David Starkey: England's Rudest Historian?

Historians in the News

Sholto Byrnes, in the Independent (June 28, 2004):

[Headline:] Arrange to meet Britain's highest-profile historian and you never quite know who'll turn up, says Sholto Byrnes. Will it be the charming, erudite David Starkey, or his terrifying, hypercritical alter ego?

"I bet you've been here for some scandalous liaisons," says a hopeful David Starkey, as he takes in the discreet surroundings of the Franklin Hotel in Knightsbridge, where his chauffeur-driven Jaguar has just dropped him off. "Not yet," I reply. He cackles appreciatively. The television history man par excellence (his only rival is Simon Schama) revels in the personal detail, the human nugget that lets the light in on characters from dusty old documents, such as the "groom of the stool", about whom Starkey wrote his doctoral thesis.

Today, however, he has let it be known that he doesn't want to talk about his personal life, particularly his rather weird upbringing in Cumbria, as he feels he's done that quite enough. He wants to talk about his career as a historian, his forthcoming Channel 4 series, Monarchy, and - rather more than I'd been led to expect - about his book on the six wives of Henry VIII.

Two-thirds of the way through the interview, during which Starkey has been entertainingly tart, he nips off to the loo. On his return he has an announcement to make: "Now I'd like to talk about my book." He taps the paperback edition of Six Wives in front of him commandingly. My heart sinks. This doorstopper of a tome arrived only the day before, and I haven't read it.

We've already been discussing lots of the issues of Henry VIII's reign, I say. "Sort of, ha ha ha." His laughter has an unnerving quality to it. "I was assuming you'd read it and had lots of questions." I tell him that I thought he wanted to concentrate on the TV series. "Ahhh, right. Despite the fact that it was explained very clearly what the interview was to be about. Sorry, we are really at cross purposes. I'm sorry to be awkward. I'm not really being awkward, but I am disappointed."

Being told you have disappointed David Starkey must be akin to the feeling early Christians experienced when they found themselves being eyeballed by a pride of lions. This is a man for whom the phrase "doesn't suffer fools gladly" could have been coined. The "rudest man in Britain", as the Daily Mail called him, is famed for the viciousness of his putdowns, such as when he said of the former Archdeacon of York on The Moral Maze: "Doesn't he genuinely make you want to vomit - his fatness, his smugness, his absurdity?"

Although off duty he is utterly personable, he is now in professional mode: what he calls his "Dr Rude" alter ego, a magnification of Starkey's natural argumentativeness, which he puts down to a Quaker upbringing of "wonderful obtuseness" whereby the popular opinion was regarded as being invariably wrong. It is a mantle he has gladly worn on his path to success, and one which, once donned, turns him into the most unforgiving of interlocutors. I brace myself for the onslaught.

"We've done the usual voyage around David Starkey," he continues in a tone that suggests he could explode at any minute, "and that's boring, that's a boring subject. The only reason why anyone will remember anything about me will be because of what I've written. You began interestingly, didn't you, with the argument about cheapening or sensationalising" - actually, he brought that up, but now does not seem the time to point it out - "and I think the ultimate form of sensationalising is reducing the work that people do to little biographical sketches. That is a form of trivialisation. You obviously haven't read the book."

I would love to have done, I say, desperately trying to mollify him. But the cannon have not ceased. "I think the great difference between here and America is that if you're invited to do an interview, you can guarantee that the person will at least pretend to have read the book."...

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susan k. kee - 1/11/2004

I am 45 year old artist in Raleigh,NC. I have seen Catherine many times before on TV, but after seeing her on
a news program this morning, I woke up from a two day depression. She inspired me to follow my dreams of becoming a successful artist. if she can acheive the things she has by hard work, so can I. Please air your program again. I did not see it!
One day I will be giving away millions too!
Susan Kee,
Aspiring Famous Artist