David Starkey is no longer quite as eager to show off his bitchy side, but he can be persuaded …
‘I don’t think I could have been Dr Fluffy,’ says David Starkey, poised behind a hake. ‘No. Absolutely not Dr Fluffy.’ He takes a sip of wine. He looks like an evil Professor Yaffle.
I am here because I have long wanted to interview him, principally because once, when I was working for a newspaper gossip column, he gave me a line about Tories and sado-masochism too revolting to print. And he is always in trouble. On Jamie’s Dream School, a reality TV show where poor teenagers got celebrity teachers, Starkey, who has never been a member of Historians For Censorship, called a fat child ‘fat’. After the riots he appeared on Newsnight and announced, ‘The whites have become black.’ And two weeks ago he told a conference debating the National Curriculum that English schools should have ‘a serious focus on your own culture’. This is not, in my view, an insane opinion, but the Daily Mail quoted someone calling him a racist.
But I can only muse on him initially, because he is 42 minutes late. I wonder if he is in WHSmith putting his books in front of Simon Schama’s, or if he has simply fallen under a bus. Eventually he waddles over, gives me a damp kiss and sits. No apology or explanation; as Max Bialystock said in The Producers, everyone is a big shot.
‘I don’t necessarily like talking about myself,’ he says, opening his napkin. ‘The interview is a strange art.’
Starkey is grammar school-educated. ‘Northern peasant stock,’ he tells me, preening. He may have the tastes of a toff — I bumped into him at the Royal Opera House once, sitting front centre in the royal circle — but his father was a factory foreman, and his mother a thwarted ‘tiger mother’. ‘The drive, the tempestuousness, the energy,’ he says, ‘I am completely my mother.’ He ran away from her, though, to Cambridge and the LSE. He calls it ‘the Pygmalion problem… that when people think they have invented you they want you to remain exactly as their vision of you and if you venture to think for yourself there is the most awful bust-up. So much of my life was a series of Pygmalions and would-be Pygmalions.’
He became famous on The Moral Maze, where he fought with Hugo Gryn and Janet Daley every week, like a Radio 4-themed Bond villain/history don. ‘We were Rabbi Nice, Dr Nasty and Janet Slightly Wild,’ he says. I thought you were Dr Rude, I say; Dr Nasty is news to me. ‘Or Dr Nasty,’ he says. ‘It shifted. [In] the Daily Mail it was Dr Rude but it was also Dr Nasty.’ I prefer Dr Nasty, I say, but it does make you sound like a Mr Man.
‘We were all Mr and Miss Men — yes,’ he says, ‘and Rabbi Men.’ Hugo Gryn once told Starkey, on air, ‘You are not half as nasty as you are painted.’ Starkey came back, ‘And you, Hugo, are not half as nice either!’
Of Dr Evil — I mean Nasty — he says, ‘There is a real character but overlaid is a heightening and exaggeration of that character. I suppose that towards the end I felt the caricature was starting to corrode what was underneath.’ And so he left. ‘I got bored with it, as I get bored with everything,’ he says. ‘The whole of my life has been a flight from boredom.’ He really is terrifying.
The food arrives. ‘This looks delicious,’ he says, looking happier. ‘Perfect, in fact.’ I have decided the best way to befriend him is to make him eat a roast potato. ‘I have never really liked potatoes,’ he says, as if they were Marxist potatoes, ‘unless they have been fussed up in the most extraordinary way.’
We move to politics. ‘What he [David Cameron] has been doing with Steve Hilton is totally and absolutely misconceived,’ he says. The maître-d’, who looks like the Go Compare man, arrives and Starkey delivers an elegy to the dead fish: ‘This is quite wonderful, may I say?’ They swap food-themed man love. Go Compare departs and Starkey continues: ‘The idea of prioritising foreign aid, being nice to minorities, hugging homosexuals to death — of whom I am one — always strikes me as fundamentally daft,’ he says. ‘A) these are not terribly popular causes and b) these are trying to appeal to the Guardianista class. The Guardianista class will never in a thousand million years vote for him. It’s an absurd strategy and no one with an understanding of British politics would actually do it.’
No, he says, Cameron should seduce the working classes and, if he were really bold, he’d junk Scotland. ‘It would fuck the left completely. There would never be a Labour government again.’
But aren’t you offended by the Tories’ residual homophobia? ‘Ne-ow,’ he says, ‘Section 28 was more of an insult than any real threat. That inspired one of my best moments on Question Time, as you may remember.’ I don’t, so he tells me. Jeffrey Archer was arguing to keep the gay age of consent at 18 and Starkey told him: ‘Englishmen like you enjoy sitting on the fence so much because you enjoy the sensation.’ He giggles: ‘The house came down. He has never forgiven me.’
I get a few flakes of Dr Nasty. He imagines Peter Mandelson ‘performing Count Dracula in panto at Wimbledon Theatre’. The historian Vernon Bogdanor is ‘very boring’. Tony Blair is ‘one of the shiftiest people I have ever dealt with’. But his malice is tidal. It comes and goes. He loves to say what others will not; that is why, I think, if you put him on Newsnight, he will always start shouting about Enoch Powell. ‘I was always the nay-sayer,’ he says. ‘I remember I was 11 during the Suez crisis and I was the only person in my form who supported Nasser.’
Have you changed as you have aged? ‘You get fatter,’ he says. His fork slides across his plate. Are you happy? ‘I am not sure what happiness is really,’ he says. ‘I don’t think people who achieve attach very much importance to happiness. Surely the human beings who achieve are powered by divine discontent.’
‘I want a choccie fix,’ he says suddenly, and orders one. Since he is replete with food, I ask him about his personal life. After a promiscuous phase, utterly eclipsed by Brian Sewell’s memoirs, he settled down with the publisher James Brown and they live together, in houses in London and Kent.
‘It has been 17 years,’ he says. ‘There has been sufficient variety within it.’ I ask how he managed not to get bored with James, when he gets bored with everything, but he waves it off. They never considered adoption, even if social services would let David Starkey have a child: ‘Adopt?’ he says. ‘Not in a thousand years. The idea you have exclusive responsibility for this creature is too horrible to contemplate.’
Do you think you are easy to live with? ‘The thing that is most difficult about me,’ he says, ‘is my ability to concentrate on work. I can simply shut off. An only child effectively makes his or her own world. You have to. The only child is inured to solitude, even wants it and needs it.’ Do you have a type? ‘Yes, which I never get nowadays, haha.’ And off he goes, to catch a train. I am not sure how happy he is. But, as he said himself — what is that?