Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Horrible history, Barmy Britain...and the Tommy who could have killed Hitler

His bestselling books have transformed the way we think about our past. Terry Deary speaks about exploding myths, the magic of writing - and why we ALL need to help inspire the nation's children

Written by Fiona Hicks
Terry Deary has a knack for finding the most captivating tales in history, particularly the horrible bits. As the author of 249 fiction and non-fiction books for children, including Rotten Romans, Vile Victorians and Terrible Tudors, the Horrible Histories creator has enthralled adults and children alike with tales of conspiracies and coincidences, ironies and irregularities, mishaps and misinterpretations… all with plenty of added gore.

In its centenary year, he is certainly fascinated by the First World War. ‘My favourite story of all is of a private called Henry Tandey,’ says Terry. At first, Private Tandey seems like any other soldier fighting in the trenches. But on one particular day he was instructed to shoot every German soldier he came across, even if they surrendered or were wounded.

‘So Henry Tandey came upon a wounded German soldier, who put his hands up,’ continues Terry. ‘Henry raised his pistol, but then said to the soldier, “Go on, clear off ”, and the German ran away. It’s just the kind of thing you or I would do.

‘Only that the German soldier’s name was Adolf Hitler and had Henry shot him, he could have saved 50 million lives.’ [Tandey later was awarded the Victoria Cross.] 

Terry, who in 2011-2012 was the 12th most borrowed author (adult and children combined) from British libraries, firmly believes that the true value of history lies in such human stories. ‘We can measure ourselves against them,’ he says. ‘We think, “What would I have done if I was there? What sort of person am I?”

‘Facts teach you nothing. I think it was Stalin who said, “When one person dies, it’s a tragedy, but when a million people die, it’s a statistic.” I take a look at the one man dying – or in Hitler’s case, surviving – because suddenly it becomes real and relevant. The real question is why we behave the way we do. That is why history is such a fascinating subject.

‘But in schools it is simply reduced to testable facts and that is why I rage and rant.’

Ah, schools. Terry is rather forthcoming when it comes to education, and the way children are taught, saying in the past that the government is ‘just a bunch of muppets in Whitehall telling teachers what to teach.

’‘You have to remember that humans had been on the Earth for a million years before schools were invented, and now people suddenly assume that we couldn’t exist without them,’ he tells me. ‘Most people have a thirst for knowledge. You don’t have to bully and lock children away for six hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year and force them to learn.’

This disdain in part stems from his own unhappy experience. ‘I was 13 when I realised I had a talent for writing. Until then, we had just done school tests and we’d been brain-fed exam fodder. Then one week, we had to write an essay. All the really good students got 12 or 13 out of 20 for their mark, and I got 17½. But no one thought to say, “You have a talent there, you should develop it.” Northern lads in Sunderland in the 1960s just didn’t become writers.’

It wasn’t until many years later, when he was touring with a Welsh acting group, that Terry wrote a play that was subsequently adapted into a children’s book. Thirty-eight years on, The Custard Kid is still in print. Terry went on to create the Horrible Histories opus – a franchise that comprises more than 60 books, a television series and a touring stage show. He has sold in excess of 25 million books, but Terry has now penned the fi nal Horrible Histories and is venturing into writing for adults.

With so many titles behind him, does he fi nd writing a challenge?

‘For me it’s like having a cup of tea,’ he explains. ‘I have a drive that is like a thirst. I just want to write. When I’ve finished a book, like when I finish a cup of tea, I’m satisfied. I’ve spoken to other writers who say they take a whole day to write 100 words. I get paid to write books and if I wrote at that rate, my family would be in the gutter begging for crusts of bread.’

Terry found his vocation by ‘accident’, and – returning to his favourite theme – he feels that is where schools are falling woefully short. ‘We’ve got to fi nd a system that is much more responsive and tailored to the individual.’ In a Terry Deary utopia, education would be much more fl uid. ‘One answer is mentoring,’ he adds. ‘Every single one of us has to be responsible for the next generation.’

Terry has been called anti-establishment, but he is really just a believer in the power of the individual, whether historical fi gures or everyday folk today. ‘We have to consider personality,’ he says. ‘The idea that being promoted is the ultimate aim is not necessarily true. If a man is happy doing a low-level job, let him keep doing it and pay him what he is worth. Take bus drivers, for example. No off ence intended, but being a bus driver is fairly low status. But these people should be recognised and appreciated for what they do just as much as a bank manager, which is seen as high status. There is no higher or lower, there’s just diff erence. Everyone plays their part in keeping society ticking over.

‘People say I’m a middle-class anarchist,’ he laughs. ‘They say I’m just saying it for effect. And they are right; I’m saying it to stimulate a reaction. But people forget that there are more important things to worry about than a writer upsetting people. Things like the invasion of Ukraine.’
With such a fascination with people and their stories, would he say he’s a people person?

‘No: I’m a miserable sod. I love sitting here at my computer writing, and I am very shy,’ he says,albeit with more humour than you would expect from a genuine grump.

He might not relish meeting living persons (‘it’s an eff ort’) but it seems he will never tire of investigating historical ones. ‘I am discovering so much writing for adults, because I am researching more in depth. A lot of people you perceive as heroes are in fact not very nice people, and a lot of the legends that I grew up believing are simply not true.’

He cites the example of James Watt, who reportedly said that watching his aunt’s kettle boil as a boy planted the idea for the original steam engine. ‘It’s utter nonsense,’ laughs Terry. ‘Watts never said that.

‘All these fallacies and misinterpretations and legends, it’s great to be able to investigate and make talking points all over again.’

Dangerous Days On The Victorian Railways, by Terry Deary, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £9.99.

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