Historians are seedy and horrible, says Terry Deary

Article by Sarah Ebner

He owes his success to history, but the author Terry Deary has described historians as “seedy and devious”.
From The Times May 31, 2010

The bestselling writer of the Horrible Histories series added that all historians were out to “make a name for themselves”, denied that his books were history books at all and even started a spat with Niall Ferguson, one of Britain’s best-known historians.
“Historians are nearly as seedy and devious as politicians,” Deary, 64, said. “They pick on a particular angle and select the facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves … They don’t write objective history.”
Deary — whose books have sold more than 20 million copies — does not like any historians. “Eventually you can see through them all,” he said. “They all come with a twist.” However, he reserved his greatest ire for Ferguson, the former Oxford historian who now lectures at Harvard University.
“Obnoxious people like Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing,” Deary said. “He’s a deeply offensive right-wing man who uses history to get across a political point.”
In response, Ferguson admitted to surprise that Deary was commenting on his work. “It’s a little like asking Rory Bremner for his opinion on George Osborne’s spending cuts or Sacha Baron Cohen to review Simon Schama’s forthcoming history of the Jews,” he said. “I have read some of the Horrible Histories to my children, along with Harry Potter, The Hobbit and many other children’s books. They’re quite funny. And so is this.”
“You say that Terry Deary thinks my book Empire had ‘a political point’. I am not sure what that means. The book argued that there were benefits as well as costs to the British Empire, which is not a political point but a historical judgment. Terry Deary says that he ‘wants to be anti-Establishment’. That sounds more like someone who is trying to get across a political point.”
The Horrible Histories series relates historical events in a way that attracts children — with blood and gore. However, Deary (who got a D in his history A level) said he did not write “history books”, but “about people”. He added that his aim was to “counteract the lies” told by teachers.
“For example, when I went to school, I was told Henry VIII was a bit cruel but that he was a good king because he was strong. That’s what I believed but it’s utter, utter evil to promote that idea. He was a psychopath who should never have been able to rule the country. And that is what the system allows.”
Historians cannot decide whether to be grateful that Deary has attracted more children to the study of history, or angry at his attitude towards them.
“Does this man go to the archive, or is he just a parasite on historians?” asked David Starkey, an expert on Henry VIII. “He does make a real point about a certain type of history, which is designed to put forward a case, but what on earth does ‘objective’ mean? In the reign of Henry VIII, for example, the main archive alone is 244 volumes of about 800 closely written pages each. That’s three million facts, and the historian has to select from them.”
Paula Kitching, of the Historical Association, said: “We don’t want to throw insults backwards and forwards. But I’m surprised that he wants to attack history. There are many different kinds of historians out there and, whether he likes it or not, he’s falling into that category himself now.”
Meanwhile, Catharine Edwards, Professor of Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London, said that children “absolutely loved” the books. “If it takes toilets to get them interested in history, that’s fine. It’s the most gruesome side of things which attracts the young.”

And check out this comment:
Bob Evans wrote:
One of the great tragedies of the present is the twisted view of the past too many of the public hold because of the pseudo-historians such as Deary. For their own pecuniary benefit, rather than study the past to promote its understanding of history, they prefer to churn out the mercenary potboilers. To do so, they prefer to focus on the disgusting, the gore, the bizarre and unusual of the past. Sound familiar? Yes, it is how Hollyweird has discovered the path to greater riches.

This is not to say that good historical fiction is of necessity bad. Indeed, the books of Thomas B. Costain and Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) have served Clio well by stimulating young minds to formally study the past through university (as Costain did mine).

Deary’s arrogance, however, is truly mind-boggling! He may charge that we of the profession are “seedy and devious”, but as himself a failure at the discipline, he also admits to being a parasite and sponger. “I am not an historian so I take my research from researchers,” he boasts. Unwilling to do the hard work with primary sources, he simply wants to benefit from the historian’s toils. Even that blood and gore turns no new ground, for it has all been known by past historians, but discarded as irrelevant and distracting to the ebb and flow of history.

He would have the paying public believe that only HE has found the key to the past, the all-knowing source of the truth, the way and the light. He is in fact is using the past in despicably attempting to brainwash children to his seedy Leftist political viewpoint. To do so, HE picks *his* facts to suit his cause. He seeks not simply to “make a name” for himself, but a pot full of money to boot. He complains that historians, “…don’t write objective history,” all the while exploitatively writing his own warped view of the past.

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11 Responses to Historians are seedy and horrible, says Terry Deary

  1. To be fair, the Horrible Histories books have attracted lots of children to learning about history, even to formally studying history through school and higher education. At least these books interest children, as so few want to learn about history nowadays.

    Undoubtedly the books do primarily aim to earn the author as much money as possible, but I’m not sure that Terry Deary ever claimed to be a historian. Perhaps he is more a historical childrens author. Childrens books are never going to rival academic historians in objectivity and academic value, they are designed to educate and entertain the young.

    Why is Deary’s comment on historians a problem? He isn’t a historian, he’s an author.

  2. Ken Baker says:

    Yes, but he’s amassed a fortune writing history books (of a sort) so his present remarks even as a “pseudo-historian” seem a little …um…inelegant? I enjoyed Ferguson’s riposte, that it was like asking Rory Bremner to comment on George Osborne. Acid drops! But what did you make of Bob Evans’ fury: “He is in fact is using the past in despicably attempting to brainwash children to his seedy Leftist political viewpoint.” I guess every time you write, you are writing from a particular perspective. No one’s clear of prejudice, after all. (“Children’s bools are never going to rival academic historians in objectivity”??! You think?)

  3. I do realise! But the article seems almost angry at Deary for not being academic enough! I think Deary should be left alone to write his childrens books, as too much expectation seems to be on him from a historical point of view. Of course he’s prejudiced, so are you, so am I. Yes his comments may be a little rude and inelegant, but he never professed to be a ‘true historian’, so he’s allowed to express his opinion. Perhaps criticism of Deary needs to be toned down, it is a little silly. Let’s just leave him to write his childrens books and leave the history to the historians. In reality, he’s only gaining publicity by all of this criticism, if you are a subscriber to the view that any publicity is good publicity.

    • kenbaker says:

      I’m not prejudiced.
      But thats just my opinion

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean ‘prejudiced’. I just meant how we’re all influenced by so many different factors, meaning we come at things from our own viewpoint, which perhaps isn’t objective from the start. I didn’t mean you in particular, it was just an example.

  4. Ken Baker says:

    It was only a joke.
    PS: have you discovered the connection between the French Revolution and Laboutins yet?

  5. kenbaker says:

    Marie Antoinette wore 2″ Laboutins to the guillotine.

  6. Interesting…How did you know that when you didn’t know what Louboutins were?

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