So that's the real Dr Rude

David Starkey seems to enjoy being abusive but is the LSE don's dripping vitriol just a gimmick?
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DAVID STARKEY recently called the Princess of Wales a man-eater, and sneered at - and in front of - the Archdeacon of York, the Venerable George Austin: "Doesn't he genuinely make you want to vomit; his fatness, his smugness, his absurdity?" He dismissed Dame Jill Knight as a lady-in-a-hat, and when she protested that she doesn't wear hats, replied: "You sound as if you do." The Daily Mail asked if he was the rudest and most obnoxious man in Britain, and concluded that, yes, he was.

When Dr Starkey isn't queenily over-enunciating on Radio 4's The Moral Maze, he's discussing what he calls "cannabeese" on his new Saturday morning show on Talk Radio UK, or popping up in the Sun to denounce Diana - "Like a schoolgirl on heat ... she abuses men not with a rolling pin, but with phone calls" - dripping vitriol, as often as not, less on ideas than on (supposed) defects of person and personality. He isn't above calling a Moral Maze witness who puts a coherent argument with which he happens to disagree "an infinitely silly person". He told Paul Johnson (who admittedly called him a little man) that he thought "the only parts of my body that were smaller than his were my nose and my liver". Bearing in mind, he says to me, "that you are confronted by this huge blotched cauliflower - I mean the nose; God knows what the liver looks like - this worked wonderfully".

On the radio, especially on the febrile, often infantile Moral Maze, he comes across as supercilious, even loathsome. So I turned up on his doorstep half expecting to be greeted with a barrage of insults aimed at my bodily imperfections. What I got was a tour of his house (which must be one of the finest, most faithfully preserved and restored Victorian domestic interiors in London) with enthusiastic descriptions of marbled fireplaces and the uncovering of the original tiles in the front path. David Starkey turns out to be a delightful raconteur, relishing stories which you sense he has honed for maximum barbed mischief.

Very well then, if he isn't going to be rude, if he's going to be engaged and engaging, let us address the issue of naked ambition. Dr Starkey gives the powerful impression of being possessed by an unseemly eagerness for personal publicity. Here is a don at the London School of Economics, an expert on Henry VIII's household, a man highly regarded in his field. What is he doing messing about as one of Talk Radio's schlock jocks?

It's not an original question, of course; he recalls "a nice little exchange with someone at the LSE who made some derogatory remark. I said `you appear on the box fairly frequently, too', and he answered `yes, but I contrive to do it while retaining the respect of colleagues'." And he dissolves into high-pitched giggles, just adoring the daft pomposity.

He is frank about the attractions of Talk Radio: the terms were generous, and he enjoys having a media career; this was a chance to run his own programme. It should perhaps be noted that the Regius professorship at Oxford - the senior history chair in the country - pays "the glorious sum of £37,000. So when you occasionally get people saying, `how could you contaminate the pure waters of scholarship?' you gently ask how much they get paid for contaminating whatever pure waters they stir in".

The media career has been less meteoric than it may look (having started in 1977 with a discussion programme, Behave Yourself, shown only in the Granada region, for which he and Russell Harty characteristically arrived "in a state of complete blottoment: not for nothing did poor dear Russell die of cirrhosis") and less actively pursued. "I don't actually believe much in planning. I think you tend to act on the spur of the moment, as your character dictates, and then if you're any good you see what's happened and do something with it: systematise, develop. Not that I want to sound like a false naf: I'm well aware of how these labels and images - Dr Rude and so on - are jolly useful self-marketing tools."

What Starkey calls his "naughty boy" persona ("naughty", like "extraordinary", whose syllables he rolls luxuriantly around his mouth, is a favourite word) couldn't have developed if he hadn't been homosexual. "I suppose if I weren't gay I'd be the most awful member of the Establishment, wouldn't I? Dear me, one has all sorts of disgusting insiderdoms like being a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries - which I'm actually rather proud of - but there is this sense of irony, if you're at all aware of your condition; of amusement at one's little self being where one's little self is. So being gay is quite important in terms of a - how shall I say - general element of stroppiness, of being pretty sceptical about the appearance of things."

What, then, does he make of the outing of bishops?

"I wouldn't dream of actually doing it, except probably inadvertently, but I understand why Tatchell does, and I'm broadly sympathetic to the moral force behind it: there is in the church a personal, even an institutional hypocrisy, an extraordinary fin de sicle corruption."

Although the homoerotic nature of a certain kind of clergy life is precisely what is attractive about it, presumably?

"Oh, undoubtedly! The lure of handsome young men in well-fitting cassocks! I well remember when I first came to London over-nighting in a north London clergy house, and waking up in the morning to a room full of young men just doing things to cassocks. Ironing them, fitting them tightly round their buttocks ... You should be at parties at certain clergy houses on Saturday nights: I have a vivid recent memory of a very eminent clergyman wearing a kilt and demonstrating what Scotsmen wear underneath."

Starkey has never been much of an activist himself - he's too studiedly languorous, too scurrilous to be bothered - except on two occasions. He arrived at the LSE in the early 1970s to find himself in the thick of the founding of gay lib, and "a very powerful atmosphere, which after Cambridge I found genuinely, personally liberating. My then boyfriend was heavily involved in the political side. I must admit, I tried, and just died of boredom. In my characteristic fashion I said I couldn't understand people who f--- with Xerox fluid - you know, who came on resolutions - ooh!" He shudders delicately.

Much later, in 1990, he agreed to become chairman of Torche, the Tory Campaign For Homosexual Equality. He changed the name (to be a "naughty pun" on the Tory emblem, which they were forbidden to use) from CCHE, "which sounded like some rather unpleasant item of old-fashioned male underwear" and lobbied to reduce the homosexual age of consent. After the vote he promptly resigned.

DAVID STARKEY once described himself as naturally promiscuous, someone who had difficulty committing to a relationship, which he says now "was probably true at the time I said it". Someone called James now features prominently in his conversation; but although he decided early on better blatant than latent, especially for a teacher, "it doesn't mean I parade what I do sexually, or with whom. I find contemptible the Mellors of this world, who parade their spouses like props at the theatre of politics and their own personality."

He was born 50 years ago in Kendal, an only child with two club feet, who contracted polio; his relationship with his mother was so passionate and intense that he can still recall the trauma of his first day at school. The household was poor (his father was a shop-floor engineer) but Quaker, which meant it was also bookish and aspiring. David was often in hospital, withdrawn and isolated; he didn't play games, and when he moved to Kendal grammar school he had a minor nervous breakdown. "But I suppose what happened was that really rather early on I discovered that I had a gift for language, which makes you in many ways rather good company." It does, and it is not at all surprising, somehow, that Dr Rude can say: "I've always been very fortunate in having a circle of extraordinarily good friends, who are usually delightfully mocking of the things one does in public, and yet at the same time very supportive if anything goes seriously wrong."

I seem to have been in his house for hours, and he's still talking, still being amusing; he should write an indiscreet history of the homosexual influence on the Establishment in the 20th century. He has talked about the Princess of Wales ("I recognise her talents. I was one of the first people to analyse her as a film star. Of course, the most successful film stars have been the ones with the most terminally flawed personalities ... I mean, their very emptiness acts as a kind of vacuum that sucks in adulation ..."). And he has talked about his forthcoming book on the monarchy, which will explore the Royal Family's privatisation of itself in the 19th century and ruthless exposure of that privacy in the 20th. The monarchy, he believes, has been wheeled out in this century to promote a particular kind of petit bourgeois morality: to resist, for example, the loosening of the divorce laws.

He has told some bottom jokes (his doctoral faeces, as his supervisor called it, was a study of Henry VIII's privy chamber, headed by the groom of the stole or stool, "which of course meant bottom-wiper". He glories in Russell Harty's description of him as "an expert in the back passages of history".) And within the parameters of his queeny affectations, he has been honest about himself. It would be silly to pretend he has no faults, for he is vain, and although he claims he only attacks those who are trying to tell others how to behave, he can be wantonly hurtful. But he is also generous company, bubbling with cleverness, mockery and bitchiness. I found myself walking back to the car humming "Girls just wanna have fun". He won't thank me for ruining his media image, but he's a pussycat.