Terry Deary, photo by WENN
The horrible history of Terry Deary begins in the late Forties, in ‘the most impoverished slum in Sunderland’ where jobless wretches skulked on greasy cobbles and the rooms in houses had no doors, ‘because people had burned them for firewood’. Here Terry’s dad, who couldn’t read, ran a butcher’s shop. At weekends his boy chopped up morsels of scrag for such customers as could afford it and assumed that the whole world was like this.
As he looks half-fondly back, Terry, 66, nattily dressed and silver-haired, is sunk into a plush leather armchair in the bar of Durham’s best hotel. He is one of Britain’s most successful authors, with more than 25 million books sold, two TV series to his name and now a stage show, Barmy Britain, returning to the West End.
It isn’t only the boy who has done well. Sunderland may still have its rougher bits but the butcher’s shop is now more likely to be a Tesco Express, filled with once-exotic goodies, and the houses have not only doors, but double glazing, cars on the forecourts and conservatories at the back.
Is the most important lesson of history, then, that life gets better? Not in Terry’s view. The most important lesson of history, he says, ‘is that the rich and powerful will always try to stitch up the rest of us’. Which explains, he says, why so much of history is so horrible. But then, he can’t really call himself a historian. Lots of people have taken pains to point this out – particularly learned types such as Dr David Starkey and Professor Niall Ferguson who do call themselves historians – and who, suspects Terry, are secretly jealous of his success and popularity.
‘Basically they are right,’ he says. ‘You won’t get much idea of the past from reading me. What I write are histories of the horrible.’
The condescension that is heaped upon him (Dr Starkey called him a ‘parasite’, while Professor Ferguson sniffed that ‘I’ve read the Horrible Histories to my children along with Harry Potter. They’re quite funny.’) plays beautifully to Terry’s strident anti-Establishment views.
He believes that the world is run entirely for the benefit of the ruling elite and that schools are part of a vast conspiracy intended to supply the powerful with compliant human fodder and that teachers are shameless stooges of the system. Although children are the core readership of his Horrible Histories series, nothing offends him more than being asked to go along to address a classroom of expectant, apple-cheeked faces. ‘I won’t set foot in one of those places,’ he fumes. He tells me he was recently offered a £1,000 discount on a new car if he’d give a talk to the garage owner’s son’s prep school.
‘Prep school! For God’s sake. I’d have them shut down. I said that I wouldn’t do it for a million.’
And then he’s off – passionate, engaging, with an overtone of well-intentioned battiness: ‘Even when I was a kid I could see through teachers. It was all about bullying and intimidation. Now they’ve got these anti-bullying campaigns, but the real role model for the bully is the teacher. The teachers impose order by bullying. They say, “You’d better do what I tell you or you’ll be punished,” and they mean it. That’s why I was caned so often. I don’t think many of them are any good. They just do it for the paycheck.’
He pours scorn on the examination system, notably Education Secretary Michael Gove’s latest reforms. ‘Nothing really changes. It’s still 30 kids sitting in a room with someone saying (affects superior voice), “I will impart my knowledge to you”. I wouldn’t even call it an education system. An education system should prepare you for life. All ours does is prepare you for passing exams. The most important thing in life is the relations you have with other people – family, friends, the people you love. School teaches you none of that.’
He loathes not only all politicians but everyone who has anything to do with politicians, and says that ‘the only honest man who ever entered the House of Commons was Guy Fawkes’. He takes a slow slug of beer and braces himself for what is clearly going to be a painful anecdote. ‘I was at a book lunch,’ he says quietly, ‘and the guest speaker was Cherie Blair. She stood up and said (he affects the tones of the Islington chatterati), “My son Leo is only six and he’s already reading the Horrible Histories”. I sat there, appalled, thinking, “My God, I don’t need that kind of endorsement”.’
Terry calls himself an anarchist, but his views hint more at a kind of extreme libertarianism. He thinks society should be governed by a ‘natural order’ rather than laws. He believes that revolution will come about electronically when – if I’ve understood correctly – everyone will be able to vote from their computers on everything.
‘When you vote now,’ he explains, ‘it tends to be for a party or a personality, but suppose you could vote just on the basis of the policies themselves, and we could all just press a button to decide. Then there’d be no need for politicians or civil servants or bureaucrats.’
It might not be fair to portray the Horrible Histories as agitprop, but there’s no doubt that the heroes of the books are the downtrodden, the poor and the rebels. Much gloating is reserved for the overthrow – preferably accompanied by grisly executions – of the ruling order.
What, though, explains his antagonism towards a society that – whatever its failings – has allowed him to rise from the dire poverty of post-war Sunderland to wealth and fame? His early childhood may have been a struggle, but it was happy and loving, and he admits that his parents moved into a better neighbourhood as soon as they could afford to. He adores Britain with such inexhaustible passion that he has never been abroad. Ever.
‘I don’t even have a passport,’ he says. ‘Wouldn’t use it if I had one.’
What about the references in his books? Doesn’t he long to see the pyramids or the Coliseum?
‘What would I see?’ he shrugs. ‘Lumps of old stone. My interest would be in the people who built them. And they’re not around to talk to. So, no thanks. I could live for a thousand years in this wonderful country I happen to have been born in and never run out of interesting things to do. And I don’t have to worry about the food or the language. I get homesick crossing the street.’
He lives on a 35-acre smallholding outside Durham with his wife of 37 years, Jenny. Their daughter, Sara, gave birth to twins last year. He says he can’t stand ‘leisure’, has taken only three weeks off work in the past 30 years, and his only indulgence is running shoes. I remind Terry that most chaps shed their radicalism by their mid-twenties and then move towards crusty bufferdom.
‘Not me. I’ve gone in the opposite direction,’ he cackles.
Things seem to have gone wrong attitude-wise when Terry was at school. He says he was put down by his teachers for being difficult, then, when he showed a talent for writing, it was ignored. He left with a ‘D’ in history, and took a traineeship with the Electricity Board, but left in the hope of becoming an actor.
He says his stage skills weren’t the greatest, but the small troupe he was with in the early Seventies offered an opportunity. ‘The scripts we had weren’t much good,’ he says, ‘so I got the job of knocking them into shape. It was something I could do, and that’s how the writing began.’
One successful production was The Custard Kid about a cowardly cowboy. When the run ended he turned the script into a book, and sent it to publishers. One said yes and so began a career as an author.
Literature it wasn’t. Terry’s niche was jokey stories for kids. He soon learned that what turned them on was lashings of gore and vulgarity, and swipes at anything representing authority. When his publisher suggested he write a history book, he was thrown. But deep down he knew exactly what was required.
What emerged was The Terrible Tudors – ‘a fact book with jokes’ as Terry calls it, which wallowed in the grossness and cruelty of the late Middle Ages, while managing to be both historically accurate and irresistible to juvenile minds. It includes an account of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots by a clumsy executioner who needed at least three swings ‘and a bit of sawing to finish the job’. The series has become a global phenomenon, for which Terry, modestly, takes only so much credit: ‘It wasn’t my idea. People ask what inspired me. I say I wasn’t inspired, I was getting paid.’
Given how rude he is about them, educationalists are remarkably generous in their praise of Deary’s work, acknowledging that by grabbing the attention of otherwise book-free minds he is pulling in the right direction. ‘You can learn a lot from the horrible,’ he agrees. ‘You get the chance to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You may not learn everything about history, but you can learn a lot about yourself.
‘I’m really here to entertain,’ he says. ‘I had a letter a while back from some kid saying that it was because of my books that he was doing history at university. I thought: “Don’t blame me, mate”.’
What do you make of Terry’s views? Discuss at www.sagazone.co.uk.
Barmy Britain is at The Garrick Theatre, London, from October 27 to January 6 www.saga.co.uk/theatretickets, 020 7492 1560)
Buy books from the Horrible Histories series at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
This interview originally appeared in Saga Magazine. For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.