Although his credentials relate to journalism, there is certainly a historian at the heart of Tim Butcher. His travel adventures chronicled in Blood River and Chasing The Devil, explore the journeys of famous characters whilst delving into the recent histories of the surrounding areas. The combination of historical research and the sense of danger that accompanies his journeys combine to create a unique and successful style. The Manchester Historian was lucky enough to be able to talk to Tim about his life, his work and his passion.
Had you always wanted to delve into the world of journalism?
I am insufferably nosey. Journalism was one way of indulging that.
I understand you studied PPE at university. Considering a lot of your
work is historically based, was there a part of you that wanted to do pure
history? Are you a historian at heart?
All ‘PPEists’ are would-be historians not clever enough to win a place in the
history faculty. History is so rich and multi-dimensional that P, P and E
tackles only three of the more numerous streams.
Your first book, Blood River, followed Stanley’s journey down the
Congo River. When you decided to make that journey did you think it would
be so dangerous? Did you ever think you would not complete it? What was the
most frightening moment of the whole adventure?
Yes I was fully aware crossing the Congo in the 21st century was potentially off-the-graph risky. As a journalist I had nibbled at the edges of the Congo, metaphorically and literally, covering stories in the capital close to the western limit and the wilds of the east, but I had
never tackled the heart of the place. And as a human I was as aware as anyone
that Congo is a synonym for something heartlike, dark and dangerous.
Your second book, Chasing The Devil, followed Graham Greene’s footsteps
in West Africa. What made you decide to undertake that journey? Would you
do it now?
The Liberia trip was about closure. I had run away from Sierra Leone and Liberiaafter journalist friends were killed there and I crossed swords with the warlord
Charles Taylor. It was unsettling to leave a place so `un’understood. So thejourney was about putting that right. It was a tough journey but not an overlydangerous one. Ebola had not manifested itself and though it involved weeks ofwalking through what is now the ebola hot zone, the health issues when I did itwere much more manageable: lassa fever, guinea worm, malaria, cholera etc. Thewar was dun-dun, as they said in the Krio of Sierra Leone, and it was hardphysically not psychologically.
The Trigger, about the short life of Princip, was very well researched,with several original primary sources. What made you want to investigatethis man so thoroughly?
The hook was that in 1994 in Sarajevo I found his tomb. This was at the height of a conflict known as the Bosnian war which was baffling in its complexities, be they nationalist, ethnic,historic, political whatever. Pretty much the single thing I knew about Sarajevowas that it hosted the trigger event for WWI and the young gunman was a localhero. So why was his tomb being used as a loo when I got there in 1994? It wasthat disconnect with the standard narrative that made me curious, nosey if I ambeing honest, so I wanted to know more.
Then I found that standard histories of him are plain wrong; whether Luigi
Albertini in the 1940s or AJP Taylor on the 1960s or Max Hastings in the modernblizzard of WWI writing. They all get salient points wrong.So this intrigued me. How could a historical figure be such a shape-shifter,how could his story be so traduced, massaged and worked over by those that camelater? The challenge then became: find out what is verifiably true about him andcompare/contrast with the standard narrative. The results were remarkable. Anassassin from a hundred years ago has a story so rich it still gives. It wasgreat.
In The Trigger you question conventional thinking that Princip wasacting for the Serbs, in that you say he was acting for the greater Slavnation. How has your theory been received in academic circles?
I am not alone in making this point. Some did back in the 1920s. Others, perhapsthe most famous of whom was Vladimir Dedijer, made it in the 1960s. But what isstriking is how much more strident, un-sourced and polemical are the otherclaims- that he was a Serb nationalist. The attraction is obvious. If he was aSerb thug then the causal chain of WWI makes some sort of sense: the Austriansdid at least have casus belli to attack Belgrade etc, etc. But if, as I argue, this is not the case, that Princip was a Slav nationalist,a utopian, a naïve dreamer, then the origins of WWI become much moreinteresting. Vienna’s actions are not justified retaliation; they aresomething much more interesting – face saving, imperial hubris etc. And theactions of the empires that followed Vienna are equally more interesting.
What criteria, if any, do you use when deciding on suitable subjects towrite about (in books rather than articles)?
Does it interest me? I am going to be working on this blessed thing for severalyears so it had better grip me.
What is your next project?
Reluctant to say. Sorry.
Finally, do you have a favourite historical time period?
History comes alive for me when difficult choices are made for reasons that Ican recognise: depending on the sourcing and material, that period can be prettymuch anytime since Herodotus. It’s a rich old field.
Tim Butcher’s latest book, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War, is available for purchase and is published by Chatto and Windus.