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Author Podcast: Tim Butcher

abstract:Tim Butcher is a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. When one thinks about journalists covering all the conflict hotspots: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Algeria, Sierra Leone and Lebanon, you can think of Tim Butcher. After a four year tour of Africa for the Daily Telegraph Tim spent three years planning his solo return to the Congo retracing the river route of another Daily Telegraph journalist, Henry Morton Stanley. In part on motorbike, and in part by river barge and perugue (canoe), Butcher traveled almost 2,500 miles from the Eastern border and lake district of the DRC to the Western border on the Atlantic, thus crossing the width of the country. His resulting book, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart (Grove Press) was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2008. Here is his account of aspects of his book and of course the perspectives he gained traveling and researching the country that is at the center of the continent of Africa. A former Belgian colony that passed into shakey independence in '62 and then kleptocratic rule under Mobutu as Zaire for close to 40 more years, the DRC or Democratic Republic of Congo has at last achieved political peace with hopes for continued stability and renewed prosperity through development of its ample natural resources with the return of foreign investment and aid. This is the first speaker in a 6-part series from the Southbank Centre on the banks of another great river, the Thames, London. Please listen to Tim Butcher and then follow along with the rest of the 5 shortlisted authors via the podcast. Click on links to purchase their books. You can subscribe to our RSS feeds for this and all audio content, or click on individual mp3 files to select authors or segments.


April 09, 2009
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[N.B.: Minor technical deficiencies intrinsic in the house sound system occurred during the event, and we have made adjustments to correct this in the taped broadcast.]

  • PART I: Introduction
  • PART II: Tim Butcher, Blood River
  • PART III: Orlando Figes, The Whisperers
  • PART IV: Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
  • PART V: Alex Ross,The Rest is Noise (audio pending)
  • PART VI: Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House (audio pending)

Audio Transcript

PART I:Introduction

BookBuffet: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for and today I bring you an author event recorded this past summer at the Southbank Centre, London where I had the opportunity to attend the readings of 5 out o the 6 shortlisted authors competing for the auspicious BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for 2008.

This is the 10th year that the BBC Four broadcasting corp will be awarding the Samuel Johson prize. From 131 submissions a panel of journalists determined the best nonfiction book published in the calendar year out of an array of genres from biography, travel and popular science to the arts and current affairs. The winner takes home the richest prize in the world for nonfiction. Join me in listening to each of the five authors talk about their books. If you don’t know who the winner is I won’t spoil it for you now. The topics range from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Stalin’s Russia, VS Naipaul of Trinidad to New York's classical music scene to a murder at a country estate in England that marked the beginning of the detective novel genre. Now Join me at the Southbank Center in London.

Introduction by Gillian Moore, Head of Contemporary Culture, Southbank Centre: Preamble not transcribed.

Moderator greeting by author and cultural commentator, Brian Fouliard, Times London: Pithy comments on the authors shortlisted, not transcribed.

PART II:Tim Butcher, Blood River (Purchase Book)
TB: I went to East Africa in the year 2000 and all my research on the modern problems in Africa all seemed to draw back to the Congo. The Congo is this vast vast country at the center of the continent. Today it is called The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but through the years you might have heard it named Zaire, Congo Free State, Belgian Congo. It's a vast single entity and from it form so many of the contemporary African problems today. Whether it's Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe doesn't even touch the country and yet Robert Mugabe got into government by Generals who lined their pockets with diamonds being taken from the Congo when they sent their soldiers into the Congo simply to defend the diamond mines. The Lord's Assistants Army (LRA) in Uganda where you read about child soldiers... they hide in the Congo today with utter certainty that no one will hold them responsible for their actions from the 70's because there is no responsible government, the Congo is such a lawless place.

So that's when it became apparent to me that the Congo was the root of many of Africa's troubles today. Then as I was looking at the history, it all came back to the Daily Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph started the Congo on its chaotic course by sending a journalist, Henry Morton Stanley on his journey in the 1870's. It's kind of bizarre to think in Colonialism you think it might be a Geographical Explorer or a member of the Geographic Society discovering places on a scientific endeavor. Not at all. It was a journalist. A guy scrubbing around on [can't make phrase out] expenses. He goes to this place, charts the river Congo, comes back, establishes that there is this massive river that navigateable to the Center of Africa and changes the course of history. That river is then claimed by the Belgians.

So the reason I set out on this journey was that I was troubled by Africa, troubled by this sense that it is the continent that is the only failed continent, or at least one that is on a different track from the rest of the developing world. This summer, holiday-makers in the Canary Islands are going to be lying on the beach and Africans are going to be crawling up to them on that beach as they draw away from Africa. That's how grevious the problems of Africa are, and you can replicate that terrible scene, right across the Mediterranean. Even in the Negar Desert of southern Israel there are Africans today who will walk the Sinai, walk it. I can't tell you what a miserable environment that is. I'm now the Middle East correspondent.. and they walk it and get shot transcript in process... because they want to get away.

I am troubled by Africa, and was troubled by contemporary scenes so I went to find out whose to blame. Well Colonialism is that precept, the whole concept of Colonialism which is that white outsiders can come in and teach, but come in and fox and exploit, and boss and take. That was a conceit that ran through - not just the Congo, not just the Belgian Congo where nasty things happened, but also British Rhodesia, British Ghana, or the French in Senegal ir the Spanish in Equitorial Guinea or the Germans in Namibia. It's a conceit that runs through the whole exercise and of course, they must take some responsibility.

But my interest is... because that post-independence period in Africa continues to this day. And of course the Congo is the perfect example, because you have a dictator who runs the country for 32 years, Mobutu sese seko, and he runs it into the ground. And what I saw, the chaos I saw and that I describe about the chaos in this book is a country going backwards. It's going backwards because of poor leadership today. So... who is to blame? Of course the wars, but there have to be some very tough questions post Independence.

Moderator: But what is it specifically in the Congo? The Congo was Conrad's nightmare. And then the Congo had possibly the worst Colonial experience... Is there something about this place that sort of summarizes it?

TB: I find the Congo the extreme example of Africa. Everything about the Congo extreme. It's so big, and so... and so rich, the potential there is greater than any other nation, and yet the failure is therefore that much more acute. It sounds banal but everything there is awesome. There is a fish on the Congo River called the Goliath tiger fish. Now in South Africa people will catch a tiger fish and be happy to take home a 2 kilogram fish because it's exciting to catch, it's very exciting. In the Congo they grow to 90 kilograms. It seems like such a... example, but everything about the place is huge, gargantuan, herculean, colosal. And that's what happened to Conrad. Conrad goes there, not as an author. Conrad goes there as a Polish seaman, who is a mapmaker, wants to be a mapmaker... and he spent 6 months on the river in 1890 just skippering a boat up and down [the river] which is really tough. Because you are on the Equator, and everything breaks down, the temperatures and the humidity is awesome, disease is endemic... he survived that, but what he saw burned in his soul, 8 years later and 3 months he knocks off The Heart of Darkness...

We'll be hearing about V.S Naipaul, V.S. Naipaul goes to the Congo, he's inspired to write possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, A Bend in the River. Graham Greene goes to the Congo and he gets bitten by the awe. It's impossible to put your finger on it, but it is awesome as a place of portent, a place where great riches...

Moderator: Conrad is supposed to have said, "We went there to colonize, to brutalize... " we, namely the Europeans, you said, "Not just to teach..." Now doesn't that raise an interesting question? I mean are we capable of teaching without that sort of apparatus.. would there be any point in us teaching anyone short of... ?

TB: True true, you can find even in the Congo times when the motives weren't perhaps altruistic, but they weren't exploitive. Towards the latter days, the Belgians, toward the 1950's did bother with health care. Not just health care for the white people, healthcare for the villagers... You could argue that the reason they built hospitals was because they wanted a work force that was healthier and they didn't want to keep running out of healthy workers. The same with education. Are you doing it so the [Congolese] can take over from the white colonialists, or to improve efficiency? It's a double-edged thing, but the point is that a country like Congo, which was by European standards very backward place... a place with endemic tribalism, endemic violence, endemic slavery - mutual African slavery - the transmission involving... I just cannot stress, how peculiar it is to go to a place today (well in 2004) in the twenty-first century where you are spoken to by grandparents who, when I arrived I was traveling in the forest area and I was traveling by motorbike and they said to me, "Well we've seen motorbikes, we've seen combustion engines, but our grandchildren haven't."... I can't think of anyplace else on the planet where the grandparents know more than their grandchildren. It's an astonishing reversal...

Moderator Tim Butcher thank you. [applause]

PART III: Orlando Figes, The Whisperers (Purchase Book)

Moderator Orlando Figes is one of the most distinguished historians of today. He is Professor of History at UFA and one of the great masters of Russian history. I won't list all his prizes, it would be embarrassing. This is the story of Stalin's Great Terror told by survivors. It was a monstrous period. A period in which somehow all of us seem to exclude from our imaginations than perhaps we ought to. It's the story of what has happened to the families, and the Memorial Society, which he has gathered together evidence from people largely born between 1950 and 1955. Perhaps we can describe the character of Sumoff... who Orlando describes as losing himself in the system to a deadly idea. And the key point I'd like to start with, is something I've come across which always shocks me and is shocking, which is the nostalgic stuff. He's not been removed from respectable discourse like Hitler. There are people who long for the days of Stalin in Russia and elsewhere. I sometimes think half of British Left does. Orlando, tell me about that.

Orlando Figes: Yes, the nostalgia is certainly there. I mean, um this was part of a—if I can just fill in a little of the context—this started 20 years ago with me going round to family's homes and collecting stories. I returned to that project after finishing... in 2002 and collected testimonies and stories which led to the _____ story who is, while different from the rest of the people in the book, because _____ was a very well know writer... The core of the book is made up of eventually, nearly 500 families who gave us not just interviews but family archives. And that started from a base of over 1,000 people who we did telephone interviews with. And this is a sort of collective biography, as Brian says, of people who were born in the early years of the Revolution and lived their lives throughout the Soviet period. The book covers Soviet history through their stories and so if you like, it's a moral counterbalance to the official story of the Soviet Union told not just in Soviet circles, but in Western circles... to which are all collective entities, all in the form of sort of memoirs by M______ or others who have come through; the particular perspective of the literary intelligencia which survived with strong feelings of individuality, in human spirit and... perhaps.

The people we were taking interviews from and collecting archives from, and this is really something related to the nostalgic aspect, were people who were born into the system and lived their entire lives in the system. Yes they remembered the Stalin years as romatic years, but they also remember the war, and they also remember the Soviet period from which they cannot separate the Stalin years as years of security. So you end up with this extraordinary parallel, which we found in so many cases. Even victims of oppression feeling nostalgia for the Soviet period, and in fact trying to explain what their families had been through, which in the vast majority of cases was terror and oppression, separation and loss, relationships damaged. Mothers coming back from labor camps unable to communicate.

Despite all of that trauma you still found, yes one could call it to some extent nostalgia because the greatest fear that people would have, was perhaps not just the fear of oppression, it was the fear of exclusion, the fear of social exclusion. But also nostalgia perhaps for a system that gave some sort of meaning to their lives. I can think of one man, Demitri Stoletski who came from a Gulag family that had been, so called rich peasants... ten million families were broken up into Gulags. He had basically grown up in a special settlement, he'd suffered discrimination at every corner and didn't have a proper job until he was 50. Um, he lost half of his family through the repression, and he tried to make sense of these waves of repression that he suffered from, not just in the 1930's but later on in the 1940's and he ends up saying, "Well it may seem daft, but in a way it made it easier for me to go on. If I'd felt there was some rationality, if I felt there really were some reason..."

Moderator: That's a form of Stockholm Syndrome, isn't it?

Orlando Figes: Well, it's slightly more complicated. It's the fact, that, look people have invested a lot. Even those who have been out in the Gulag. We did a big project with people who built ______, which is an... big industrial city producing a quarter of the world's platinum. It was originally built by Gulag slave labor, and virtually everyone who lives there is a descendent of these slave laborers. But even among the oldest of these inhabitants who were slaves still feel some sense that they made a contribution.

Moderator: Would this be a common human attribute, do you think, or is there something Russian about it?

Orlando Figes: I'm not sure Russian, afterall the Soviet Union has many nationalities. That population rose from the Ukrain. I would be wary of using... I think that maybe there's some elelment of a Soviet mentality, of stoicism where you just go on... One must bear in mind the strength of the system of belief. The people who inhabited the system. In many ways it's the loss of belief with people who, I hesitate to say, were indoctrinated or educated, who perhaps had ideals. It's the loss of belief which is perhaps the hardest thing to cope with.

Moderator:So they had lost beliefs but they are sort of on another side being nostalgic.

Orlando Figes: They live in the marshes between. I mean, so many of the people we interviewed were children whose say father had been arrested in '37. The most common reaction is that they don't believe their father was an enemy of the people. They live in myth, perhaps, because maybe their fathers were Bolsheviks. Their father was "a good papa; a good man, and he was arrested by mistake..." But at the same time they still believe that...

Moderator: So what you're saying is they were saying to themselves then, and may still be saying to themselves, "We were building a better future."

Orlando Figes: The tenacious belief that the system itself was not bad, there was some corruption of the system, Stalin was good for the some of the old generation perhaps. One has to understand that these waves of oppression would subside and then the institutions of the system, the culture of the system becomes... and there is no exorcism of it under Kruschev. So in a sense that sort of enables elements of a belief that reconstitute themselves and become part of everyday practice.

Moderator: And to what extent has what has happened since the fall of Communism been part of the... that in the sense that it is more chaotic?

Orlando Figes: Sure. That comes back to your question of nostalgia. We were there in the late 70's early 80's and these people have lost a lot of security, have a falling standard of living and I think this is why they were willing to talk to us, perhaps because they felt their stories were becoming marginalized. No one would be interested to learn what had happened to them, as they had been in the early 1990's. And so these feelings of isolation, that there has been a sort of collapse of their world may be, a little bit nostalgic...

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, Orlando Figes. [applause]

PART IV: Patrick French, The World Is What It Is (Purchase Book)

Brian Appleyard, Moderator: Patrick French has written the biography of a mutual friend of ours, V.S. Naipaul. I don't envy him taking on this task, knowing Vidia, who is a difficult person to get a handle on, who from minute to minute you don't know quite what he's thinking having heard what he's just said. He's an extraordinarily brilliant, magnificent writer, and also a very difficult individual. He's very difficult to know, he's very difficult to get to know. I've been through that process myself. And he's also a combination of secretive, but also, not quite so secretive. He's less secretive now, Patrick found, now that he's in his mid-seventies.

I think you said that he was frank and abrasive toward himself, and that the other aspect that helped you was that said he archived himself very thoroughly. One of the things that I'm very interested in is that books like The Enigma of Arrival by Naipaul (1987,) make no sense unless you know the intimate biography. Now that's a very bold statement for a literary biographer. So, would you like to start from there?

Patrick French: It's probably true of anybody that is writing fiction as powerful and creative as the stuff that Naipaul was turning out when he was in his 30's, 40's, 50's, that it's going to be drawn from life in some way. And I think that in his case, you're right, he is naturally very secretive. He went through long periods of his life without ever discussing what was really going on with anybody that he knew, whether it was family or it was friends, and it was a kind of strange process when I began the biography where he wrote me back to discuss things he had never talked about before, but I think that a book like The Enigma of Arrival or A Bend in the River (1979) or Guerrillas 2005), these really terrifying books, those were very clearly directly drawn from the bizarre triangular relationship that he had over the course of nearly three decades with his wife Patricia and his Argentinian lover Margaret. So he was with both of them and _ at the same time. And you see that played out in those novels.

So what I thought I'd like to do, by way of introduction, is to just go back, because so much of the parts of the book that have gotten attention are the more sensational later parts, but I'd like to take you back to V. S. Naipaul, aged 17. He has grown up in rural poverty in Trinidad. People of Indian descent who are the descendants of indentured laborers. slaves effectively, to go back to the __ of the early two, that's the background he's coming out of and the assumption of a boy from that sort of family could never win one of the three annual island scholarships from Trinidad to go back to the Mother country, Britain; but somehow he does manage to win the scholarship and he's all set to try and see this really insane ambition, really, to be one of the world's great writers—and from this unpromising background.

As he prepared to depart in August 1950, aged not quite 18, Vidia was highly educated, intelligent, ambitious and emotionally immature. He had been brought up with the idea that boys deserve special treatment by virtue of their sex. But in his life so far he'd only been influenced by strong women, Nonny his grandmother, Ma his mother, Camilla his oldest sister. Pa his father was depressive, literary and bad at holding down a job. Vidia was was heading to a country that had been presented to him as the epicenter of civilization. Each aspect of his education had emerged from overseas, yet he had no personal knowledge of Britain or the British. There were a few English boys and white Trinidadians at the Queen's Royal College, but as Erroly says to Hat in Miguel Street, "You don't know what you're talking about Hat. How much white people do you know?" He knew about school and a way of working that ensured success at Oxford University but he had no first-hand experience of social customs in Post War Britain or of the reality of life there for an Indian or West Indian. At the end of the scholarship process, what would he do? Stay in Britain or return to the West Indies, or get a job in the government of newly independent India as Pa had suggested? At Oxford what would be expected of him? Were his manners good enough? Would he have to restrain his opinions and speak quietly in public places? Would he be lonely? Would the natives in London behave like the white people in books or on news reels? In the day before commercial television and the Internet, the opportunity to comprehend or even see how another culture operated was minimum. For Vida everything that lay ahead would be alien, but seemingly familiar.

On the first of August 1950 on the day of his departure, he woke early and hardened his heart. He would not show his stress. Since no ships were sailing to England on a suitable date, he would fly to New York to sail from there. He _ in luggage in the form of prefect and _ driven away from Port of Spain. Away from the sugar belt to the airport at Piarco. Members of the extended family were assembled there in the little wooden building at the side of the runway to bade farewell. Shortly after midday the plane left the ground and took Vida above Trinidad for the first time. He would never see Pa again. As he receeded to America and England he saw the island as he had never seen it before. The passing of the fields and the roads and the houses while his family looked up at him suspended in the sky in a cross at a right-angle to Columbus, leaving the New World.

Moderator: The point you made at the beginning, that it was an absurd dream for a man from his background, in fact that turns out to be his strength, doesn't it? The exclusion of his background. The exclusion from the literary world that he dreamed of, is the very point.

PF: Well exactly. The thing that is so strange now is that Post-Colonial literature is in the ascendant and a predominant form, and yet at the time that he was starting to write in the 1950's, it had not been invented. He was part of a small community of West Indian writers in London centered around a show called Caribbean Voices, a radio show at the BBC. The idea of writing about societies like all Indian in Port of Spain in Trinidad in a particular way, writing a book like A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) where you take a poor Indian family in the Caribbean and you kind of give them the Dickens treatment, I mean it wasn't something that anyone had really managed to do, or even possibly conceived. It is only in retrospect that it all makes sense, that that was what he was trying to do.

Moderator: In his early days, when he was aspiring to his literary work was he consciously thinking that, or was he thinking, "I want to write like them; in that country" (in his case)?

PF: I think in terms of style, he has very classical influences. He was reading the Russians, he was reading the great French nineteen century writers. So stylistically he was not experimental. He was trying to convey information in a the simplest way that he could. But he definitely knew from the beginning that his subject matter was completely different.

Moderator: And so he was aware of the novelty of his material?

PF: His ambition was fixed when he was probably in his late teens or early twenties. He wanted the Nobel Prize then. [laughs] I mean, at that time, it was a kind of outlandish dream! Somehow, at immense personal cost and of that of other people he got there in 2001.

Moderator: He's very self-conscious about the fact that he was the first, wasn't he, in this Post Colonial literature world? He said to me, "Only the thing done first is any good." And this is talking about himself...

PF: He was part of a group when he started in his early 20s. People like Yann C.... and Andrew Selke, and he was influenced by them. But once he got going, once he published The Mystic Masseur (1957) then he cut away from them and he thought, I don't want to be a regional West Indian writer. He very deliberately broke those friendships and moved into a new kind of literary set, like Athony Paul and Antonia Fraser. It was a very deliberate migration of novel to be marginalized.

Moderator: Sorry to appeal to the journalists, but the sensational stuff... did he sort of give you interviews in which he said this stuff, or was this anonymous?

PF: He had sold his archives to the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where I've spent months of my life. The base of the book was the archive, particularly the journals written by Pat his first wife from 1972 onwards when she told the whole story. She told the story of the relationship with Margaret, the creation of the books and the cruelty, the great personal cruelty towards her; and then it was as if once I'd got the scaffolding of the book, I could write back to V.S. Naipaul and ask him about these things, and the extraordinary aspect of that process was that he never tried to deflect questions. He never denied that he'd behaved badly. He always attempted to give his own quirky explanation of why his life had worked out how it had.

Moderator: Did you believe him?

PF: I mean, he would distort things into his own emotional mental view of the world, which is very distinctive, but he was truthful, in that he didn't tell me things which I didn't hear from another source were inaccurate. But in terms of telling the truth, for example, [when asked the question] "Why did you not give Patricia a wedding ring?" Answer: "I had no interest in jewelry." And so, it's a true answer, but it's still a cruel answer, but it's his justification for the way that he behaved.

Moderator: essential read for anybody interested in twentieth century literature, ladies and gentlemen, Patrick French. PART V: Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise (Purchase Book)

PART VI:Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Purchase Book)

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