David Starkey: The history man
Britain's highest-paid historian is also acclaimed as 'Britain's rudest man'. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. So how would he get on with our intrepid interviewer?
Saturday 09 December 2006
The thing about the historian David Starkey - and God, he's going to absolutely hate me for saying this (he does have his reputation for being rude and a brute to think of) - is that he is just such a dream date. We had a terrific evening, or at least I did. I probably bored the arse off him, poor fellow, but he didn't bore me for a minute and there was champagne and wine and I got quite tipsy, although only in the most professional way, and then it was a lift home in his Daimler with its luxurious, cream leather interior and a friendly, if slightly unsteady embrace when we part. Smashing. Were you ever truly, I ask at one point, "the rudest man in Britain", as the epithet had it in the mid- Nineties, or was it all for effect? "I suppose in those days there was a sense of trying to make my mark. I did have things to prove." And now? "I no longer do. One has become a very cuddly teddy bear!" I'm not convinced he is that cuddly yet. He still loves the remark he made about the former Archdeacon of York George Austin on Radio 4's The Moral Maze. It went: "His fatness, his smugness, his pomposity, doesn't it make you want to vomit?" He says now: "It's still a good line. You have two very Anglo Saxon words - 'fat' and 'smug' - and then you have the rolling 'pomposity' to round it off. Ha, Ha!" David is as thrilled with this remark as he ever was. His bitchiness, his campness, his vanity, doesn't it just make you want to whoop? It does me.
We start at 8pm, at a restaurant in Kensington, west London. He's seated at the bar when I arrive with his partner of 12 years, James. "Champagne?" David offers. Don't mind if I do, I say, in the most professional way. James and David have just been to Olympia, to an auction salesroom to look at some furniture. They're currently doing up their newly acquired second home in Kent. "It's not a country house at all. It looks as though it's migrated from Richmond or perhaps Spitalfields. It's the classic Georgian double f fronted: red brick; straight parapet; wisteria across the front." Are you Farrow and Ball-ing like loons? I ask. "Yes, of course," says David. Can I take it as read you are not an Ikea man? Not at all, he says. "All our glassware and china is from Ikea. It's very good for nightlights too. Candles do come cheap there." They are also after bath-taps. David says he's never needed bath taps before and do I have any idea how expensive they are? "I'll have to work for several minutes to pay for them," he says. Don't you mean almost several minutes?, I counter. He laughs. He is pleased. He has never affected any kind of distaste for money. When I later ask, why history?, he says that when he was a boy his best subjects were actually physics, chemistry and maths. "But my problem was I'm not a natural mathematician. The only time I'm really interested in numbers is when they have a pound sign in front of them." David, I say, the only time I'm interested in numbers is when they have a pounds-off sign in front of them. "Deborah," he says, "we move in very different worlds."
When I said he was a dream date I didn't also mean that he couldn't be wonderfully tart and withering. I don't think he'd ever forgive me if I didn't point that out. He is certainly sniffy about some of my brilliant questions. Hard to believe, I know, but there you are. David, if you could time travel back to witness some historical event, which would it be? "Questions like that are very jolly but they just don't cut," he says. They don't? "No. The whole point of being an historian is that you haven't witnessed events. Reading events through multiple lenses, through several eyewitness accounts, is much more interesting." So you wouldn't want to go back and witness creation, for example. "No." Not even if there was actually somewhere to watch it from. "NO!" What about the crucifixion of Christ? "I'm sure it was pretty horrible, but it's what people made of it that's important." David, shall I stop this line of questioning? "YES!"
We drink our champagne. James, a book publisher and designer, is 30 years younger than David and a cute redhead. David is 61 and a little tubby, but gives off a sense of such stocky energy and power he's not very teddy bear. He's more like one of those compact, pent-up dogs you see in the park with muzzles on. Grrrrrr! As it happens, David and James now have a dog, a chocolate Labrador called Ledger. Or is it Leger? They're not sure. He was called Seal when they first bought him at a year old, and they've only just renamed him. "We're not sure how to spell it, whether there is a 'd' in it or not," says David. "We consulted him but he refused to say." "Well," says James, "there's a 'd' on his passport so we'd better go with that." They are nuts for this dog. They went somewhere recently where there was a toy Pug and you should have seen Ledger.
David: "It was a ludicrous little thing but Ledger reacted to it like a real dog."
James: "He was very, very upset that it wouldn't play."
David: "He's terribly, terribly sociable."
A bit of a child substitute? David says he's occasionally fantasised about having children but, when it comes down to it, he'd have been a lousy parent. "Too aggressive, too self-centred." Yes, Ledger is a substitute and a very adequate one at that. "I find myself talking to Ledger in exactly the way I would talk to a child. No, no, no! Good boy! Good boy!" I'm not sure that is how you talk to a child, exactly, although I imagine, if you did, it would be good at sitting and coming to heel in no time.
James departs. He has to go back to their Highbury home in north London to sort out some stuff that needs taking to Kent. "Give Ledger my love!" David calls out after him.
We go to our table. Once seated I tell him truthfully - a first, I admit - that, not being a non-fiction kind of person, I'd dreaded having to read his book, Monarchy, as well as watching the accompanying TV series on Channel 4 (Monday, 9pm) but you know what? I really enjoyed them. The book, particularly (which hasn't a single footnote, hurrah!) rattles along brilliantly. He is a wonderfully lucid writer and is happy that I think so. "You can make difficult subjects very comprehensible so long as you understand them yourself and providing you can write clearly. So much of academic writing is wilfully obscure. It tries to exclude whereas I don't think there is any shame in including people."
Does history matter? He says it does. "As a good, free market Thatcherite, if you can make a good living out of it, then it must." And that's it? "I also think that a politician with no sense of history, like Blair, is the equivalent of a mental defective. History is a collective experience and not to share is to suffer from a kind of Alzheimer's. It makes you autistic, unthinking." He hates Blair. "I encountered Blair whilst he was still shadow secretary of state for home affairs ... I thought he was shallow and silly then and nothing has ever changed my judgement." He totally rates Mandelson, though. OK, only joking. He says: "He's the kind of man who is only convincing when he tells an obvious lie. And New Labour from the very beginning was founded on a lie. The third way is a lie." He adored Thatcher. "Astonishing woman. Knew exactly what she wanted." What about the people who suffered under her, though? "I fear that is what politics is about. There will always be winners and losers."
I let him order the wine. He studies the list. "Ohhh," he exclaims excitedly. Have you spotted something, David? "What's your budget?" he asks. Oh, I say, isn't this on you? I then tell him I'm only teasing, but I think I had him worried for a minute. "Would it be awfully naughty," he asks, "if I ordered the Château Cantermerle?" As I can't see the list I've no idea what the price is, but what the hell. "It's the wine we had on James's first birthday," he adds. David! I exclaim. "The first birthday after we f got together," he says. "I'm not that much of a cradle snatcher. Shall we have it? Do you mind?" I say: go for it, Dave. He does love fine things. On one finger he wears an ancient Carnelian cameo ring, with the head of the writer Sheridan engraved on it. He bought it when the TV work first started rolling in. It was his first expensive purchase. And how did you feel, when you put it on? "It was like my Rolex. You know, that vulgar moment of: gosh, I've made it." I don't know about slipping on Rolexes, being more of a loser myself, but I salute his vulgarity all the same.
He does seriously love money. He says everyone expects academics to be sheepish on the subject. "There's a lovely story about a dear old professor who appeared on Radio 3 in the Forties and at the end of the programme he said, very modestly: 'Do tell me what the fee is'. They said: 'Oh, it's three guineas'. He said he thought that very reasonable, and wrote them a cheque on the spot." David is not sheepish. "With books, I was one of the first people to stamp my feet and say look, come on, this book is going to sell an awful lot, I want to be paid properly. Ditto with Channel 4 and the TV series. It was going to be successful, lots of people were going to watch it, so why shouldn't I be paid properly?" He signed a £2million deal with Channel 4 in 2002. His first TV break, by the way, was as a regular on some Russell Harty discussion programme. Did Russell ever try to seduce you? "God no," he cries. "He was into a very different type. He liked little nose-picking boys with pustules."
He grew up on a council estate in Kendal, Cumbria, where his mother, Elsie, cleaned floors for a living while his father, a sweet-sounding man called Robert, worked as a foreman in a washing-machine factory. He always describes his mother as both "wonderful" and "monstrous". She was wonderful in that she gave him his ambition, his drive, his self-belief. She was monstrous in that - fiercely intelligent herself, yet intellectually frustrated - she lived through David. He had to achieve. Luckily, he was a precociously clever child. Did he know it? You bet. He says he knew by the time he was three, maybe three and a half. "I have this early memory of crossing the bridge from where we lived to the main town of Kendal and my mother meeting someone she vaguely knew. And this person, as older ladies tend to do to little boys, said: 'What did you do this morning?' And this little boy looks up and says: 'I helped my mother make a suet pudding. This is how you make a suet pudding ...' And this awful bugger gave her all the details about how you made it, what you rubbed in, how you rolled it up in muslin, how you tie the muslin, and how it was simmering away and we'd timed our journey into town just long enough to enable us to get back in time ..." He can still recall the look of astonishment on the woman's face.
He always wanted out. Out of the council house. Out from that life. He recalls a holiday with his parents, somewhere in the Lake District. "I was wearing one of those dreadful Pac-a-macs that get more wet inside than out and I actually remember thinking: I WANT OUT. So I was prepared for the sacrifice." Which was? He never got to be a proper teenager, he says. He had to work towards Cambridge instead. "For me, there was only one place to come in any examination, and that was first." He sailed into Cambridge on a scholarship, gaining a first, a Ph.D. and a Fellowship, but after eight years he moved to the London School of Economics, mostly because he was attracted to the London gay scene. "Oh, that magic moment of coming to London and someone taking your pants down for the first time." They didn't at Cambridge? "No, very little of that sort of thing went on there at that time."
When did you first realise you were gay? "You had inklings at school. You lusted after boys in swimming trunks but had no idea what it meant." He says he had his teenage years in his thirties and forties. He was wildly promiscuous. "I had many memorable moments on Hampstead Heath. They were like scenes from a Midsummer Night's Dream." Were there any repercussions? "Occasional visits to the clap clinic, which was inevitable. Do I regret it? No. Am I pleased I went out and did it? Yes." Was it a relief to settle down with James and not have to go on the pull anymore? "Yes, of course it was. But whereas James is one of those people who never enjoyed the gay scene, I loved it." Do James's parents approve of the relationship? Not really, no. "His father is neutral but his mother is passionately opposed, rather as my mother was."
He told his mother he was gay in the early Seventies. She could never accept it. Does he wish, now, he'd pretended otherwise, if only for her lifetime? "There are moments, in retrospect, yes, of course, but remember, it was in the first days of gay lib and everything was much more strident then. Also, there is the desire to break free, which can involve cruelty. You have to define yourself on your own terms even if other people get hurt." She died in 1977. Would she have been proud of what you've achieved since? Absolutely not, he says. "She'd probably say I'd wasted my talent. She'd have liked me to have become a Regis professor at Cambridge or something. She thought the media was silly and parasitic and would have been deeply contemptuous."
It's midnight by now, and time to go. So it's off in the Daimler driven by his driver, Dennis. We drop David first. I get to pat Ledger. I give David that tipsy, professional hug. Then Dennis takes me home. "Is David a good payer?" I ask. "Oh, he doesn't pay," says Dennis. "He doesn't?"I query. "He invoices the TV or publishing companies and they pay." The wine, by the way, was £70. A cheeky little number, as he is.
'Monarchy, From The Middle Ages To Modernity', is published by Harper Press, £20. To order the book at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897
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