Gay Times May 09 - Issue 368
The History Man
David Starkey talks history, sex and school and reveals a softer side to Tim Teeman
More from Gay Times May 09 - Issue 368
David Starkey has some previous experience with the Royals. When he was awarded his CBE, he remembers it as like: "school speech day, the Queen looked puzzled as to why she was giving it to me".
"Dr Starkey, what will your next project be?" the Queen asked.
"You, Ma'am," replied Starkey, and he recalls, "a look of horror flashed across her face". The CBE, he says, is "legitimate bling that looks extremely good with evening dress".
Starkey relishes dust-ups, so it isn't surprising that his current passion is our bloodiest King. He became interested in Henry VIII as an undergraduate, tangling first with his grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort ("which taught me nothing"), and then with Anne Boleyn ("which taught me everything"). He has presented a TV series about Henry and has now guest-curated a major exhibition on him at the British Library.
From this King, best known for looking like a Toby jug and murdering his wives, Starkey says we can analyse the founding of the British constitution.
Starkey's whip-crack intellectualism comes with dashes of fierceness and zinging wit. He grew up in a far-from intellectual home. His mother had been forced to leave school at 13 after her father went off to fight in the First World War, "but she would have made a brilliant schoolteacher" says Starkey. "She was incredibly powerful and focused." Starkey was born with a double club foot and polio. "I wasn't terribly mobile for the first five years," he says. "It was a stamp of difference. I had to wear surgical boots till my early teens."
He grew up in Kendal and he has foggy memories of local gay scandal. "Privacy was no protection. The vicar or curate or schoolmaster's life was ripped apart. God knows what happened to him. There was a hideous quality of furtiveness and reprobation about it."
His deformity, growing up a Quaker in Kendal, being gay – all left him the feeling like "an outsider looking in". He viewed the world quizzically, "with slight detachment". But, as he says, "People who are ordinarily happy never do anything."
He's so quick, so sharp, you can see why he was such a fearsome adversary on Radio 4's The Moral Maze: he gave it up years ago although people still think he does it.
As a boy he immersed himself in books: the family had no car or TV, but did have a radio. "I'd read the whole of Dickens by the age of 11. I was omnivorous. I read literary classics." Eventually he came on the spare, austere prose of Orwell, whose short sentences he tries to emulate in his own books, "as well as the occasional burst of extravagance which has a great impact".
He didn't just love history at school, but also the sciences. "I wasn't a natural mathematician. The only numbers I get excited about are the ones with pound signs in front of them."
This is a quip with a serious context: Starkey describes himself as utterly self-made. When he came out at 22 to his mother she was bitterly disappointed and remained so until her death eight years later. "It was very unfortunate," says Starkey. "The only way to be yourself was to break away. It wasn't like today where young friends tell me the responses of their mothers has been, 'That's great. Have you got a boyfriend? Can I buy a hat?'"
Between school and Cambridge he went to France. "My mother never forgave me. She had secured my scholarship, it was Pygmalion and like most Pygmalions she didn't want to let go of her creation."
He finally had gay sex and relationships at Cambridge. "The age of first sexual experience has fallen dramatically. My sexuality in my teenage years was inchoate. I fancied boys who played contact sports. I remember a certain amount of groping at grammar school, which of course the ones who turned out to be gay didn't take part in."
His first experience at Cambridge was with a ballet dancer at "a bathing place, a pond full of desirables and undesirables with convenient woodland and draped towels".
He took time away from his studies to come to London to teach. On his return to Cambridge, a tutor told him: "You were becoming a pompous Cambridge don. You've discovered that the mind isn't the only thing that counts." She was right: London had been liberating.
In the 1970s, "the age of blandness", Starkey started appearing on television, honing the brainy, abrasive personality that became his trademark. "I own myself. I decide what to do," he says firmly. "But I am not as impervious as I like to present myself. I'm an insomniac. I wake up at 4am. It's the kind of time where you lie there thinking, 'Oh god, did I really say that on the radio earlier?' I may get up, do some writing, then go back to bed at 7am and get up again at 9am. Over the last few years I have became slightly less angry. Someone who has known me for 20 years joked I had become really rather a nice person."
Starkey is a Tory and was at the time of Section 28. "One isn't defined by one's sexuality," he says simply.
Much of the "Doctor Rude" persona, used to liquidate fellow panel members and wilting interviewees on The Moral Maze, was good casting, he says, which he then embellished. "Lily Savage with a degree," he says. "Much of it was down to the forensic training of Cambridge supervision. It was a meeting of that spirit of intellectual enquiry with a drag queen's sharpness."
The anger wasn't entirely put on. Starkey says he was furious at the way his-then history department was mismanaged. "I wasn't promoted. I spent all the time fucking."
He watched friends be diagnosed and die of Aids, and "one slightly cleaned up one's act". He met James, his partner, in the mid-90s. They live in Kent. Will they have a commitment ceremony? "My position has been that I didn't become gay to get married, but given the new social – not to mention financial – pressures, I can see myself moving in that direction."
Starkey says he is a "restless spirit", he loves performing, being on TV and while book tours can be a hassle, he revels in the attention and the "smell of the greasepaint". Next will come a second volume on Henry VIII, a planned documentary on American history and a book about Henry's father, Henry VII. Starkey is 64 and says he has become aware of the "span of time", of slowing down, and an awareness of his own mortality – or as he wonderfully puts it: "As a historian you spend a lot of time with the dead."
There is another concealed side to him: sheer, unadulterated soppiness when it comes to Ledger, his and James' five-year-old chocolate labrador. This interview is postponed twice for urgent walks. "He was James' dog originally," says Starkey stoutly, "I was a tolerated uncle."
But he's not fooling anyone. "Ledger's watched every Diana video," Starkey says. "When he wants someone, he tilts his head, looks at you with these liquid eyes, imploring. If you don't meet his demand, you get another look, which says, 'You've hurt me horribly'." Starkey sighs. "I'm Ledger's servant." And he sounds delighted with that.
Henry VIII: Man and Monarch is at the British Library, London, April
23rd-Sept 6th, www.bl.uk
Words: Tim Teeman