Terry Deary: The 'Horrible Histories' writer on the evils of empire and Whitehall 'muppets'


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The Independent Culture

I know nothing about history I'm not a historian. I am a children's author, and I had 50 fiction books published long before the Horrible Histories series [which have sold more than 25 million copies] came along.

I got so much hostility from the right-wing because of [my book] Barmy Britain. The BNP and even public schoolboys would say, "You're poisoning the minds of children against the wonderful British empire, which did so much good." And I say. "Well, it didn't. It was one of the most evil empires in the world." The Georgians and Victorians made a massive profit exploiting countries they invaded.

David Starkey called me a parasite – which is accurate I do all my research second-hand, I don't go to primary sources and I don't go digging fields for coins. I read other people's big, fat history books for the good stuff, so my readers don't have to.

We sugarcoat our history as myth Dick Turpin was not a glamorous gentleman of the road. He was a thug who'd go to isolated farmhouses, kick down the door and if only the wife was there, he'd hold them over an open fire and roast them until they told him where the money was. People say he died as a highwayman. No he didn't; he was arrested for stealing a chicken.

The Romans were the cruellest nation ever to have existed I can't think of anyone else who liked to see humans killed for sport and would pack a stadium nearly as big as Wembley to see them torn apart. My new series of adult books, Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire, is like going from Horrible Histories' U certificate to an 18; it's strictly post-watershed stuff.

A bunch of clueless muppets in Whitehall are determining what children learn When I was still working in education, I was consulted on the national curriculum. But we had meeting after meeting and I don't think we [teachers] had any influence at all. And it's still just: pass your exams so you can get a job and make money and be happy. What a lot of codswallop. Schools should not be about academic learning or testing but identifying each child's talent. When I heard that my books were used in schools, I found it offensive; they are meant to be anti-establishment.

The worst thing anyone can say about a book is that it's fine My daughter never read any of my books until recently, when she read The Fire Thief, and said, "It's quite good." I felt burnt by that.

All great men are bad men It's not so much that power corrupts, it's that bad men seek power and power corrupts them still more. I can't think that any MP in power is there purely for noble purposes. Only one guy went to Parliament who could have made a difference, and that's Guy Fawkes.

I get so much abuse from off-the-cuff remarks I make I happen to believe all of them, but it's becoming counterproductive for me to say things now that I have a public profile, as people take what I say seriously. But I'm not modifying my views. My views on public libraries [Deary was quoted as saying they've "had their day"] have been misreported a bit, though: my point was that times have changed. Last year, 200 libraries closed, but 400 bookshops closed, too, and no one marched to save them. Without bookshops we won't have a book industry, and the world will be a poorer place.

Terry Deary, 67, is an author best known for the 'Horrible Histories' children's books. His new adult series, 'Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire' (£9.99, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is published on Thursday