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Terry Deary: Horrible Histories, Strange Man

Jonathan Schofield talks class war and liars with the impassioned childrens' writer

Written by . Published on August 31st 2011.

Terry Deary: Horrible Histories, Strange Man

THIS was the weirdest interview I’ve conducted.

Terry Deary is a children’s writer of books called Horrible Histories. Unless you’ve been lost in the Hindu Kush for a decade or two you’ll have heard all about them.

 “Most schools should be closed down because of the way they teach history. The history teachers in them are liars, lazy idiots who can’t be bothered making their own interpretation but just repeat lies told before.”

In November the Opera House is hosting an adaptation of Horrible Histories. As the pre-publicity says: ‘Terry Deary is the world's best selling non-fiction author for children and one of the most popular in the country. He has written nearly 200 books, which have been translated into more than 30 different languages’.

The secret to the books success lies in the delivery and the presentation - easily adaptable for stage. They're fun filled tomes with cartoons, curios of fact, snippets and anecdotes. Best of all they contain details of gruesome executions and ‘who’d-have-thought-it’ facts.

Knowing this I anticipated a cosy chat with Deary about writing for children. Instead I got class war.

Deary hates patronage and privilege (which is reasonable enough), but he also hates most other people who write about history and just about all history teachers. He thinks he's right about history not those others and he seems to think he's got today's world sorted as well. Or rather he thinks he's RIGHT - to put it in a Horrible Histories' style - both in the moral and the literal sense.

This is Deary on the teaching of history: “Most schools should be closed down because of the way they teach history. The history teachers in them are liars, lazy idiots who can’t be bothered making their own interpretation but just repeat lies told before.”

This on historians: “They’re mostly liars. Even the better ones put some spin on it. Niall Ferguson (a right wing historian who criticised Deary’s Horrible Histories on the British Empire) represents the worst type, selecting his facts to fit theories, warped by his privileged background. Historians inherit assumptions and maintain them, I turn that on its head to what it was really like.”

This on Scottish Nationalists: “When I did the Scotland book, I was called ‘dangerous’ by Scottish academics as I upset their version of history. They said I emphasised the negative rather than doing my best for their nation and painting a positive picture. They said - my critics always do – I was trivialising history. I was even called racist and threatened with action over describing haggis as horrible. It is horrible. I’m not racist."

This on politicians: “My books are very political and anti-establishment. We have to learn not to believe a word politicians say. They are cheats and liars (Deary loves the word liar). Politicians say that by having the vote we have power. They are lying. In 2011 we have a cabinet ruled from Eton. Democracy. I don’t think so. I came from the under of the underclasses in Sunderland. The day I ever forget that will be day I give up writing.”

It’s all very bitter and attack-dog from the outset; disconcerting, especially when you learn he’s an amateur.

“I’m not a historian. Never have been, never got indoctrinated in the way academics do. I can probably see things a bit clearer. I have a team of researchers who come up with the material. Then I rework it in an engaging and entertaining way for people.”

So how did he come up with the phenomenally successful Horrible Histories idea. 

“I didn’t,” says Deary, “it’s not my idea. The publisher came up with it. I was seen as a reliable joke writer by the publishers, I was asked to do a Father Christmas joke book. They liked it so I was asked to do a history jokebook – ‘Where  do the French buy their guillotines? In the chopping centre’ – that kind of thing. Horrible Histories came from that.”

I suggest that he shouldn’t be so hard on real historians in that case. They have done courses, studied in lonely libraries, gone back to the original sources, most don’t have teams of researchers. They have to do the legwork themselves. And then they come up with conclusions that make sense to them, after hopefully not factoring in whether they’re from an underclass of an underclass or an upperclass of an upperclass.

Deary doesn't agree with me, he thinks they're suspect, damned by being part of the system. He certainly doesn't agree with me either about the virtues of haggis.

I also point out to Deary that not all politicians are cheats and liars. I’ve met many, and most nationally and locally, genuinely seem to want to change the world for better from the late Robin Cook to Richard Leese and so on. As to what we might do if there weren’t people prepared to become politicians and make decisions Deary doesn’t seem to care.

“We'd find a way," he says, before lurching into what's becoming a characteristic, conversational digression. "I bet you’re a grammar school boy?” says Deary as we discuss things.

I tell him I went to a comprehensive in Rochdale but I suppose I’m middle class. I tell him I think whatever your education or background if you have a little empathy with people then you’re doing all right, doing your bit. The simple fact of going to Eton does not a monster make and to suggest so is ridiculous.

“But we must fight unearned privilege, wherever we find it,” says Deary reasonably enough as already stated. “That’s what I really can’t stand, those who through privilege get all the breaks and then tell us what to do.”

“That’s a different issue,” I say, “ inequalities will always arise in a capitalist democracy. It’s how we try and deal with them that matters.”

“I bet you hate the French Revolution,” Deary says, completely, and appropriately, from leftfield.

Another little debate opens up during our supposedly 'fun' preview of his November Manchester shows.

“No,” I say, “but while it began well, with those lovely Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité ideals, the Reign of Terror which followed in 1793 was a proto Third Reich slaughtering up to 40,000 people. Surely you don't think that was a good thing.”

“Sometimes the way forward in history is paved with blood,” says Terry Deary enigmatically. “What I do know is that my books are all about the villains in the history that often turn out to be the real heroes. I’m giving the demons back some history. It’s about putting the story straight. About telling the truth.”

Ecce homo. Terry Deary - the man who’s correcting history, singlehandedly, through the medium of historical puns and some nice cartoons.

Talking to him is like talking to a passionate student, all wild-eyed devotion to a few big ideas, ideas he uses to make up for, it appears, a lack of knowledge.

Perhaps he might further his goals better if he had a stab at grown-up history I suggest. But no, at present, he seems to want to debunk national mythologies – often the glue which holds societies together – through the juvenile market. 

What makes all this stranger is that I've been reading his books and listening to his CDs with my kids for years. I’ve recognized the subversive element, but generally thought that it was all good jolly fun.

So it seems do my kids, they like his histories exactly because they are full of gruesome tortures and ‘who’d-have-thought-it’ stories.

They like them because they read like fantasy tales.

Yet experience tells me that Deary’s entertaining and biased bits of fun are all forgotten by 15-years-of-age, his subversiveness evaporates inside its own playful trivia. In fact the only things my older kids can remember are the tortures and the curios, nothing about fighting un-earned privilege.

“Have you been asked to do a theme-park?” I ask half-seriously.

“Loads of times. It might happen, not sure where, it’d have to be in the right place and delivered in the right way,” says Deary, in his soft, distinctive, treacle tones.

I wish I'd suggested either Scotland or Eton. But if it does happen let's hope lots of Deary's underclass make it on to the rides? And if they work there, they get more than minimum wage.

Strange interview, as I say. 

Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans and Awful Egyptians will be performing at The Opera House Manchester Tuesday 1 – Saturday 5 Nov box office 0844 871 3018.

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AnonymousSeptember 2nd 2011.

I bet his agent is thrilled!

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