DAVID Starkey loves the public platform; he always has. As a grammar school boy, growing up in Kendal, he had hated playing sports but was “bloody good at acting and public speaking”, he told Sunday night’s audience at the York Literature Festival.

The abrasive constitutional historian, LSE lecturer, television presenter, author and Question Time agent provocateur had drawn 800 people to the Grand Opera House to hear his forthright verdict on “York’s unique place in English history”.

Or, as he put it, how York went from being England’s second city to an enormous gulf between York and London, with at least four cities in between. What happened, he asked. “Why is your history a bywater?” Ouch.

Dr Starkey knows how to grab an audience’s attention (and a city’s history by the proverbials), immediately catching any gainsayers off-guard by the surprising confession that “I am not an expert in the history of York” to shield himself from their imprecations.

Delivered without notes, it was not so much a history lesson as a lesson in how to deliver a history lecture with a caustic eye to the present; unpalatable truths washed down with regular sips of water. York may have slipped down the league of power, but at least Dr Starkey recounted the blows with wit and brusque insight.

The focus broadened after the interval. This being a literature festival, what was his relationship with books and reading, he was asked. “I only read when I have to,” he said. “I do not read for pleasure. I’m a writer. The idea that I would sit down with a ‘good book’ after a day of writing seems to me demented.”

He will cook instead, though not wash up; he loves words, he loves language, he enjoys history as performance. “For me, knowledge is dead unless it is communicated.”

He was aiming the heavy blows now: only Churchill had been a [British] statesman of note in the 20th century, and he happened to be a (self-taught) historian, who used history as means of thinking about how the big ideas, the big themes from history, could work in the present. By comparison “Cameron and the Milibands are typical products of the new political class, who don’t represent anybody”.

Richard III’s second burial, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Cromwell, freedom of speech and political correctness were given the Starkey once-over. So too was Hilary Mantel’s book Wolf Hall. “I can’t see anything that would interest me in an historical novel; it’s a novel,” he said. Ouch again.

Human progress requires the breaking of rules, dissent, conflict and argument, he suggested, summing up his philosophy for his own life too. “I hate niceness: the most vacuous of vices, antithetical to serious thought,” he said.

Dr Starkey may despair of a general reluctance to “think big thoughts”, but history has a future, he believes. “We’re gossips and history is intellectualised gossip; we love talking about each other,” he said.

“I’m an immensely optimistic pessimist”. Could there be anything more English?