Terry Deary is not happy. The best- selling author of Horrible Histories, the books that pour the blood into Bloody Mary and shovel the dung into dungeons, is in a very bad mood.
My proposed questions irritate him beyond belief. No, he’s not going to talk about history, or schools, or history in schools. He thinks teachers are a waste of time. His opinion on journalists seems to be similar.
To make matters worse, some hapless 11-year-old has had the nerve to contact him about a school project. He reads me the email: “Dear Mr Deary. I wondered if I could interview you for my Gifted programme about Victorian England? I have ten questions for you. 1. Did Queen Victoria have any pets as an adult? And if you don’t know, can you tell me who can?”
Deary snorts. “So, he’s ‘Gifted’, eh? Well, good for him.” At the Deary residence in County Durham, there comes the sound of the delete button being pressed. Gifted Child has been dispatched. “How dare people come to me not realisingthey are from an elite class?” grumbles Deary, 65.
A man whose scatological, cartoonish but utterly factual style has put a firework under British history books, he pays scant attention to the elite class. He’s so famously anti-elite that The Wall Street Journal tracked him down to find out how he was celebrating the royal wedding. “I was at a beer festival in Consett.” And what did he say to the paper? “ ‘Our lives are measured in breaths, and I haven’t enough to waste to talk about unearned privilege,’” says Deary, suddenly laughing. “I always quote Primo Levi: ‘It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege.’ That is my motto. It cut the poor interviewer dead.”
He abhors privilege, fuss and honour. Even if it’s earned. “My publishers had a thousand fits because I turned down Desert Island Discs. I’m not going to appear with all those big OBE people onRadio 4,” he says, giving the esteemed station an unprintable epithet.
Invitations from Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, the House of Lords and Downing Street all go in the bin. Actually, he did reply to one, once. “Prince Charles sent me a personal invitation, so I answered. He asked me to speak at his summer school, where teachers go ‘back to basics’ of English and history. He clearly hasn’t read my books! I don’t believe in schools! I think all teachers should be sacked!”
I venture to ask him why he hates schools so much. “I was bullied at school. I was a rebel. I kept asking ‘why’. I was beaten at school for pleasure. Up to the age of 11, we never did creative writing. We just did test papers. Then, in senior school, we started doing creative writing. Marks were out of 20. Most people were getting 11s or 12s. I was getting 17 1/2; yet nobody said I was talented. Northern boys did not become writers. Books were not part of our culture.”
That Deary can still recall his marks is testimony to his sense of a thwarted start, yet he owes everything to Sunderland “for giving me my attitude”. His father was a butcher and his mother the manager of a clothing shop. He grew up in the working-class district of Monkwearmouth, in a house with only two books: the Ladybird guide to British birds, and Enid Blyton’s Island of Adventure.
“My parents saw passing exams as a way forward. ‘Work hard and you’ll be happy,’ they said. That is a lie. I went to the Electricity Board as a trainee manager and it nearly killed me.” A friend’s encouragement led him to read drama at Sunderland College. After a spell acting and directing, he began writing at the age of 29.
With a D in A-level history, his career was never going to mirror the stately professorial passage of his peer group, in particular “the obnoxious” Niall Ferguson, the Oxford historian who now lectures at Harvard. “Niall Ferguson is hilarious. Saying he’s going to go off to America where people will appreciate him more. Go on then! Off you go!” says Deary, who has never left the UK. “David Starkey called me a parasite! Well that’s exactly what we are! I’m not interested in history. I’m interested in human beings. Why we behave the way we do. Look at the past and you get answers.”
So how did he start? “I was asked to write a joke book. I decided to do a historical one. I discovered that the facts were more interesting than the jokes. So we came up with a new genre: a fact book stuffed with jokes.”
Although he’s written dozens of other books, and a series of historical novels, it’s Horrible Histories that made his fortune, selling more than 20 million copies. Adaptation into a children’s series has only fuelled the power of the title. The comic-strip style has become a rollicking series of sketches to give a hilarious – but factually correct – take on history.
In series three, which kicks off this week, Aztec food is given the MasterChef treatment and Dick Turpin gets an Adam Ant-style pop video. Last year it won a British Comedy Award for best sketch show, the first children’s programme ever to do so, and this half-term it’s spawned a quiz show, Gory Games, testing kids’ Horrible Histories knowledge (Mon–Thu 5.45pm CBBC: see page 67). Deary, who often takes walk-on parts in the show, is unusually soppy about his baby. “I’m delighted. The television version has turned out so far beyond my expectations. The BBC did a wonderful thing. Instead of being conservative they went for something written by adults, rather than something kiddy.”
Deary’s next project is to run the length of Hadrian’s Wall, all 82 miles of it, followed by the Great North Run on Tyneside. He’s doing it for a charity that enables handicapped children to achieve things in the community from which they are typically excluded.
He has one child, a daughter aged 31, who’s about to have twins. I ask him whether he will give her any parenting advice. Are you kidding? “Children make their own decisions. The problem with parents is that they have their own agendas.”
Because we are now firm friends, I tell him I have read my children the Edwardian classic history book Our Island Story. Whoops. “Our Island Story is a godawful book, and you should be locked in jail, without food, for reading it to your children,” says Terry Deary. The man is a national treasure.