David Starkey: ‘I can be a bit harsh’
When Rachel Cooke went to meet historian David Starkey, often called the rudest man in Britain, she expected it to be war. But that was before she started laughing at his tales of a first date in the Beaver's Retreat
In the afternoon of 3 June, the Queen will mark her diamond jubilee by sailing the Thames from Hammersmith to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich aboard the royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell. In her wake will travel a flotilla of 1,000 boats decorated in streamers and flags, their crews resplendent in their finest rigs. There will be ancient boats and modern boats, rowing boats and sailing boats, steam boats and motorised boats, musical boats and boats spouting geysers. Most amazingly of all, the flotilla will be led by a floating belfry of eight bells, the largest of which, named for Queen Elizabeth, will weigh half a tonne. Its peal will be answered by the bells of churches all along the river and theirs, in turn, echoed by others up and down the land.
"Yes indeed," says David Starkey, distinguished constitutional historian, pressing the tips of his fingers together carefully. "The idea of a set of church bells on the river… I don't think that has ever happened before. Thames river pageants have always been a mixture of the grand and the loony, and this one looks like it is going to have elements of complete lunacy. It will certainly be interesting to see what the, er, sonic effect is." Starkey pauses and then, unable to resist, adds: "My guess is that the whole thing is just going to go straight over."
"Plop!" I say quietly.
"Plop?" A look of purest delight spreads across his face. "Ha ha ha! I think it will be rather more than a plop!"
Starkey and I are hidden away in a back room at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where he has guest curated an exhibition tracing the history of Thames pageantry. So far most of the advance fuss about this has centred on the fact that it will include Canaletto's The Thames on Lord Mayor's Day, a painting not seen in London since its completion in 1747. But it would, I think, be unmissable even without this astonishing centrepiece, taking the goggle-eyed visitor all the way from Anne Boleyn's coronation procession in 1533 to the Great Stink of 1858 and beyond. Among the 400 precious relics on display will be the earliest-known copy of Handel's Water Music, Bazalgette's original contract drawings for the construction of the Thames embankment, and a flag flown on the Apothecaries' barge at the funeral procession of Lord Nelson.
The Tudor and Stuart kings, of course, used their ever-more-elaborate Thames processions as a distraction, drawing public attention from such sticky matters as the fact that the king would persist in remarrying (awkward to crown Henry's numerous women in the traditional way) or, in the case of James II, that he was a Catholic (ditto). Would it be fair, then, to characterise our own dear queen's procession as yet another distraction? "I suppose if one was being terribly disloyal, the whole jubilee is a bit of a distraction," says Starkey. "But perhaps that's one of the essential purposes of the monarchy. As Walter Bagehot said: it's the dignified part of the constitution. It casts a veil of popularity over the efficient. Or, er, not. His words, rather than mine. But equally, whatever else one thinks of the Queen, time has gilded her. Only once she's gone will we really be forced to confront the changes that have gone on in Britain during the period of her reign. She has acted as a kind of facade."
So, if this isn't too indelicate a question, are we looking at a case of "après moi, le déluge"? No. "What is striking is how the reputation of the monarchy has gone up and down in my lifetime. It was untouchable until the 1970s. Then the younger members of the family… actually, it seems to me that they didn't behave particularly badly. After all, they're typical members of the post-1960s generation, and the idea that you sit on your private unhappiness and suffer in marriage, that no longer washed. But anyway, there was the annus horribilis and all that – and then this extraordinary reversal. The team kept going. William has had the sense to marry a girl who's naturally conventional. The important point, though, is that all this is set against the failure of our other institutions: parliament, the civil service and – please don't think me rude – the press. The monarchy has risen serene above a general wreck.
"If we address the future, we [the British] are driven by two principal forces: inertia and sentimentality. Monarchy benefits from both. I can see a more general political collapse ahead, though. It seems to me that it's 50:50 at best whether the United Kingdom survives. Alex Salmond is a malign genius and David Cameron is utterly without imagination or any idea of what he wants to do."
As for the Church of England, of which the sovereign remains Supreme Governor, it's a hopeless mess. "The church made a lethal mistake when Michael Ramsey was appointed archbishop by Harold Macmillan. It rediscovered Christianity, and that was fatal. Until that point, the archbishops had been the high priests of English Shinto: in other words, the church's job was really just to [enable us to] worship the monarchy and, by extension, ourselves. That was sensible. But then it gets cluttered up with all this nonsense about Christianity. The absolute disaster will be if someone like John Sentamu [the doctrinally conservative archbishop of York] is appointed. Catastrophe! The church has got to choose between being a national church or an international communion. It can't be both."
Should gay men be priests? A coy (or coy-ish) smile. "It's not for me to say. It's for the church to say." To gay marriage, though, Starkey is implacably opposed – and he remains bewildered, or so he insists, by the concept of civil partnerships. "There was a piece in the paper the other day about gay divorce." A moue of disgust. "What are gay people doing inflicting these horrors upon themselves? Get a civil partnership, and the moment things go wrong, the person who will determine your financial future is some incompetent, uncomprehending heterosexual! For God's sake. How mad can you be? Why would you want to drape yourself in the trappings of marriage? To voluntarily put your head in that noose!" Crikey. His disappointment – lofty, comical and haloed with his own somewhat old-fashioned brand of gay pride – is, if you ask me, as extravagantly theatrical as anything you will find on display in the gallery.
Thanks to recent appearances on Question Time and Newsnight, it is popular – righteous, even – to loathe David Starkey. When I tell friends I'm going to meet him, they grimace and roll their eyes. And I must admit that, en route, I prepare myself for combat. The rude pig! I think. The bigot! Naturally, my expectation is that he will be disdainful of me, a nice little liberal, and impossible to interrupt. I fantasise wildly about arriving at Greenwich on a golden barge or, better still, in an Elizabeth I outfit… That would shut him up. But playing to an audience of just one, I must report – don't all howl at once – that he is mostly (emphasis on the mostly) delightful: funny, interesting and courteous. I disagree with him passionately about the cause of last summer's riots. But unlike many of the men of his age and reputation I interview, he treats me as if I might have a brain. Amazing. Which leads me to wonder: are his antics on the telly an act? Or is it that, overexcited and prone to showing off, he sometimes backs himself into a rhetorical corner? He casts me a look. If he were a cat, he would now be purring. "Yes, I am quite charming and kitten-like, aren't I?" he says. And then: "My dear mother, 1,000 years ago, told me: 'Your tongue will be the ruination of you.' Well, in fact, it has proved to be rather the opposite. But she was 50% right, as mothers tend to be."
Mostly, though, he is keen to point out that when he is on television, he is merely doing exactly what the producers of these programmes want him to do. "What people have to understand – and this is why most politicians are so catastrophic on Question Time – is that it is a bear pit. It's a Colosseum. On Moral Maze [the Radio 4 programme which, when he joined it in 1992, earned him the title 'the rudest man in Britain] the producer was a brilliant impresario. Michael Buerk would be there, trying to calm things, and behind him, through the window, I could see the producer mouthing the words: 'Fuck the bugger!' at me. I've never, ever said anything that I didn't basically believe. But you dramatise and you personalise. It's a mixture of soap opera and wrestling."
Does he ever feel awful afterwards? "Of course! You wake up in the middle of the night, and you think: 'Why did I say that?'" So when he said of last year's riots, on Newsnight, that "the whites have become black", did he at least regret the hurt he caused? (He doesn't regret the remarks themselves, as he has said repeatedly.) "I'd want to put it the other way round. It's precisely because I do care [about the feelings of the black community] that I made them. It seems to me that this pussyfooting around and pretending that every problem blacks have in Britain is because of wicked whites is what is destroying them. I care desperately about the incidence of black murders. But more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. So there is clearly a problem.
"The one thing I valued about my Quaker upbringing was the insistence on calling things by their proper names. Unvarnished truths. This terrible sentimentality… people have to be told the truth even when truths are very painful. It's the only way anything gets any better. The great Victorian improvers were fearless. They didn't respect feelings. Wilberforce didn't respect the feelings of slave owners." It seems not to occur to Starkey that it is always members of your own community who are most likely to be violent towards you, whether you are white, black or Asian. Nor, apparently, does it strike him that comparing the sensitivities of 19th-century slave owners with those of black people everywhere is both utterly ghastly and muddle-headed. But perhaps he does register my disquiet, because he moves on from this point rather quickly and begins talking about George Galloway instead. And, on this, we do agree: the man is shameless.
Starkey was born in 1945, in Kendal, Cumbria – "a right tight little town", as he once put it. His father worked as a factory foreman, his mother was a char, and their only son was born with two club feet and infantile polio. Not an easy start, and yet Starkey lays all of his confidence, and all of his success, pretty much at its door. "This is going to sound shocking, but being born with two club feet was quite a good beginning. If you pull through that, you're very unsentimental. My earliest memories are of really agonising pain." He points at his brown deck shoes, which look a bit odd with his navy suit, tie and pocket square. "I've had some work done lately, because the surgery I had as a child hasn't lasted. That's why I'm wearing these. Anyway, I was about four. I was in the surgical ward at Westmorland General Hospital on Kendal Green, and it was agony. Every bone in the foot had been broken and reset. It was a general male ward, so I was told to shut up, not to disturb other people. So if I sometimes appear a bit harsh…" His voice trails off.
His mother, thwarted in her own efforts to attend teacher-training college, was determined and encouraging, and there were various teachers – he can still remember each of their names, and even their handwriting – who spotted him early on, with the result that he became a prize-winning pupil. "Of course I was the lonely, swotty child. But I was also the crippled child. I wore special boots at a time when boys wore shorts. So they were bleeding obvious. Sport was impossible. I was, though, too big to bully. I got into fights and I pounded the other person." His hands curl theatrically about an imaginary neck. "I had an uneasy transition between primary and secondary school, and I had a kind of nervous breakdown aged 13. People thought I'd sink to the bottom of the class, but I resumed where I was before. My school had honours boards and I decided my name would be up there. I always, I suppose, dreamed dreams. It was a cold, wet, northern town, and there was absolutely no spare money, and I decided that didn't suit me."
He won a scholarship to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, bagged a first and, having completed a doctorate supervised by Geoffrey Elton, eventually became a fellow. In 1972, he joined the LSE. In 1998, however, he abandoned academic life: his television career was beginning to take off – in 2002, he signed a £2m contract with Channel 4 – and he was finding it increasingly desiccated. He will bristle, though, if you ask him if he misses the life of the scholar. "Without wishing to sound pompous, I do more research now than ever. I'm working on a second volume of Henry VIII, and I've come up with some astonishing stuff on the crucial changeover from Henry VII that is going to revolutionise our understanding of his reign." Happily, the public is able to separate the snarling Starkey of Question Time from the serious historian, and his books are well-regarded, and sell in vast quantities. Commissioning editors also know the difference. His deal at Channel 4 will end shortly with a film about the Churchills, and then he is to make a BBC series about the royal courts.
It was when he moved to the LSE that he truly discovered gay life. Hampstead Heath, as he doesn't mind telling you, was a kind of sylvan sweetshop so far as he was concerned, a Swizzles lolly behind every tree. "Oh, yes. Exquisite." Did he ever worry about picking up the wrong man? "I only had one unpleasant experience, when I was stupid enough to pick up someone in a loo at Piccadilly. I'd been to the Reform Club for dinner. I'd had a run-in with this dreary professor at the University of London, and dinner at the Reform was his peace offering. He was teetotal and I decided to punish him by ordering the most expensive claret on the list. So I was a bit tiddly and I finished up in this loo with someone threatening to beat me up."
I remark that he was never much of a marcher for gay rights. But, no, I'm wrong. "I did actually go on one march. Yes! It is hard to imagine. Though it's even harder to imagine what I was wearing." Oh, go on. Tell. "Well, it was the early 70s. Flares, 3in soles, my arms conspicuously wrapped around Jamie Gardiner's bottom, no doubt. He was the man who lured me into all that stuff. What was particularly ludicrous was that the march was in Great Malvern." So would he have been more keen on civil partnerships then? "No! We didn't campaign for equality. We knew we were superior. We were campaigning for the right to do whatever we wanted. I remember Jamie saying: 'We've got to establish that having sex is like having a cup of coffee: all that matters is whether you want milk or sugar.' Wonderful! I'm a libertarian, you see."
How did his parents respond when he came out? "My mother was… it effectively destroyed our relationship. My father. Dear dad. His reaction to every problem was the same: he went out and bought a book about it. He was the classic working-class autodidact. He solemnly read a book about it and then he solemnly talked to me about it. Of course, that was excruciating for me, but he was completely wonderful and it was through that that we really got to know each other, because my mother had been fiercely possessive."
His cruising days are, of course, long since over. He has shared his houses in London and Kent with James Brown, a publisher, for the past 18 years. How did they meet? A puckish grin. "Oh, nobody ever believes me when I tell them this. It was in a bar at the LSE called [cue dramatic pause]… the Beaver's Retreat." He waits while I recover myself – this takes a while, if I'm honest – and then he says, with mock seriousness: "The beaver, you see, is on the LSE shield. It's a symbol of hard work."
He knew this relationship was going to be different right from the start: "You could tell it was high romance because we didn't fuck each other on the first night." So what's their secret? For a moment, he falters, and I wonder if I am about to be told to get knotted. But, no. On he goes. "I suppose, finally, that it's two things. There has to be a high level of mutual tolerance and a thorough enjoyment of each other's company. It's got to combine love and friendship, but also, you can't be captious. The reason so many relationships run aground is that we're a spoilt generation used to having everything exactly as we want it. But I'm afraid that if there are two of you together, there will be lots of occasions where neither party has exactly what they want. The best is the enemy of the good. Human life isn't about ideals. It's a compromise, and occasionally it's boring. We spoke very seriously. We had a sort of honeymoon in Bologna, and we made a series of promises to each other. I won't tell you what they were. But we weren't too ambitious and I think we've both stuck to them." His voice is suddenly soft, almost gentle, and I think, not for the first time: if only the politicians who avoid him in the Question Time green room could see him now.
Royal River: Power, Pageantry and The Thames is at National Maritime Museum, Greenwich from 27 April to 9 September (020 8312 6565)