In a new book, controversial historian Steve (pronounced “Neill”) Sigardusson contends that former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill is no longer among the living. I interviewed him, in a café of his choosing, to find out more.
I’m sat in De Gracy’s Tearooms, a snug, posh place on one of Cambridge’s main streets, the sort of place that would make you glad it was a Sunday afternoon if indeed it was a Sunday afternoon. My interviewee is late. He has told me in advance this might happen: he is coming here immediately following a seminar with his students, and these can often run over-time due to, in his words, “unplanned intellectual stimulation”. Fortunately, De Gracy’s has a reputation for the fourth-best millionaire shortbread in East Anglia, so I have plenty of cake to occupy the time.
Finally, he appears. “I’ve been looking forward to this immensely,” he says, with friendly sincerity. “Sorry I’m late, my seminar over-ran.” What was his seminar about, or is that confidential? “Not at all,” he replies with a smile, clearly happy to be asked about his work, “I’m doing a module with my undergraduates which is basically all about why Stalin wasn’t a very nice person.”
It’s that sort of genial, understated focus that has helped to make Sigardusson one of the best known historians of our time. He moved to Cambridge two years ago with his wife, former supermodel Monique de la Chavez (31), and their children, daughter Beansprout (age 6) and son Cerberus (age 3 ½). After completing his PhD at Duke University, Sigardusson shot to fame with his first book A Capital Beard, a re-working of his PhD thesis on the facial hair of Karl Marx (“There were some good illustrations in that one,” he reminisces). Since then he has become a popularizer of a huge number of historical subjects, ranging from God-knows-what to Who-knows-where. Yet despite his popularity with the book-buying public, who let’s face it haven’t got a clue, Sigardusson is seen by many in academic historical circles to be a total bell-end. Do these accusations bother him? “Not really,” he says with a brave smile, “It’s sad that they think like that, but clearly they’re all just jealous.” For my part, I find him totally engaging and likeable in person.
He claims he never considered staying in the States after his PhD. “Not for a second,” he says. “There are some amazing resources over there, but the best coffee shops are here, and on the Continent. I came to Cambridge as much for the coffee shops as for anything else. When I was writing my book on Marx – when I was re-writing my PhD thesis, I should say – I went and visited all these brilliant little pokey coffee shops in London, and plenty in Germany too. I discovered some amazing coffees that I’d never known before.”
Of course, we have more to discuss than just coffee shops. His latest book, the emphatically titled Winston Churchill is Dead: He’s Dead, Dead, DEAD, is over 800 pages long and has caused a storm in the historical community, with many of Sigardusson’s fiercest critics denouncing the book as a complete waste of time, and others claiming that it betrays an underlying left-wing bias. When I mention this to Sigardusson, he looks noticeably peeved for the first time in our interview.
“I don’t really know where they’re coming from, to be honest. The idea came about from a series of seminars I was doing – actually, the module I’m doing now, on Stalin – and ‘Winston Churchill’ was a name that kept cropping up a lot. So I did a little digging, and it seems that everyone nowadays more or less accepts that he is no longer alive, but nobody had ever done an in-depth, scholarly study to see if he was actually dead or not.” I suggest that 800 pages on the one subject may be overkill (if you’ll pardon the pun). His response? “It’s all a matter of how you look at it. It’s not just about Churchill’s being dead. It also explores the circumstances of his dying, the fact he’s no longer alive, and the idea that he isn’t around anymore. There’s a lot of big ideas in there.”
Through painstaking research, and evidence ranging from the Times Obituary that was published at the time of Churchill’s death, to television footage of the funeral, Sigardusson believes he has now reached a conclusive, definitive answer. “All the historical evidence indicates that Winston Churchill is indeed definitely, positively dead,” he says. “And if he isn’t, well, he’ll be 139 years old. But then he always was a pretty amazing bloke.” I ask if he expected this outcome when he set out. “Pretty much,” he admits, adding “But I managed to have a lot of lovely cream teas at the Blenheim Palace tea-rooms, paid for out of my research fund.” Yo-ho, yo-ho, a scholar’s life for me.
Winston Churchill is Dead: He’s Dead, Dead, DEAD is out now in hardback published by Smith & Wesson, RRP £35.99.