Unlicensed Historians

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Apologies for the lack of new posts – I’ve been speaking at LPO in France and then away for three-and-a-bit-weeks in beautiful Nova Scotia. (More of which later.) In the meantime here’s an interesting article with Terry Deary, author of the immensely popular Horrible History series, who turns out to be a fascinatingly anarchic figure.

I particularly liked this quote:

“I am not a historian. I am a children’s author,” Deary says. “I’ve got no qualifications in history. And that’s a massive advantage in reaching my audience. Because historians like Simon Schama and David Starkey just stand on television and lecture you. And when they write books, they’ve got the same lecturing voice. But mine is more: ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve found out! It’s shocking!’”

I’d argue with him though – I think he is an historian. He’s just not an academic. And that’s why it works so well. It really bugs me when people dismiss their own expertise because they are not part of the profession.

What Deary is, in fact, is an unlicensed historian. I went to a talk earlier in the year by John Burrow, author of A History of Histories and former professor at various Universities. He described the emergence of professional historians in the 19th century and the idea that conferring a degree on someone was giving them a licence to teach the next generation. I have a great deal of fondness for the work of people like Deary. I like unlicensed historians (not least because I am one. Not to mention an unlicensed theologian. And cartographer. Blimey – I’m not officially qualified to do anything.)

I’ve also got a lot of time for what he says about the general uselessness of schools. I can honestly say that never in my life have I needed to work out the area under a curve. And yet I can remember spending hours trying to get to grips with that particular problem at school. All in all, I’d have been far better off learning plumbing.

Interview is here.