Byline: Hermione Eyre
SIMON Sebag Montefiore welcomes me into his Kensington home with the sunny air of a liberated man. He has just completed, over three obsessive, sleep-deprived years, a monumental 600-page biography of Jerusalem. He barely saw his children, whose drawings are on his study walls ("Happy Hanukkah, Daddy!"), and his wife, the novelist Santa Sebag Montefiore (the elder, saner sister of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson), had to put up with him "sometimes never coming to bed, just writing all night". The result is a vast, gripping history, tumultuous and very bloody -- but that's fine with Sebag, as he is known. "Readers love death."
"Jerusalem," he tells me proudly, "is full of all types of death -- massacres, hangings, eviscerations, exploding scrotums ..." His previous books, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin, were also grisly yet erudite, drawing on astonishing Kremlin archive material that he managed to access after Putin enjoyed his revisionist history of Catherine the Great and Potemkin.
That avenue is now closed, sadly; the Stalin books did not go down well with Russia's reputation-conscious regime, as he discovered when he last went to Moscow and asked for his room back. "What room?" the archivist asked. "I knew I was out of favour, big time."
On his next visit, he was told that he could not access the archives as two security guards had got drunk and fallen into the lift shaft. "Which is so Russian, because everything in Russia is halfaccident, half-conspiracy." Still, the Stalin books established him, in just six years and at age 45, as one of our most popular historians, published in 35 languages.
Not to mention the best connected: the Prince of Wales is a friend often described as Santa's "honorary godfather"; Kate Middleton attended his last book launch. "Such a nice girl." Is he going to the wedding? "Well, I'd love to, but I don't know if I'm invited." In 2006 he introduced the Prince of Wales and David Cameron by cooking dinner for them both at his house. "There was lots of talk, lots of laughter," he says, too discreet even to answer when I ask what they ate.
In writing Jerusalem he tried to look objectively at the most contested city in the world. "Both sides have impeccable claims, in the Jewish case well over 3,000 years and in the Arab since 638. Both sides need to stop denying each other's history. It's the only way we're going to get a peaceful Jerusalem." He saw a glimpse of what that would look like, aged seven.
"I visited with my family, and we went round with Teddy Kolleck [then mayor] and had lunch with Palestinian families whom he liked and respected and they liked him: his philosophy was that it is a Jewish city and also an Arab city. That was the tolerant, open city Jerusalem once was -- and could be again."
Over tea, which he makes with honey, he cheerfully suggests no one will like his book, meaning it is not partisan. "None of the antagonists will fully approve. I've written what I think is the truth about every period of Jerusalem's history," he says. "I've criticised Israel, I've criticised the Palestinians, I've criticised Arab rule and Christian rule... I think if everyone's a little bit unhappy with it then I've probably done it right."
Sebag describes himself as both an insider and outsider. He grew up near his present home in Kensington where his father Dr Stephen Sebag Montefiore combined psychiatry and general practice.
He watched high-profile clients like Peter Sellers come and go -- and Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. (They wrote a sketch about his father: Cook poses as a psychiatrist while Moore recounts his ever more terrible perversions, to which Cook replies only "Perfectly normal".) "There were always fascinating dramas going on. People would have breakdowns and arrive in the middle of the night. To this day, I meet people and recognise their faces because they must have passed through the house. …