He loathes schools, thinks all teachers should be sacked, despises his fellow history writers and would leave all ancient monuments to rot. Author Terry Deary blasts away the cobwebs with Etan Smallman
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Perhaps it is the dark humour that suffuses every one of his more than 300 published books. Maybe it is the quirky cartoons that decorate them. Or possibly it is his gentle Sunderland burr.
But something has to explain why Terry Deary is still seen by most as an avuncular storyteller – rather than the seriously subversive figure he is.
A former teacher, he loathes schools (“pits of misery and ignorance”), detests school inspectors (“the Ofstapo”) and castigates publishing (“the seediest profession I’ve worked in”) while sitting in his own publisher’s offices.
Teachers obviously do not get it. Many insist on using his books in the classroom, yet the last thing Deary wants is for his tomes to be ranked alongside “Neanderthal text books”. “School textbooks are utter dross and a waste of dead trees. They’re criminal,” he says, adding that he once threatened to sue a teacher who came up declaring: “I love your books! I use them in school all the time”.
She could not tell that he was joking. The Establishment has not received the message either. Deary has turned down invitations from the Queen and Prince Charles and when he was asked to meet Tony Blair, he simply did not bother replying (“I believe the only person to have entered Parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes”)
In the flesh, the author, screenwriter, part-time actor and Celebrity Mastermind champion is a mixture of charming, chippy and cantankerous.
He is best-known for his Horrible Histories, the alliterative book series that started back in 1993 with The Terrible Tudors. Described as history “without the boring bits”, the titles are filled with lashings of blood and poo and have sold well over 20 million copies, as well as being adapted for a hit CBBC show – the first children’s programme to win a Comedy Award.
The 71-year-old workaholic is now focusing on writing history books for grown-ups and has just released the fourth in his series of Dangerous Days books, this one focusing on Ancient Egypt. Parents and children tend to enjoy similar things, he says, though adults “love to nitpick”. And at his public speaking events, “whereas kids ask because they’re curious, adults ask a question because they want to show the audience how clever they are.”
But there is an upside to writing for over-18s: “What I’m telling the kids is, ‘Don’t obey your teachers because anybody in authority is by definition stupid, incompetent and evil’. With adults, I can actually encourage anarchy, without being accused of poisoning the minds of children.”
Deary is far from surprised by our ongoing fascination with Egypt. “It’s exotic,” he explains. “You don’t want to read about the woman next door and her personal problems, even though they’re more important than the goings-on of Tutankhamun.”
However, do not for a moment think that he spent months wandering the Valley of the Kings. In fact, Deary has never been to see the pyramids and could not be less interested in doing so (“I’m self-employed, so a day away from my desk costs me £1,000”).
He does not cite sources – another thing those pesky adults go in for – and barely does his own research, instead relying on a team of fact hunters to provide him with his raw material.
Nor is he too bothered about the treasures of the Middle East being under threat – either by the barbarians of Isis or the lack of restoration funding caused by an exodus of tourists.
“Your local council might ask you, Do you want to close a library or stop gritting in the winter? And Egypt’s got the same problem. Do you preserve the monuments or do you look after the starving and the poor on the streets of Cairo? And anyone who says you look after the pyramids has got a slightly warped sense.”
Do not get Deary started on schools. He describes his own education as “such a waste of a young life that it’s almost unforgivable” (his highest grade was in history, a D, and he feels his talent was totally overlooked because he had the misfortune of being Northern and working-class). He has refused to speak at a school for more than 20 years and any email from one is instantly deleted.
He has previously called the national curriculum the “biggest disaster in British history” – but tells me he does not bother to follow political developments in education. Instead, his prescription is dizzyingly simple: “They should close all schools and sack all teachers.”
“I went to a grammar school, and it was a truly dreadful experience. Children will get more social mobility from watching movies like Rocky, say, where somebody from a low background fights his way to the top, or Coronation Street, than they will from being in a grammar school.”
Deary insists that all schools will be relegated to the dustbin of history before 2030, to be replaced by “individual learning online”: “So everybody will have what they always should have had, which is education geared towards their needs.”
At a push, he can think of only three historians he does not despise – John Davies, author of A History of Wales, John Sadler, an expert on the North of England, and television’s Mary Beard. He has said there is only one children’s author who is not like the rest (“so up themselves it’s unreal”). But, sadly, today he cannot remember who it is.
Deary has sparred with historian Niall Ferguson over the British Empire. “He thinks he’s my bugbear. I just said something nasty about him and he packed his bags and went to America, saying, ‘People in Britain don’t appreciate me! They criticise me!’. Well, yes, that’s because you’re a f**ktard.”
I wonder who his bête noire of the moment is. I only need to ask once to trigger an outburst.
“Lucy Worsley. Her posh little voice,” he says mimicking the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces. “Her insistence on play-acting and thinking her performances are actually quality drama. The fact she’s head of the royal palaces, which should all be left to rot anyway.
“And the fact she was particularly spiteful to me when we met. She just had a few needly comments – there I was on MasterChef as a judge with her and I was in a bow tie eating posh food, so I’m not working class,” he rages. “You bitch!”
David Starkey has hit back, calling Terrible Terry a “parasite on historians”.“What a perceptive man!” Deary booms. “He’s absolutely spot on. No, I’m a parasite, he’s dead right. How can I argue with someone like him? He gets me in one word – what a talent that man has!
“I’m not being sarcastic, he’s right! I take the work of all these historians and I just milk it, edit it and retell it.
“So I’m a parasite, guilty as charged, no problem with that.” A dramatic pause, and a smile. “I sell more books than them.”
‘Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt’ is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (paperback £8.99 and ebook £4.99)