Tuesday, April 29, 2014

7 Questions with Author Tim Butcher

(Born in 1967, Tim Butcher was on the staff of the Daily Telegraph from 1990 to 2009 serving as chief war correspondent, Africa bureau chief, and Middle East correspondent. His first book, Blood River, was a number one bestseller in the UK, a Richard & Judy Book Club selection and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. He is currently based in Cape Town with his family.)

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
When I was a young child in middle England ( a tiny village called Hellidon that lies right in the middle of the British Isles) my parents would take me to church. Like generations of youngsters in churches the world over my mind wandered, but unlike those other generations, I was able to think about the sandstone arch in the portico to St John the Baptist Church, Hellidon.  Look closely at the arch and you see the coarse, sandy surface is etched with runnels. These were made my swordsmen sharpening their blades prior to battle in the English Civil War 300 years earlier. Swords? In a place of worship? That needed some explaining. I was hooked on history.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
Well, I studied it school and it broke my heart. I was aged 15 in the 1980s when I came second – failing to win - the school history project. Mine was on Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spy Ring, men who were then still alive but whose deeds were already worthy of historical study. I had done original research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and found letters written by Philby. The teachers said nice things but the prize went to a more traditional subject: the First World War. It still hurts.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I have been a foreign correspondent and am now a full time author. History has been my bedrock. As a reporter, knowing where an issue came from, its context, setting and background, always felt as important as the more immediate aspects of the story.  And as an author, I have been allowed to follow my dream of tackling what I might called Premier Historical Challenges; writing books about issues which are hugely important yet ofter overlooked because of their complexity. For example, the Congo in central Africa is today one of the most troubled places in the world. Yet, if you simply go there and describe the war, poverty, disease and lawlessness, I don’t think the reader gets a meaningful understanding. To achieve that, you need to both know the history and convey it in a way that is accessible.

Why is studying/knowing history important?
For the oldest reason in the book. How can we know who we are without knowing from where we came?

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I do not have a favourite period but I do have a favourite theme: tackling historical issues that are so complex there is a danger of them being regarded as opaque.

How can today’s students benefit from studying history?
History is more exciting today for students because it is so much more live and real as a discipline. With an internet link, a keen mind and a half decent broadband speed, any student can find things out for themselves in a fraction of the time than ever before.  For example, ask a student to find a family link to the First World War a hundred years ago and see what they come up with. Previously, the most you could expect was a compendium of recollections about the war from a grandparent, a great uncle or some other family member. Today, those recollections can be brought to life; military records can be found, unit histories can be checked, letters reproduced, death certificates traced. And all with an immediacy and power that was not before possible. It is history at its most electrifying and intoxicating.

What projects are you currently working on and do they relate to history?
My latest book, The Trigger, has occupied me for more than three years, the story of the young man who sparked the First World War a hundred years ago, the student Gavrilo Princip who shot dead the Archduke on a street corner in Sarajevo. The book comes out in UK on May 1 2014 and the US a month later. It has been a wonderfully rewarding historical adventure. Much has been written on Princip but, as became clear in my research and during a two month hike I made along his life path through Bosnia and Serbia, the Princip story has been mangled over the years, misrepresented, even manipulated.  Straightening all this out has been a challenge helped by some fantastic archivists. With their help I found things connected to Princip missed by a century of historians: his school reports, his appearance on a Habsburg census form from 1910, some graffiti he left behind in 1909 and other material.  The picture that emerges of Princip is, I hope, more sound and reliable than ever before. Professor Saul David of Buckingham University had this to say of The Trigger, `A fabulous book that all WWI historians will now have to take account of. Your work on Princip's education and motivation is outstanding - and completely at odds with the history books. You have re-written history’.

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