Britain's angriest Quaker

Britain's angriest Quaker

The controversial historian David Starkey was raised in a Quaker family and, although he is no longer a believer, I think that Quaker background plays a role in some of his views about the military. Soldiers, he said in an election podcast, are neither heroes nor victims. “Today’s soldiers are volunteers. They are doing it [going to war] because they like it, and they get tremendously excited about it.

“And many of them just enjoy killing, and that’s very useful.”

Pacifists – as members of the Society of Friends usually are – take the view that all war is wrong. But surely it’s reductionist to make such a generalisation about all men and women who serve in the Forces?

People join the Army (the Navy and the Air Force too) for many reasons. There’s always been an element of adventure in soldiering. There has also been a desire for comradeship – and one of the strongest emotions seen in old soldiers is a lifelong sense of memory and mourning for comrades who died in battle.

In the First World War there was a rush of perhaps artificial patriotism which prompted men to join up. As for the Second World War, I’ll never forget the late Lord Deedes telling me: “It was an instinct for self-defence. You had a strong feeling – it’s us or them.”

Dr Starkey also, I think, draws on his Quaker background when he claims that acts of remembrance, like Armistice Day ceremonies, have become “a crazy religious ritual”, adorned with “poppy fascism”. The Society of Friends disavow rite and ritual. Yet the evidence shows that people need rituals and embrace them, and if these are removed, replacements are invented.

David Starkey has sometimes been called “the angriest man in Britain”. He’s actually a clever constitutional expert. But he was born with a physical disability (two club feet, since remedied) and raised as a precious only child. The psychology of his childhood formation, including some of those Quaker values, influences some of these strong opinions, methinks.


Ireland has been feeling collectively bereaved over the death of the broadcaster Gay Byrne, aged 85, from cancer. “Gaybo” commanded the TV and radio airwaves for half a century and was a national institution. It is a repeated claim that he not only challenged the power of the Irish Catholic Church, but effectively broke it.

Indeed, he sometimes seemed to supplant the pastoral role. On his radio programmes he was a father-confessor, especially to women. They talked openly about their lives, which often were hard, and their stories were of abuse, difficult pregnancies and harsh experiences. I’m sure that many a priest has heard similar accounts in the confessional; Gay heard them in the public sphere.

Sometimes, it can be the comical moments which prove to be a social turning point. Back in the 1960s, “The bishop and the nightie” episode became a huge controversy, when Gay jokingly asked a woman on his Late Late Show what colour nightdress she wore on her wedding night: she merrily replied that she wore none.

The then Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan, complained to a Sunday newspaper about this discourse, and it turned into a hullaballoo which left the said bishop with custard on his face.

It was an early example of how one misstep, in the age of mass media, can ruin your reputation: Dr Ryan was forever tagged with “the bishop and the nightie” label.

But put it in context. Before the middle 1960s, as many social studies in Britain have shown, most people were quite shy about talking about marital matters in public. The BBC had banned expressions such as “winter draws on”, lest they should provoke sniggering.

Gay Byrne himself remained an observant Catholic, educated by the Christian Brothers, and was buried according to the full rites of the Catholic Church.


Angela Kelly, the Liverpool-born Queen’s Dresser, confesses in her memoir that she had sought advice from her employer about elocution. HM gave her a few tips on pronunciation.

A fellow scribe, trained at RADA in the days when thespians were taught to talk posh, once told me of this vocal exercise:“What do we breathe? Air. What’s on your head? Hair. Where does a lion reside? Lair.” “Air-hair-lair” was Mayfair for “Hello”!

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