The dumb-waiters either side of the pink marble fireplace speak eloquently of the man Dr David Starkey believes himself to be. So do the fresh carnations, the dainty silver spoons arranged on a side table, and the mildewed pages of Shakespeare left lying open near the antique magnifying glass. Here, they say, is an aesthete, a history don, a dandy, even, who can afford to surround himself with 1830s opulence.
In vain does the eye search this drawing room in Highbury, north London, for a hint of Starkey’s northern, working-class roots – for a grainy, sepia photograph, perhaps, that will show the lonely lad clumping down a cobbled street in baggy shorts, flat cap and the callipers he had to wear to correct his club feet. And this absence of pathos is surprising, for the 52-year-old Starkey generally likes you to know how tough he had it as a child. ‘The early years,’ he reflects, ‘are when we become what we are.’ So, we must conclude, it is the early years which explain why Starkey was dubbed ‘the rudest man in Britain’ by the Daily Mail. And it is the early years which allow him to get away with being the intellectual bully who, at five past nine on Thursday morning – when the Moral Maze returns to Radio 4 – will electrify us with his wit and poison us with his venom.
Today, though, the monster is purring, his claws are withdrawn This, you suspect, is the real David Starkey: friendly, incorrigible, a good laugh. Like the oak-framed French Charles X chair which he sits upon, his robust nature is disguised by a delicate appearance: neatly pressed cords, a lamb’s-wool cardigan and knotted silk cuff links. Perched on his retroussé nose are tortoiseshell Armani glasses that match the cornelian intaglio ring on his finger. His back-combed hair is silver, his hands are small and, when offered in greeting, warm to the touch. Starkey’s polished brown leather shoes are small, too, and, when he is concentrating, he crosses his legs and points one of them at you, like a terrier pointing a cocked foreleg as it picks up a scent.
It is inadvisable to mention size in Starkey’s company. When the Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson did this – addressing Starkey as ‘little man’, twice in the same show – Starkey went into flame-thrower mode: ‘The only things I have that are smaller than yours,’ he hissed, ‘are my liver and my nose.’
But he doesn’t really mind being called a monster. Indeed, when he is, he emits a wheezy, almost dirty chuckle. ‘Monster? Well, I’m very well aware that all the combative head-butting exhibitionism could be construed in that way. But I just see it as a role I play on the programme. Michael Buerk [the chairman] is the long-suffering parent and I am the naughty juvenile lead. Obviously, I’m a licensed fool, but I don’t think I go over the top. I’ve never been sued for libel, I suppose because most of what I say is true!’
This is a cue for him to remind us of his greatest hits: the time he infuriated Dame Jill Knight, a witness on The Moral Maze, by asking her how ‘ladies in hats’ like her are now the central defendants of the Christian tradition; and the occasion he said of the Archdeacon of York, another witness, ‘Doesn’t he genuinely make you want to vomit? His fatness, his smugness, his absurdity.’ He recalls these moments with obvious relish, over-enunciating every word but talking with the haste of the insecure person who fears his audience will walk away if given the chance by a pause for breath.
It’s a memorable voice: managing somehow to be clipped and rolling at the same time. Starkey describes it as being that of a ‘high duchess’ and says he picked it up from listening to the Home Service. Before learning to lengthen his vowels, he adds, he sounded ‘as camp as custard’, his accent stranded somewhere between the flat, soft Lancashire vowels of Oldham, where his parents came from, and the coarse, almost Scandinavian northern English of Kendal, where they moved in the late Thirties. Even now, there are some words (like ‘one’ pronounced ‘wun’) which, he says, always betray him. The speed and pitch of Starkey’s delivery also has a lot to do with the state of excitement he works himself into when engaging in debate. On The Moral Maze he has been known to jump up and down in his seat in anticipation of his turn to speak. And, when his turn does come, the programme’s ringmaster has to use the words ‘David! Please! Shut up!’ on him, like a whipcrack.
This excitement – the terrier bristling at the scent – is one of several incongruities in Starkey’s psychological make-up. He prides himself on his unsentimental rationalism yet always seems to be at the mercy of his emotions. Though easily bored he is a creature of habit who reads the same paper every day and never varies what he has for breakfast. Though not superstitious, he is obsessive about locking his house, always having to go back to check. Starkey sees no contradiction in being an emotional rationalist. ‘Most academics don’t have enough passion,’ he says with a clap of his hands. ‘That’s their trouble. Their desiccation chills the blood.’
Yet the frequency with which Starkey slips into a display of histrionics leads some to suspect that it is all a con trick: that he is a man who can feel completely indifferent about a subject yet still argue its case lucidly and with apparent conviction, simply because he enjoys the intellectual challenge. ‘Of course, there is an element of that,’ Starkey admits. ‘I mean, before the programme, Michael will ring up and ask me what my view is, and if I say, “I don’t really have one,” he will say, “Well, could you sort of go from there?” But I often don’t realise quite how strongly I feel about an issue until we start discussing it.’
Unlike the other panellists, Starkey doesn’t read his opening remarks from a script. Nor does he do much preparation for the programme, preferring instead to sit in the bath and empty his head by humming an inane tune. This, he says, is what enables him to react spontaneously. Sometimes even he is surprised by his reactions. He recalls a programme in which a doctor was talking in a coldly abstract way about euthanasia. ‘I found myself shaking with anger because I suddenly realised that the medical profession was prepared to commit an act of monstrous, medieval cruelty – to parch and starve a man to death rather than give him a merciful shot of poison – just to preserve its clean conscience. People like that who use the word “principle” all the time are dangerous.’
Starkey is a right-wing, homosexual libertarian – ‘Having to come out as a Tory’, he laughs, ‘was almost more embarrassing than coming out as gay.’ As such, he believes that economic and personal freedom are sacrosanct. As an atheist, he believes there can be no moral absolutes. ‘All our assumptions about human behaviour have changed beyond recognition within living memory,’ he says. ‘The world I knew as a boy with all its certainties has been thrown away, but people like George Carey just can’t see this.’
Starkey has another belief – one he shares with Dr Johnson – that the purpose of talking is to win. In order to achieve victory, Starkey has no qualms about attacking his opponent personally – preferably by focusing on their physical absurdity – as a way of attacking that person’s ideas. By turning your opponent into a symbol of absurdity, Starkey believes, you undermine the credibility of his argument. Another technique Starkey uses is auto-suggestion: he will bamboozle you into thinking you agree with him by constantly summarising your arguments for you. ‘Your point surely is this…’ he will say. Or, ‘I thought we were talking here about…’ Or, his favourite: ‘But really, all we are saying – are we not? – is…’
Sir Geoffrey Elton, Starkey’s history tutor and mentor at Cambridge, once accused his former star pupil of inventing history. And although, to put the comment in context, this was said while the two men were having a feud in which each ridiculed the other’s methodology, it does, if true, reveal another side to Starkey’s competitive nature. If winning – being proved right – means twisting facts to fit theories, then so be it. Starkey, of course, would call this being imaginative in the way you interpret historical data. Wherever the emphasis should lie, you do get the impression that Starkey sometimes uses logic like a conjurer uses a prop: to distract your attention away from what he is really doing with the other hand. If you concentrate hard, though, you can almost see how this trick – getting you to agree with him – works.
Starkey’s specialist subject, for instance, is Henry VIII: he has written two books on him and has another two coming out this year. Because the state and the church of Henry’s day would be unrecognisable to us, Starkey argues, we cannot judge Henry’s behaviour by our standards. What we can do, however, is understand how the young, idealistic, handsome Henry became the grotesque monster of legend by examining the close relationship he had with his mother and the effect divorce had on his family – two very Freudian, and therefore very 20th-century perspectives. What we can also do is empathise with Henry. Empathy, after all, is what allows the atheist to understand the Christian, and the homosexual to understand the heterosexual. Starkey believes that all men secretly want to be like Henry, that all men want to have the same power and the same disregard for marriage vows. Yet ask Starkey if he would have liked to have been Henry and he says, ‘Well, there, you see, I’m not heterosexual, so it doesn’t apply to me.’ When he realises what he’s said, he laughs that wicked laugh and adds: ‘Empathy can be deployed with utter ruthlessness. The ruthlessness of self-contradiction!’
Ruthless? Perhaps Starkey does want to be Henry VIII, after all. More likely though, he wants to be Samuel Johnson. There are a number of similarities. Like Dr Johnson, Starkey believes that to treat your adversary with respect is to give him an advantage to which he is not entitled. Like Johnson, he prefers pontification to conversation. Like Johnson, he is a celebrated wit and shameless self-publicist. Can he see the resemblance? ‘Oh, don’t be silly, though it’s very sweet of you to suggest it. I’m not fat enough, not smelly enough, not sexually tormented enough, not financially unsuccessful enough. The one thing we do have in common, I suppose, is that we are not nice.’
There is another likeness: Starkey’s intellectual arrogance knows no bounds. He says, for instance, that when he went up to Cambridge, on a scholarship, he soon realised that he was ‘much cleverer than all those people from privileged backgrounds’. And indeed he probably was: gaining a First, then a doctorate, then a fellowship from Fitzwilliam College before taking up a lectureship in history at the London School of Economics. Even to this day, Starkey can’t think of anyone who intimidates him intellectually.
Within walking distance of the house there is a cosy restaurant where the waitress is a friend of David Starkey’s and where Rod Steward plays in the background. In between forkfuls of roast cod, Starkey talks about his parents’ ‘respectful poverty’. His father, whom he still calls at ten o’clock every morning, was a skilled labourer on a breadline wage. His mother, now dead, was a puritanical authority figure who, he says, made Mrs Thatcher look like a primary school mistress. She took his coming out very badly – it was 1972 and Starkey was a research student at the time – and he now believes it would have been kinder not to tell her, not least because he said some unpleasant things that were never really taken back before she died. ‘She was a female Pygmalion,’ he says. ‘She would always get cross when the creation didn’t do exactly what the creator wanted.’ He adds that, far from being proud of her son’s fame, or infamy, she would have been annoyed by it. The only programmes she saw him appear in were a series of television debates he did in the Seventies with Russell Harty, and these she thought ‘utterly beneath contempt’.
Perhaps the memory of his mother’s contempt is the only thing that prevents Starkey’s intellectual superiority complex from translating into condescension on the Sunday morning phone-in programme he hosts on Talk Radio. Although he once referred to the show as ‘the cliché-laden conversational equivalent of the typical prizes you will find in a real lucky dip; the cheap plastic toys, the fluorescent earrings, the badly plated nail-clippers’, he says he never talks down to his callers and always appreciates the raw slabs of experience they offer. ‘Sometimes, though, I get deeply bored. I sit there thinking why I am doing this? One knows why, of course, it’s the cheque at the end of the show.’
But money is not the only motive. Although Starkey has been with the same partner for four years, he used to be what he describes as ‘naturally promiscuous’. He now channels this promiscuity into his career, working as a constitutional expert for, seemingly, every national newspaper and every national TV and radio station.
Another motive is his craving for publicity, a condition which, he says, gives him an intuitive understanding of the Princess of Wales’s personality. It is, he says, precisely her isolation and inner emptiness that makes her such an adept media manipulator. Asked if he feels any affinity with the Princess, Starkey tucks his hands behind his head, as if about to do a sit-up, and says, ‘The attention-seeking of a Dr Johnson is different from the posturing of a Casanova.’ His legs are not comparable with the Princess’s, he adds, but he believes they are both in the fight for the ever-changing spotlight.
When asked what the nature of the inner emptiness is in his own case, Starkey talks of the loneliness of the only child, of being significantly disabled (‘though it’s all corrected now’) and of the discovery that public performance is a way you can dominate others and impose yourself. He doesn’t think it has anything to do with not having children, though. On the contrary, he says, he satisfies the desire to shape a character and recognise yourself in others through his students. ‘You develop quasi-parental relations,’ he says. ‘I, for instance, was Lucifer to Sir Geoffrey Elton’s God, the best beloved before the fall. And it’s no coincidence that the Germans refer to their supervisor as Doktor-vater, Doctor-father. Often my own students call me first with news. Only yesterday a former student of mine, now at Harvard, rang to say that a job interview had gone well.’
Nor does he believe that his emptiness stems from his not yet having produced for posterity a truly great academic work. ‘No,’ he says, propping his chin up on two fists. ‘Look at Johnson. People don’t remember him for the mountainous novels he wrote on moral discourse or for the immensely tedious verse over which he sweated blood. And no one reads his English dictionary any more. People remember him for his extraordinary personality and for the way that personality was captured by Boswell. All that most academics leave is an unread tome and a crumbling hall of residence named after them. My favourite is Dame Lillian Penson Hall. Dame who?’
Will Starkey be remembered for his ‘extraordinary personality’ or is he just a colourful firework that illuminates the night sky for an instant and then fizzles out? Certainly there are many who think his rhetorical preening, his buffoonery and his arch savagery undermine the quality of his argument. Equally, you could argue that it helps to drive his message home. Either way, criticism has never really bothered Starkey because even being disliked is better than being ignored. ‘I never watch television,’ he shrugs. ‘And I keep the world of the media outside my house. I have a frontier. It would be stupid to say I never find things hurtful, though. In a funny way we always want to be liked. The last thing I want is for me to do something publicly and for people not to remember it.’ We still remember Johnson for the ‘good talks’ in which he ‘tossed and gored several people’, for the way he ‘yoked by violence together’ the most heterogeneous ideas, so perhaps future generations will remember Starkey for what he had to say.
A few days after the interview, a tiny black and white photograph arrives in the post. It is from Starkey and it shows him as a boy in shorts, a cheeky smile playing on his face. It is not at all monstrous, nor is it imbued with pathos. The early years are indeed, it seems, when we become what we are.
This interview was written in 1997. In 2000 David Starkey wrote and presented a Channel 4 series on Queen Elizabeth I that beat Friends, Frasier and Da Ali G show to win the war of the ratings. His book accompanying the series remained in the bestseller list for nearly a year. In 2002 he beat Cilla Black to become the highest paid presenter on television, earning £70,000 an hour.