Geek, Memory: Horrible Histories


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In my first few weeks at university, a couple of my new friends discovered that they shared a love of one particular phrase, a pop-cultural remnant of their childhoods that they’ve never stopped loving:

“What are you like?!”

I asked them why that phrase was quite so funny; they told me it was a catchphrase from the Horrible Histories TV series and turned back to each other, grinning in the afterglow of their beloved childhood memory.

That should have been the end of it. But I was totally affronted by their affection for that phrase, that TV series, and most of all, by the fact that they referred to it as Horrible Histories without qualification. Horrible Histories the television series simply wasn’t the Horrible Histories I knew.

Talking about the ghastly, kitsch, sub-pantomime kids’ show in the same breath as the Horrible Histories books was morally offensive to me. I hated to hear people talking about the two entities as though they shared anything more than a name. People bring the two into close association: for me, remembering them like that is a real shame. This is something I think about more than is rational.

Horrible Histories – the real Horrible Histories – began in 1993, the year I was born. By the time the series proper ended in 2006, I was just getting too old for it. The Horrible Histories series – as well as its stablemates, Horrible Science and Horrible Geography – bookended my childhood.

Those books were brilliant; I read them obsessively, usually in a single, day-long sitting. I sponged up information at a lick, while school was only drip-feeding me. My hand was first up in every, and I spent all my free time at home reading those books. After two years of Horrible Precociousness, I skipped a year, but the Terrible Tudors, Angry Aztecs and Groovy Greeks were still keeping me ahead.

Terry Deary, the driving force behind Horrible Histories, hated school, and still does. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2013, Deary said:

I always come back to what W B Yeats said: ‘Education is not about filling buckets, it’s about lighting a fire.’

The Horrible series focussed – ingeniously – on all the gory bits: the beheadings, the pandemics, and so on. 25m readers later, the wisdom of that strategy is obvious. But Deary et al. didn’t include the gory bits just because they were fun. He treated serious history in an unpatronising way because he thought it was important.

As a child with a confusing family history – an Eastern European immigrant with French and Caledonian splodges – Horrible Histories helped me cherry-pick an identity. I couldn’t possibly consider myself English when all they seemed to do was colonise and murder. The French though, at least did their head-chopping for all right reasons, and the Scots didn’t seem too bad either. I was sold.

The Horrible books had already decided my academic year, and thus, my teachers and friends. Now they had decided my nationality. I was a Cut Throat Celt with a taste for freedom; I didn’t stop loving education until University, when, gradually, it became all about filling buckets again. I’d long left the Horrible books behind, but without them, I don’t think I’d have made it to University at all.

That’s why my new classmates – with their love of the Horrible TV series got to me so much. I took the Horrible books at face value, uncritically lapping them up, grateful that I was being treated as a tiny bloodthirsty adult, rather than swaddled in reams of boring dates. I found the books as helpful as they were funny, and that just wasn’t true for my classmates and their television equivalent. By the time the cheesy Horrible Histories live-action series came out in 2009, my classmates-to-be were seventeen. They found it funny because it truly was horrible; poorly acted, punctuated by awful songs, and shot with props that would have looked tired in a school prop cupboard. Horrible Histories was a joke to them in a way that it could never be to me.

Don’t get me wrong, the Horrible books were very funny. I’ve never yet seen the word “defence” without giggling at the definition stamped on my brain: “If de-fence falls down, de enemy gets in”. First and foremost, though, Horrible Histories, Horrible Science and Horrible Geography were sparking kids’ imaginations. It certainly worked on me.

You can follow Mischa on Twitter @mdzfd

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