David Starkey: An appointment with Dr Rude

Arrange to meet Britain's highest-profile historian and you never quite know who'll turn up, says Sholto Byrnes. Will it be the charming, erudite David Starkey, or his terrifying, hypercritical alter ego?
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The Independent Online

" I bet you've been here for some scandalous liaisons," says a hopeful David Starkey, as he takes in the discreet surroundings of the Franklin Hotel in Knightsbridge, where his chauffeur-driven Jaguar has just dropped him off. "Not yet," I reply. He cackles appreciatively. The television history man par excellence (his only rival is Simon Schama) revels in the personal detail, the human nugget that lets the light in on characters from dusty old documents, such as the "groom of the stool", about whom Starkey wrote his doctoral thesis.

Today, however, he has let it be known that he doesn't want to talk about his personal life, particularly his rather weird upbringing in Cumbria, as he feels he's done that quite enough. He wants to talk about his career as a historian, his forthcoming Channel 4 series, Monarchy, and - rather more than I'd been led to expect - about his book on the six wives of Henry VIII.

Two-thirds of the way through the interview, during which Starkey has been entertainingly tart, he nips off to the loo. On his return he has an announcement to make: "Now I'd like to talk about my book." He taps the paperback edition of Six Wives in front of him commandingly. My heart sinks. This doorstopper of a tome arrived only the day before, and I haven't read it.

We've already been discussing lots of the issues of Henry VIII's reign, I say. "Sort of, ha ha ha." His laughter has an unnerving quality to it. "I was assuming you'd read it and had lots of questions." I tell him that I thought he wanted to concentrate on the TV series. "Ahhh, right. Despite the fact that it was explained very clearly what the interview was to be about. Sorry, we are really at cross purposes. I'm sorry to be awkward. I'm not really being awkward, but I am disappointed."

Being told you have disappointed David Starkey must be akin to the feeling early Christians experienced when they found themselves being eyeballed by a pride of lions. This is a man for whom the phrase "doesn't suffer fools gladly" could have been coined. The "rudest man in Britain", as the Daily Mail called him, is famed for the viciousness of his putdowns, such as when he said of the former Archdeacon of York on The Moral Maze: "Doesn't he genuinely make you want to vomit - his fatness, his smugness, his absurdity?"

Although off duty he is utterly personable, he is now in professional mode: what he calls his "Dr Rude" alter ego, a magnification of Starkey's natural argumentativeness, which he puts down to a Quaker upbringing of "wonderful obtuseness" whereby the popular opinion was regarded as being invariably wrong. It is a mantle he has gladly worn on his path to success, and one which, once donned, turns him into the most unforgiving of interlocutors. I brace myself for the onslaught.

"We've done the usual voyage around David Starkey," he continues in a tone that suggests he could explode at any minute, "and that's boring, that's a boring subject. The only reason why anyone will remember anything about me will be because of what I've written. You began interestingly, didn't you, with the argument about cheapening or sensationalising" - actually, he brought that up, but now does not seem the time to point it out - "and I think the ultimate form of sensationalising is reducing the work that people do to little biographical sketches. That is a form of trivialisation. You obviously haven't read the book."

I would love to have done, I say, desperately trying to mollify him. But the cannon have not ceased. "I think the great difference between here and America is that if you're invited to do an interview, you can guarantee that the person will at least pretend to have read the book."

If I'd pretended to have read the book he'd have seen through it, I say. "In a second, yes. So I give you marks for honesty." Would he still like to talk about it? "Well, yes," he says, tetchy but more reasonable now. "But it's slightly odd to interview oneself. Doesn't that make the journalist redundant? Would you like me to write the interview? I'll get the fee. And mine will be bigger than yours."

This witticism pleases him greatly, not least because the money he's made is a source of unbounded pleasure to him. As a scholarship boy at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, the plaudits of dons, notably the great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton (uncle of Ben), were easily his, but a subsequent academic career failed to bring the financial comforts he had always lacked. A frail child who suffered from polio, his friends were books, and the family were not well off. His father Robert, a foreman at a washing-machine factory, was "blocked out" of the young David's life by a monstrously dominant mother who scrubbed floors for a living. "I swore at that point," he has said, "that no one associated with me would ever do that again."

He is happy to admit that the pursuit of riches is one of his main motivations. With two houses in Highbury, north London, where he lives with his partner James, and with bestselling books and more TV series on the way (per hour, he is the highest-paid presenter on television), he has much to be pleased with. His former colleagues at the LSE must look on with envy at his chauffeur and Jag.

Not that he misses them one bit. "Much of what passes for serious intellectual discussion in the universities is mere word-spinning. It's utterly self-referential," he says. "It's a form of exquisite masturbation, and the LSE is more masturbatory than most. I came to feel more and more irritated while I was there.

"The sort of history at the centre of the LSE is the kind of history I was brought up with at Cambridge. There's a moment in one of the PG Wodehouse novels where Bertie describes aunt calling to aunt like mastodon across the primeval swamp. The history I was taught was abstract noun calling to abstract noun. It was class, it was bureaucracy, it was the military revolution, it was economic growth; there wasn't a human being or a human motive in sight."

For Starkey, history is all about human beings; it is human actions, great or small, that cause events. Which brings us to his thesis on the cleaner of the royal posterior, whose job turns out to have been of far greater significance than one might imagine. "It was rather nicely described as my doctoral faeces, because it was the study of the groom of the stool, whose essential function was to wipe the royal bottom."

Wasn't that a rather limited area of research? "No, no, it's a study really of the Alastair Campbells and Jonathan Powells, a study of the inner circles around the monarch." Presumably the latter pair, who have been two of Tony Blair's closest advisers, don't go that far. "It wouldn't surprise me at all," replies Starkey. "I'm sure they shower together. The whole thing has got that awful male, buddy element about it." He seems to find this far more repulsive than the duties of the groom of the stool. "They probably play squash, you know. Eeeeuh. Yuk. Yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk."

Evidently under the impression that I'm finding this too scatological to take seriously, Starkey brings me to attention. "The groom of the stool is absolutely central. He is the head of the royal private service, he is in charge of the privy chamber. I'm being serious when I'm talking about Campbell and Powell. The prime minister is the elected absolute monarch. And whenever you have that, you have a court. Presumably you looked with some interest at the transcripts of the Hutton inquiry? They reveal that fevered atmosphere of intimacy, that use of foul language all of the time, the extraordinary competitive boyishness - exactly like the inner court of Henry VIII.

Whatever the subject, a conversation with Dr Starkey is strongly reminiscent of the tutorial. He often corrects me, tells me to define my terms, picks me up when I mention something we've talked about earlier in slightly inaccurate terms, and reminds me of my failure over Six Wives: "No, you haven't read the book, have you?" At one point he orders me to list the houses Gladstone occupied in London.

In the course of one of my questions, I accidentally home the Starkey sights on to DJ Taylor, the biographer of Orwell and Thackeray. Some have accused Starkey of overstretching the parallels between the 16th century and today, I say. "Who?" asks Starkey. DJ Taylor, I reply. According to Taylor, comparing Henry VIII's various wives to Princess Diana and the Duchess of York is nonsense. "And who is DJ Taylor?" A journalist and writer, I begin. "So a real expert in history." A biographer of Orwell, I add. "I'm always interested in the authorities that you're citing," continues Starkey sarcastically. "So he knows so much about the Tudors that he can tell me that I'm wrong. I think it's very interesting that you cite a novelist and... you know, whoever he is.

"Most serious historians don't have this feeling about me at all. What I use current references to do is to explain and excite and communicate; the Fergie was probably a reference to Catherine Howard, who was a highly sexed, plump, spoiled self-indulgent young woman who behaved outrageously in a royal position. That's all I'm saying. I'm not saying that she was the step-child of an Argentinian polo player."

But Starkey will not let my unfortunate reference to DJ Taylor lie. "What people like Mr Taylor object to are that my biographies are bestsellers and theirs aren't. I don't want my books just to be read by 10 other academics." Later areas of discussion are punctuated by "pace Mr Taylor" and "as I'm sure Mr Taylor would point out".

He is not, however, the only target of Starkey's magnificent scorn. Christians - "they make the best liars; they are so convinced that they're right that they are above petty things like truth" - and politicians come in for plenty, too. Tony Blair, he says, "disgusts" him. "I'll be truthful: I wish that the purple powder [recently thrown at the Prime Minister from the gallery of the House of Commons] had been something a little more unpleasant." He may be an enthusiastic chronicler of monarchy, but that doesn't mean he has much time for the Windsors. He notes their "unfortunate tendency to baldness" and marks the Queen down as being "narrow-minded, deeply unexciting, and vastly over-conventional".

The only person for whom Starkey expresses any admiration is Denis Healey, who is the last person to have bested him in a debate. That was nine years ago. Has he ever lost an argument since? "No."

After the tape recorder is switched off, he softens and is charming company. As he leaves he apologises for having been hard on me over my not having read his book. "I think it's good you got to see a bit of Dr Rude, though," he says. He smiles wickedly as he waits for the driver and limousine. They are paid for, I reflect, not by Dr David Starkey, but by Dr Rude.