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.’