Are you sitting comfortably?
Then I will begin the story of TERRY DEARY, star writer of children’s books that sell – and disappear from library shelves – faster than Enid Blyton. Guess who he supports. Even when things are grim – as they quickly became after this interview at the start of the 2002-2003 season.
But read also what he thinks of the Keano revolution.
November, 1955. Under floodlights, a crowd of 55,000 watches Sunderland’s friendly with Moscow Dynamo. The Lads lose 1-0 but a boy of nine gazes in wonder at the spectacle. It is Terry Deary’s first visit to Roker Park.
There were no red and white stripes. Fixed in Terry’s mind half a century later are the players’ “satiny red shirts”. He thought these were the Dynamo tops, but research by Wear Down South suggests that they were actually “pinky-red” and worn by Sunderland (surely a criminal offence), while Dynamo opted for white shirts and black shorts. Terry also vividly remembers the tricks and wind-ups of Len Shackleton, and the brilliance of the turf caught in the glare of the lights.
To this day, he finds something special in the atmosphere of floodlit games, though even he cannot explain how this feeling survived last season’s home defeat by Boro (or, if it comes to that, his own Roker debut; Argus in the Sunderland Echo deplored a “flat and uninteresting” game, bad enough to silence the roar in the second half).
Terry’s attachment to night games is also a throwback to a boyhood in which filial duty put Saturday games out of bounds. Born in Sunderland, in the same Hendon clinic as Sir Tom Cowie, motor trade tycoon and former SAFC chairman, he was a butcher’s son. Saturday was a big day, and not only for football fans in those blessedly pre-Murdoch days. The neighbourhood would turn out in force to queue for the Sunday joint, there were deliveries to make and Terry had his bit to do.
When he was a little older and became a regular, Terry felt torn between the Roker and Fulwell ends. Roker he liked for its open-air expanse, but the Fulwell had a special magic: “Far more intense, the rougher end, and you got pushed and jostled, and slapped on the back when we scored. That just doesn’t happen at the new stadium. It’s not so raw.”
Players who impressed him? Jim Baxter for one. “Saw his debut. Mesmerised us.” And good old Cec Irwin charging up the wing. Away games? Only ever been to one, a 1-1 draw at Cardiff just after the 1973 Cup Final which, living in Wales, he’d watched on TV.
Like me, Terry almost feels sorry for younger fans who have known only the dizzy Reid era: four seasons in the Premiership, two championships and a play-off final. Forget last season’s wretched fare; there have been much darker times. Terry was there when we went down to the old Third Division in a play-off against Gillingham. I still wince at memories of listening in London to goal flashes on the radio. Terry had taught in Sunderland and, standing in the shocked Fulwell at the end, watched a former pupil go by, her eyes streaming with tears.
He said nothing to belittle the girl’s grief, but took a more philosophical view. “I felt very sad,” he said. “But I thought, ‘actually it’s not the end of the world’. Passionate a Sunderland supporter as I am, relegation has never seemed disastrous. I quite like seeing us play in the lower divisions, stuffing the opposition.”
Terry Deary is 56, the author of an astonishing 125 books, mainly for children and teenagers. He has lived in Wales and East Anglia, and been an actor and theatre director as well as a drama teacher. His books appear in 30 languages and include the Horrible Histories series that has successfully spawned animated cartoons for television.
It all goes back to Monkwearmouth Grammar when a teacher told Terry’s class: “Write an essay about your hobby.” Terry’s was trainspotting (“that blackens my name, doesn’t it?”). “Instead of just writing a factual description, I told it as a story and got something like 17-and-a-half out of 20,” he said. Surprised at how easily the words came, and despite “not being a brilliant student”, he began using the same tactic in other subjects. “I got away with it because I can express myself. It’s a great knack to have.”
His output has been prolific, but has also won widespread acclaim. His Rotten Romans won a Blue Peter award. Someone worked out that he outsold Enid Blyton by four to one and that he was the most borrowed British author in school libraries.
These days, he lives in Burnhope, works tight office hours (“none of this writer’s block – the stories queue up waiting to be written”) and runs a lot, in competitions and for charity. He hated cross-countries at school but took up jogging in his forties and completed a few Great North Runs. “One year I did so badly that I said ‘I’m finished’.”
Two years ago, a sobering encounter with the bathroom scales persuaded him to resume running. Realising that the weight had been piling on as he worked at his desk, drinking tea and eating biscuits, he began dieting, too. “The pounds fell off,” he brags. “I am so much better a writer for being thin. I swear it makes a difference.”
If anyone asked him, Terry would play rather than watch football. No one does, so he buys a season ticket instead. For a couple of seasons, he bought two and would take a friend or business acquaintance. But after last season’s “embarrassing standard of play” led to hours, days or weeks of head-shaking, analysis and commiseration, he has chosen to “suffer in silence” alone in future.
By the time Wear Down South** appears, Reid will doubtless have made those four quality signings. In case not, I leave you with Terry’s thoughts. “It is not such a worry to me….better that than the headless chicken policy of some clubs. What DOES disappoint me is the transfer activity that HAS gone on.
“The signing of Phil Babb is a crushing blow to me and to many fans. In central defence you can condone the signing of youngsters like Craddock, experienced internationals like Bould, quality players like Thome. But a player like Babb isn’t a has-been. He’s a never-has-been. I want to cry just thinking about it.
“But it would have no influence on my own ticket renewal. I would watch Sunderland if they stuck 11 Chelsea Pensioners in red and white shirts. I’ve seen a doctor about this but he says there’s no cure.”
* Terry, pictured at Penshaw Hill, has kindly updated his less than Horrible History – and the stats are hopelessly out of date.
By now, he has somehow managed to have 170 books published in 35 languages and international sales exceed 20 million.
He is working on new TV and leisure park projects, the latter a North Eastern plan which he hopes will aid regional regeneration. In 2000 he became Doctor of Education at Sunderland University and in 2005 an “Ambassador” to the city.
Still Sunderland daft? Of course – and “intrigued by Roy Keane”.
This is Terry’s verdict so far: “He’s a rare manager who makes no excuses (injuries, bad refs, bad luck etc.) and doesn’t whinge when things go wrong. He can be critical of the team even when they win because he wants to see the lads entertain.
Thank God the days of Mick McCarthy’s “Win ugly” have gone. McCarthy’s record-breaking relegation season wasn’t bad because of the endless defeats – it was unbearable because of the lack of flair and passion. Keane’s fast pass-and-move game is worth the entrance money and he is bringing in the exciting talent to play his way. Players who don’t fit in don’t last long. Gates are on the up (33,500 yesterday for Coventry) and optimism rising. As Tammy Wynette sang: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a Mackem, giving all your love to just one club.”
But at the moment it is actually pretty good being a Mackem.
** The interview is essentially as it appeared in Wear Down South, updated in the footnote.