years ago, that ‘king o’er the water’ raised his standard. Will Bonnie Prince John be any more successful in wresting the Tory crown from the leader’s head? Perhaps it is too early to ask. The painting prompts another question, though: Do you suppose Bonnie Prince Charlie really was bonnie? Redwood’s answer couldn’t be cannier: ‘He was to those who believed in him!’
A few days after this interview appeared, just before the general election in 1997, a psychiatrist contacted me. ‘You may not have realised it,’ he wrote, ‘but your profile of John Redwood suggests that he has a number of characteristic which match those of Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. The literalism, the gangly body, the social awkwardness, the lack of eye contact, the dogged love of logic… It’s the same symptom which the US press is hinting at for Bill Gates. For those of high intelligence it is by no means disabling, and might indeed bring enormous advantage because of the single-mindedness it generates.


David Starkey

Muslim scholars, Anglican bishops, touchy-feely party leaders – David Starkey will have a pop at them all. History’s loose cannon talk to Nigel Farndale

He’s a fastidious man, David Starkey. A silk handkerchief plumes from the breast pocket of his pinstripe suit as he arrives, punctually, for dinner at the Wolseley. Even when he was a full-time history don – teaching first at Cambridge then at the LSE – he was something of a dandy: ‘Academics tend to be drab,’ he says in his precise, emphatic way.

‘They rarely wash and can’t behave properly. I didn’t want to become part of that tribe of drabness.’ He is also wearing, canny as he is about the usefulness of branding, the tortoiseshell glasses and matching cornelian intaglio ring that have become his trademarks.

He tucks his napkin into his shirt and we clink glasses. We are trying a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet, from a region of France he likes to visit. Fastidious again, you see. Still, I’m surprised he is in a drinking mood.

Not worried about having to get up early tomorrow morning to record his television show? ‘No, no,’ he says. ‘I do the early morning call with my producers from my home. A video conference call. I sit there in my fluffy white dressing gown.’

It is a startling and improbable image. In terms of reputation, after all, Starkey is anything but fluffy. When he was a regular panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze a decade ago, The Daily Mail dubbed him ‘The Rudest Man in Britain’ and he made the most of the accolade, recognising that it was publicity money could not buy.

He always manages to play up to that image in photographs, looking stern and schoolmasterly, his face a mask of serious purpose. But he toned down the rude side of his persona in 2000 when he evolved into ‘Britain’s best loved historian’ by simultaneously topping the bestseller lists and winning the television ratings war with his book and series Elizabeth I. The rudeness does still emerge from time to time, though.

Not long ago he lost his temper and verbally duffed up a Government minister on Question Time. ‘Don’t patronise me, you little twit,’ he said, spitting the words out.

But as we talk, a sentimental side of him emerges, a fluffiness that I haven’t seen in our previous encounters: about his father Robert, his boyfriend James, their chocolatecoloured labrador, Seal. We shall come to these.

The television show, a current affairs debate he hosts, goes out at 11 every night on More4 and is called Starkey’s Last Word. He pre-records it during the day and calls it ‘enjoyable nonsense’, a break from writing books to accompany his epic series Monarchy, which is now in its third year, and for which he was paid £2 million by Channel 4 in 2002.

He has an 18th-century manor house in Kent, in addition to his house in Highbury. It’s a far cry from the council house where he grew up in Cumbria, the only son of a factory worker and a cleaner. Would ‘shamelessly materialistic’ be a fair description? ‘I enjoy having money. I enjoy being able to buy nice things. I have no guilt about it.’

But he would still be obsessed with history even if he wasn’t paid to be. It animates and galvanises him. He is so passionate about it, indeed, he can barely contain himself – and he has the pedagogue’s gift of making others feel passionate about it, too.

His conceit is to humanise two-dimensional historical figures by recognising their base appetites and natures, showing that history is moulded by the whims of the powerful, be they clever or stupid, puritanical or perverted.

Take his specialist subject, Henry VIII. ‘He was very modern,’ he says. ‘He loved fame. He would have loved the fact that we are having this conversation about him 500 years on.’ Starkey is writing a big biography of Henry to mark, in 2009, the 500th anniversary of his accession – and it becomes apparent as he talks that his imagination is haunted by the homicidal king. ‘He is alive in my head when I write.

He is in the room with me. I often feel a sense of dictation when I am writing. I hear sentences and paragraphs.’

It becomes obvious, too, that for Starkey the past is constantly collapsing into the present. His allusions sweep back and forth. When he talks about the past, he does so in the present tense. ‘History is a narrative form,’ he says. ‘And the task of the historian is to make past and present talk to each other. I’m an interpreter. I look for meaning in history. I’m convinced, for example, that the big question of the next few decades is the relationship of religion and politics.’

This is the theme of his latest book, Monarchy – From the Middle Ages to Modernity. ‘We need to understand that this is at the centre of our own national experience. We were the first European country to produce an Islamic-style fusion of religion and politics. But equally, we were the first country that got out of it, with modernity. Hence the extraordinary flowering of late 17th-, early 18th-century England.’

I try to imagine his frustration at having to keep Henry VIII down to one chapter in his latest book. ‘OK,’ he says, slipping Caesar-like into the third person, ‘Starkey has written 680 pages on Henry’s wives [an earlier book], not to mention what he is going to write on Henry himself. But for me the excitement of doing the book and the TV series is that it forces me to look at Henry in perspective.

If you do that you see his true importance. He is the pivotal figure around which England turns. It becomes clear to me that although Henry was driven by a desire for a divorce, everyone working around him was driven by religion, just as much as any imam or mullah.’

But if the Enlightenment and modernity liberated us from the fusion of state and religion, won’t the same happen for Islam? ‘No. Islam is 600 years behind Christianity. In Islamic time it is 1400. We’re not supposed to call that time medieval. Well, darling, it is. The great difference is that Islam has never had a doctrine of separate church and state, whereas Christianity had it from the beginning: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Islam destroys the institutions around it, Christianity works with them. The only example of a successful Islamic state is Turkey and that, thanks to Ataturk, is secular.’

Like a lot of atheists, Starkey can seem a little obsessed with religion. It is often the target for his magnificent scorn, most famously when he excoriated the Venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, on The Moral Maze. ‘Doesn’t he genuinely make you want to vomit?’ he asked his fellow panellists. ‘His fatness, his smugness, his absurdity.’

But when I ask him what he makes of Prince Charles’s desire to become Defender of Faiths, he surprises me by saying: ‘I don’t think the Prince is being naive. In the past I have tended to be a little dismissive about him, saying I couldn’t image a talking-to-plants eco-monarchy working. Suddenly, though, Charles looks very ahead for his time. I can imagine a situation where you had the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi and the Ayatollah of Britain, if such a role were invented, all doing a little gig at the Coronation. It would be a deeply British compromise.

After all, the Church of England was only ever really about the English worshipping themselves: the regimental histories; the great dead. Go to Westminster Abbey and there is barely a cross in sight. If Islam were able to fit into that I would have no problem with it, but it would have to be a jolly different Islam to what we have at the moment. The ayatollah would have to lose his sense of exclusivity and become as fundamentally muddle-headed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I can’t see that happening.

‘Personally, I find the inclusiveness and uncertainty of the Church of England as horrible as the brittle, iron-edged certainties of Islam and I would much rather the chairman of the National Secular Society held up the Coronation sword. But I can’t see that happening.

Although I am an atheist, unlike a Richard Dawkins, I understand the importance of religious motive and, broadly, I am sympathetic to it – except when it is fused with the political, which is what Henry does, and which modern Islam wants to do, and also what Tony Blair and George Bush flirt with.’

So he appreciates the rituals of the Church of England? ‘Yes, I remember the horror of my father’s funeral in 1997. It was a Quaker funeral in which there was absolutely no ritual. No music. No reading. Nothing between you and the rawness of that emotion.’

But wasn’t that quite healthy? Cathartic, I mean? ‘It wasn’t for me. Why have a ceremony which is unmediated raw emotion?’ Surely they wouldn’t have minded if he had delivered a homily? ‘The fact is, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Me, eloquent, fluent me, couldn’t stand up and give a talk at my own father’s funeral.’

When I first met David Starkey his father was still alive, though nearly 90. He told me then that they used to talk on the phone every day. ‘Well, I had not known him well. He was a late discovery because my mother [who died in 1977] had dominated everything.

We became close. The whole relationship had taken on a new dimension because two years before he died, James and I had got together. My father had led a sheltered life, yet there he was at that age still capable of responding to new things.’

Starkey had come out as gay to his parents back in the early Seventies. His God-fearing mother had never forgiven him. But his father reserved judgment, it seems. Was it important for Starkey to get his father’s blessing about his relationship with James? ‘Not quite the word I would use,’ he says. ‘Put it in Latin. Call it a benediction then I might feel more comfortable. But yes, it was important to me.’

Given the theory that there may be a gay gene, did he ever wonder whether his father might have been bisexual? ‘It would have been unthinkable for me to discuss it with him. We could never talk about things like that.’

What about Starkey himself? As a young man did he assume he was heterosexual? ‘I didn’t assume anything. It was not an issue. As far as I was concerned it was a low priority at that age. It makes me sound like the most awful nerd, but I was only interested in getting a scholarship to Cambridge.’ (He did get it, and a First, then a PhD, then a fellowship.) ‘But yes it did take me a long time to realise what the emotions actually meant.’

He met James Brown, a publisher and designer, at the LSE. Starkey, who is 61, was a lecturer there at the time. Brown, who is 34, had been a student. When I ask Starkey if he had taught Brown he coughs and splutters jokily. ‘Good heavens no! I have rather high views on that kind of thing. James read economics and social policy then began working for the LSE Foundation.

I had a meeting with Howard, the foundation boss, at the university bar. He sent James on ahead to tell me he was running late. James and I got talking…We went out to dinner after that, nothing happened and I can still remember sitting in the back of the taxi looking back at this young man thinking: why I am going home alone and seeing this agreeable-looking young man clearly thinking the same? Something clicked. It was like Henry meeting Anne Boleyn.’

Not quite as much at stake though, I suggest. ‘Oh, stop being a spoilsport.’

As Starkey has been a patron of the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality (Torche) since 1994, I ask him what he made of David Cameron’s ‘…and I don’t just mean between a man and woman’ conference speech. ‘It’s called gesture politics isn’t it?’ Starkey says. ‘My problem with Cameron is that I am not just a kind, sharing, nuzzly individual: I also care about my tax bills. I’m really boring. I like my Toryism with a bit of beef.’

In conversation, David Starkey has no restraint. And, as Michael Buerk, the chairman of The Moral Maze, noted in his autobiography, he is prone to ‘whinny at his own cleverness.’ But he is entertaining with it. And there are no awkward silences with Starkey. In the course of our four-hour conversation, in fact, the only time Starkey hesitates is when I ask him where he stands on civil partnerships.

‘Oh dear.’ Long pause. ‘Why the need for a public endorsement? I don’t see why. On the other hand, I think James would like to and I suspect in the end we will. I can appreciate all the legal reasons why marriage is practical in terms of the handover of property, it’s just… Another pause. ‘I’m wary of it. Matthew Parris and I have joked about this, saying: “We didn’t become gay to get married!”‘ He and James have been together for 12 years. ‘We have our ups and downs, like any couple. But we have become a part of each other. We have learned to live with each other’s foibles, and idiocies, and disgusting habits. It becomes like going upstairs and downstairs in a familiar house.’

Part of the familiar house is Seal, the labrador. ‘I’ve become so sentimental about him. I thought I was immune. Most dinners he gets the plate to lick. He uses his eyes like Princess Diana…’ Starkey demonstrates. ‘Totally manipulative. But his face is so beautiful I cannot resist. The big eyes, the softness, as he sprawls out in front of the fire. We have become a parody of English life.’

It sounds like a child substitute. ‘Not for me. A cuddle substitute, possibly.’

Starkey’s life may now be a parody of middle-class life, but his childhood was almost a stereotype of working-class misery. He has often spoken of his mother, Elsie, a domineering woman who was overly protective of him, in part because, as a child, he suffered from club feet, which after several painful operations were corrected. ‘My mother was suffocating but I owe her everything.

She was the divine discontent. She was the possibility I could get out.’ But he has rarely spoken about his father. ‘He was a sweet, gentle man,’ he now says, ‘but he hated what he did for a living and was prone to bouts of violence and temper, not a million miles from me in my earlier incarnation.’

At whom were the violence and temper directed? ‘Anything. Everything.’

I ask if his own frustrations, when he was an impecunious academic away from the spotlight, were similar. ‘You are right. I was frustrated and I do love the spotlight. But a good lecture is a theatrical performance. The whole point of The History Boys is the way in which teaching and performance have a symbiotic relationship, which is both to their mutual advantage and disadvantage. The question is: is one using one’s histrionic skills to power learning or to vulgarise it?’ So which is he doing? ‘Probably a bit of both.’


Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston is pretty sure I’ll know the story, but tells it anyway. ‘It’s about – oh, nuts, who was that British actor in Room at the Top? Laurence Harvey – it’s about Laurence Harvey. When he was doing Romeo he called Olivier and said, “You must play The Chorus.” And Olivier said, “No.” And Harvey said, “Why not?” And Olivier said, “Because I’m too fucking grand.”‘
It’s as well I do know the story, for Heston has propped his crutches up against the table behind him and I have become distracted by the sight of them slowly sliding down. (Is it improper, I find myself wondering, to lean over a Hollywood legend to grab his falling crutches? It’s one of those questions upon which Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners offers no clear guidance.) There is a loud clatter as the crutches meet the floor. Without blinking or looking round, Heston growls: ‘All right. Stay there.’
Composed, in a word.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning – Heston can’t get out of the film actor’s habit of rising for 6.30am shoots – and we are sitting on a comfortable sofa in the stone and glass home he had built for himself on the ridge of a mountain in California, while he was away filming Ben-Hur in Italy 39 years ago. Below us is a swimming-pool, lined with poplars. Below that, 800 acres of forest. And below that, the rest of Beverly Hills. Most of the books that line the shelves that take up the whole of one wall are about Shakespeare. In the centre of the middle shelf there is a space cleared for a signed photograph of… yes, you haven’t guessed it: Prince Andrew (Heston is a great Anglophile, and an arch conservative. Indeed, he was one of the few Hollywood celebrities invited to Lady Thatcher’s 70th birthday party.)
On another wall there is a portrait of Laurence Olivier, his hero and friend. The reason he wanted to tell the Olivier anecdote was that he believes Olivier was too fucking grand to play minor roles in Shakespeare, while, he, Heston, is not. This is why he agreed to act in the comparatively modest role of the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s full-length, four-hour Hamlet. While he was filming it at Shepperton Studios in London last year, Heston slipped on a step. ‘Didn’t even fall,’ he shrugs, his arms stretched out along the back of the sofa. ‘Just jarred down, and that really hurt. It wasn’t that I couldn’t work. They just had to prop me up between takes.’ Rather a come down, this; for such is the bruising toll that stunts have taken over the years that he has had to have a hip operation (which he had been putting off for fear of losing what mobility he had left). ‘I can really walk without those crutches,’ he now adds in a low voice like a sandbag slowly pummelling down a wooden staircase. ‘But I’m not supposed to for a week.’
Inevitably, it must be harder for Heston to accept the ageing process than it is for the rest of us (he’s 72). We have not climbed mountains as Moses, scaled scaffolding as Michelangelo, or been whipped as we rowed in galleys, our muscles oiled, wearing nothing but a loin cloth as Ben-Hur. In his day, the 6ft 3in Heston, with his broad shoulders and 45in chest, was an icon of virility, the great patriarch, a monumental presence on the screen. Indeed, our own Henry Cooper said of him: ‘That’s the only geezer I’ve met who makes me look like a poof.’ Now, partly because of a stoop, Heston has shrunk a couple of inches. He has a creaky, bow-legged walk and his grey flannel trousers have been let out at the back. His weathered face is still handsome, though. That famous wide mouth still shows about 48 shiny front teeth when he speaks; and he still has those sculpted cheekbones, that finely chiselled broken nose, that strong, flinty jaw, and those eyes that, though slightly watery and dimmed, are still a vivid blue. As for the hair… well, it fits.
Being immortalised on celluloid as a young demi-god must be the curse of the screen actor, mustn’t it? ‘Well, I’m certainly not going to be 30 again.’ Heston smiles, recognising that the question is a cue for the touching El Cid anecdote he relates in his autobiography. Again, he’s sure I’ll have read it but that I want to hear it from the Moose’s mouth regardless (Moose was his nickname when he was growing up in the Michigan backwoods. Now his friends call him Chuck. Except his wife who calls him Charlie. And his mother who called him Charlton. His staff call him Mr Heston.) Anyway: he has two (now grown-up) children, a son and a daughter, and when the daughter was eight, he (then 46) took her to see El Cid for the first time. Afterwards she wept and said: ‘Oh Daddy, you were so beautiful then.’ As he says this he emits a bass chuckle that makes the sofa tremble: ‘Well, I guess I still was beautiful then. But what are you gonna do? It happens to athletes. Happily, actors can go on working. Athletes just run into a wall.’
In his tennis pavilion, near the house, there is a life-size poster of Heston as El Cid. You can’t help wondering what goes through his mind when he contemplates it, especially in light of the story he goes on to tell. He was, he remembers, rehearsing in a production of Antony and Cleopatra that was just about to open at a Pittsburgh theatre. One dark winter night he went back to the theatre to check something on the stage and came across the huddled figure of the aged actress Lenore Ulric. Out of pity, she’d been given a job and cast – miscast – as Charmian, Cleopatra’s handmaiden. She knew, as everyone else in the cast knew, that she was too old for the part. Heston found her kneeling in front of a life-size painting of her younger self playing her most successful role, and crying like a lost child. ‘I slipped quietly out the stage door,’ he says, nodding his head in rueful sympathy.
There, thanks to the grace of the Old Testament God he sometimes plays, he hasn’t gone. Indeed, Heston says he has always kept his life in Perspective. ‘I did learn very early on that you shouldn’t take yourself as seriously as other people are prepared to take you,’ he says, compulsively patting his grey hair, presumably to prove it is real. ‘The main thing is the work. If they like it, it’s fine. If they don’t, well, what do they know?’ He keeps his feet on the ground by reminding himself of the Byzantine emperors who employed servants to stand behind them and whisper, ‘You, too, must die.’ It’s not that he suffers from Paradise Syndrome (a condition in which stars become hypochondriacs because their success has left them nothing to contemplate but ill health), but while he was filming Ben-Hur (in 1958) he was given to bouts of paranoia about dying young. They were triggered off by the sudden death that year of his fellow Hollywood star, Tyrone Power, who was only 45: ‘His death hung in my mind, resonating with my own mortality.’ Soon after, Heston hurt his hip in a fall – while trying to help Jesus carry his cross, as you do – and he felt sure he wasn’t going to make it to the end of the film.
Now he says he would like to die quickly – like Caesar, naturally – but not before he has had time to say some famous last words. This qualification is revealing. First, it shows how much Heston identifies with the heroic figures – kings, cardinals, generals, presidents – he has spent a career portraying on screen (‘One would like to hope that a tiny scrape of their greatness has rubbed off,’ is how he puts it). Second, it shows the extent to which the real world has collided in his imagination with the illusory world of the cinema. When this is put to him, he shrugs. ‘Unreal? I’ve been doing it for so long I feel at home with it. That’s normality.’ In his private twilight zone, he probably imagines there will be a camera rolling as he says his last words. After all, this is a man who once found himself talking to Tom Selleck at a bar and, seeing a shadow on Selleck’s face, though ‘Shit. I’m in his key-light.’
The anecdotage could go on, and on. It’s practised, perfect and charming. And, like much anecdotage, it serves instead of self-analysis. For it’s telling that Heston so often talks about his roles only in terms of how physically suited he was to play them. He doesn’t seem to believe that it is possible for an actor to play a character he does not identify with in these terms, just by acting. He says, for instance, that his height, deep voice and broken nose always precluded him from playing Hamlet: ‘Even when I was young enough it was never a part for me, I had the wrong persona.’
Try and imagine the big, strapping Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis being held back in this way and you will appreciate what an astonishing admission this is. The comment also shows, though, that Heston possesses an awareness of his own limitations. He probably knows he doesn’t have the subtlety to play Hamlet (although he does recite for me, quite stirringly, the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, as an illustration of how accessible ‘Old Will’s’ vocabulary is – only to ruin the effect by adding, ‘See? Not really very complicated stuff’). He once perceptively observed that some film directors actually consider intelligence in an actor a drawback. And, even more wryly, that: ‘Smoking a cigarette in a film can make you look cool and world-weary. Actually, I’ve learned to act determined and thoughtful. I can even throw in a dollop of anxious on top.’
Now, it may be that after many years of being gently ribbed by critics for his hamminess, he has learned to say such things to show he has a sense of irony. But I think not, for the first thing you notice about Heston is that he is neither precious nor pretentious but, rather, in possession of a lumbering sincerity. For example, when we discuss the dark, Freudian themes in Hamlet – sanity, guilt, self-doubt, shuffling off of mortal coils – I ask Heston if he couldn’t perhaps relate to the character of Hamlet by contemplating his own mortality. ‘No. Hamlet weighs up the advantages of killing Claudius as against killing himself. It has never crossed my mind to kill myself. Scots don’t do that [although Heston, somewhat provocatively, likes to refer to himself as a ‘Native American’, his mother’s side of the family was Scottish, and his father’s English]. They may think of killing someone else, though.’
Heston has played both Macbeth and Antony dozens of times, because he feels he looks the part. But what about King Lear? Now that Heston is of a certain age, surely he is perfect for the role? ‘As Olivier said, when you’re old enough to play Lear you’re not strong enough. Besides, I think you have to grow up with a role. I first played Macbeth when I was 14. I understand Macbeth. I understand Antony in both plays. But I don’t empathise with Lear. I just think, what is this idiot doing? Why is he doing this? A bit like Othello.’
Ay, as Hamlet would say, there’s the rub. Heston is probably the greatest epic hero Hollywood has ever produced. He has made more than 70 films and, alongside actors of the calibre of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, has performed in countless stage plays. He won an Oscar for best actor in a film which, to this day, still holds the record for most Oscars won (Ben-Hur, 11), and which, in the chariot race, includes one of the most dramatic action sequence ever filmed. Yet, at the media screening of Hamlet, the audience greeted Heston’s initial appearance with a titter.
Was this because he is so obviously wearing a syrup on his head? Was it because he starred in the Colbys (the Dynasty spin-off) as well as in dozens of mediocre films in which he was attacked by killer ants or taken prisoner by apes? Was it because, in recent years, he has been trying to lighten up his serious image by appearing on such programmes as The Dame Edna Experience and in such films as Wayne’s World? Or is it because he says he doesn’t take himself too seriously yet so obviously does, especially when it comes to his far right political opinions?
Certainly, it’s the seriousness factor – the lumbering sincerity factor – that lies behind the very public and very farcical feud Heston has been waging with the left-wing writer Gore Vidal over the past year. Vidal claims to have written a scene for Ben-Hur which, had it been in the final cut, would have explained the baffling rivalry between the Jewish Ben-Hur and his Roman rival Messala, played by Stephen Boyd: they had been teenage lovers and, when they meet again as adults, Messala wants to continue where they left off, but is spurned. Part of the reason Heston was so deeply rattled by this interpretation, I suspect, was that he identifies so strongly with the characters he plays. In some ways, the one he most resembles is Sir Thomas More (whom he played at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1987), a noble soul with the fatal flaw of innocence. Heston sees himself as – and surely is – the archetypal family man. That the straight and honourable hero he portrays in Ben-Hur might be considered homosexual is, for Heston, an abhorrent notion. And as if this were not bad enough, Vidal has rubbed salt into Heston’s whip welts by claiming that Boyd was allowed to know the homosexual subtext, but that the director decided not to let Heston in on it, for fear that he would fall apart. Vidal agreed, ‘awed by the thought of so much wood crashing to the ground.’
If Heston really didn’t take himself too seriously, he would have laughed the claim off. Instead, the naive, gentlemanly Heston decided to take on the street-fighting Vidal, describing him as ‘a tart, embittered man’ and firing off a letter of protest to the LA Times. When asked if he now has any regrets about rising to Vidal’s bait, Heston emits one of those bitter, mirthless laughs. ‘Poor Gore. Such…’ He trails off, remembers the Marquess of Queensbury rules, and recovers his air of resolution, superiority and dignity. ‘No. I don’t regret it because it’s so easy to discredit him. He is a member of the Screen Writer’s guild. If he wrote any of the script, he would have been given a credit for it. But he wasn’t. And how come he didn’t bring it up for 30 years? No. It puzzles me because Gore has a respectable reputation as an essayist and novelist. I don’t know why it’s suddenly so important to him.’
When I suggest that Vidal might conceivably have told the story out of mischief, Heston says: ‘Maybe. Or maybe he has a passion for me. Who knows? Maybe that’s the subtext!’ Now that’s a good joke, and the answer Heston should have given in the first place. But it still leaves you wondering: does Heston really get Vidal’s joke? Could it be that Heston is just so immune to malice and subterfuge, so decent, so, so solid, that Vidal’s point o’erthrows his noble mind by several inches? Or is it that he is smarting because he does get it and he is only too aware that the Olympian heroes he played in all those epics now seem crude, stylised and kitsch? Worse, he recognises that the point Vidal is making is that Heston – after years of playing characters who toss their heads, hold their chins high and leap from rock to rock in a leather thong – has, like the matinee idol Steve Reeves before him, become a gay icon.
Of course, Vidal’s joke only works, and wounds, because Heston is the all-American, gung-ho male. Politically, he is probably more reactionary and hawkish even than his good friend Ronald Reagan. Indeed, in America he is now almost as well known as a champion of the right to bear arms as he is for his acting. (He keeps about 40 firearms in his house, including a loaded one under his bed.) It was this reputation for rabid right-wingery that prompted the left-wing British journalist Christopher Hitchens to humiliate Heston on a live TV debate just before the Gulf War. Hitchens began by saying what an honour it was to be debating Middle Eastern politics with Moses himself. Then, suspecting that Heston was confusing Iraq with Iran, Hitchens challenged him to name the countries bordering Iraq. When Heston got them wrong, Hitchens said: ‘Before you support bombing a country off the map, perhaps you should pay it the compliment of finding out where it is.’ When Heston got angry at this, Hitchens retorted, ‘Keep your hairpiece on.’ Americans, Hitchens believes, still remember the debate because Heston was being so fatuous, complacent and self-satisfied. ‘But upon reflection,’ Hitchens tells me, ‘I feel a pang of regret because it was like humiliating your own father. To be fair to Heston, he has shown a sort of bovine courage over the years in the way that he has stuck to his convictions, even when it has meant alienating himself from the liberal Hollywood establishment.’
When asked why he thinks so many Hollywood actors are liberal, Heston says it is because they make their living from their emotions, being called upon to weep for someone about whom they care nothing by sheer technique – just like that old pro the Player King, in fact. Liberals, he believes, tend to be emotional (and therefore irrational) people. This seems a dangerous line to take, given the inevitable conclusion that, because Heston himself is anything but liberal, he must be an unemotional and therefore wooden actor. But, of course, he is emotional, although he would call it following his conscience, or his heart. In 1961, for instance, long before the civil rights movement had become a fashionable cause in Hollywood, Heston joined Martin Luther King on a protest march because, in his heart, he knew it was the right thing to do.
More recently, again because he knew that it was the right thing to do, Heston stood up to the black gangsta rap singer Ice-T in order to get his infamous record ‘Cop Killer’ banned (when Ice-T threatened to kill Heston, the actor just growled, ‘I’d like to see him try’). And even though he probably knew he would be ridiculed for missing the point, Heston criticised the violence in the films of Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. When people did indeed laugh and ask if he had not realised the films were black comedies, he just shrugged and said: ‘”Didn’t you get it?” is a devastating question. Cool people cannot bear ever not getting a joke.’
As if all this were not enough to be campaigning about, Heston is vehemently anti-abortion and opposed to feminists because he believes they are responsible for the break-up of the family. Feminists can’t be blamed, however, for the divorce of his own parents. ‘I was still a child,’ Heston recalls, ‘and the loss of my father affected me greatly. I dealt with it, but I became a solitary, private child.’ He says his parents’ divorce was a terrible, dark secret he never told anyone about, saying instead that his mother’s new husband was his father. This, he says, has left him shy to this day but he now has a public persona he can step into.
Perhaps it was the failure of his parents’ marriage that made him want to succeed so much with his own. He married Lydia, his college sweetheart, when he was 19 (after his first date, he tells me, he ran the three miles home along the dark streets shouting, ‘I love her, I love her,’ over and over again. ‘I did, too,’ he adds.) Almost uniquely among the grandees of Hollywood, the couple have remained happily married for 53 years. Again, unusually, they have lived in the same house for much of that time. Wife? House? Politics? Stick to your guns. That seems to be the Moose’s philosophy.
Lydia now appears for her morning swim. She is wearing a dressing gown, a bath hat and what looks like a facepack. ‘Hello,’ she says, waving cheerfully when she sees me. ‘Excuse my clown make-up. It’s just sunblock.’
It is time for Heston to make his way up to the tennis court where a photographer is waiting to take his picture. He is pretty nippy with his crutches. ‘Learned to handle them playing Long John Silver,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘Although that was only the one crutch.’
The outside of the house has a faded appearance, bleached by the years of intense sunlight. Alongside a faded brass chariot and horse in the yard there is a sandpit with the words ‘jack’s sandbox’ daubed on the side. Further along the road towards the pavilion there is a faded sign which reads: ‘Unauthorized visitors not welcome. Guard dog on duty. Proceed to house. Sound horn. Wait in car.’ Another faded sign, at the back of the pavilion, says in more friendly letters: ‘Do not enter this area. Santa and his elves are busy.’
All of this serves as a melancholic reminder that some of Heston’s fame has faded, too. Inside the pavilion there is an even more poignant symbol of this: a beautifully hand-stitched leather director’s chair with the name ‘Charlton Heston’ carved in it. While Heston waits outside for the shot to be set up, I run my fingers over the letters and think ‘The Charlton Heston used to sit in this chair. It should be in a museum. It must be worth a fortune to collectors of Hollywood memorabilia.’ I almost forget that the genuine article is standing only a few yards away.
Outside, the Charlton Heston is growing impatient waiting for the photographer to finish his light readings. He has only had to wait about two minutes but he has started looking theatrically at his watch, shaking his head and sucking in breath. You can tell he hates having his photograph taken or, at least, that after so many years in front of a camera, he is bored rigid by it. After another few seconds have been wasted, he announces that he has a dentist’s appointment in ten minutes. Root canal work. It has the desired effect. As the photographer’s young assistant nervously shows the Hollywood veteran where to sit he makes the mistake of warning him to watch out for the light cables. ‘One has seen cables before,’ Heston sighs under his breath. ‘One has seen cables.’
Once seated, Heston instinctively raises his chin, tosses his head and levels a look at the camera lens which is, yes, so fucking grand it gives you goosebumps.