Some travel writers, in an attempt to simulate the hardship of Victorian journeys, like to impose artificial difficulties on themselves. A glut of memorably foolish yarns with titles like Hang-Gliding to Borneo or To Bognor on a Rhinoceros discredited the genre in the 1980s. In every case it would have been quicker for the authors to take the train. Why wind-surf across the Mojave when there’s a serviceable coach service?
Tim Butcher, formerly a Telegraph war correspondent, is biased towards old- fashioned travellers in the Redmond O’Hanlon mould who, with their bushy side-whiskers and squire-naturalist curiosity, continue a tradition of Victorian exploration. His best-selling Africa adventure, Blood River, followed in the footsteps of Morton Stanley and sought to navigate modern-day Congo chiefly by means of canoe. (Butcher was about 40 at the time.)
His new book, Chasing the Devil, retraces Graham Greene’s 350-mile journey across Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1935. It’s not a bad idea, but Liberia is a different country today, with halfway decent motorbike tracks, jeep roads and bridges. Why go the whole hog on foot? Shunning all comfort, Butcher pushes on through tsetse fly-infested jungle and ‘war-scarred’ backwoods, snacking on tins of spam and windfall fruit. Such is his need to identify with Greene that he includes a photograph of himself alongside one of the novelist (sweating under a solar topi) in Sierra Leone 80 years earlier.
Like many journalists, Butcher enjoys a sense of his own self-importance. (‘I can clearly remember receiving my first death threat,’ he tells us, grandly.) Most of the world’s recent ‘major conflicts’ have been reported by Butcher (so he tells us). During his 20-year stint on the Telegraph he used to commute to the newspaper’s London office by motorbike (as opposed to up the Thames by canoe), and clearly he thrilled to his duties. Reporting from hot spots abroad is not such a challenge, though, if you have few responsibilities at home: just put it on the plastic and leave the answer machine on. So come on, Mr Butcher!
Just as Greene had travelled in the company of his cousin Barbara Greene, so Butcher is accompanied by an Oxford theology student called David. Fortunately David is sympathetic to his companion’s ‘ego-driven Alpha Male status’ (as Butcher puts it), and quick to keep a low profile during the hikes. Butcher is not Graham Greene, of course. Armed with a copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the man Evelyn Waugh nicknamed ‘Grisjambon Vert’ (French for ‘grey ham green’) had set off for Africa from Liverpool one winter’s day on the eve of the second world war. Journey Without Maps, his account of the West Africa adventure, ranks as one of the great travel books of the 20th century.
Perhaps more than anyone, Greene had helped to return the genre to the realm of literature by conjuring an acute sense of place and shadowy menace. To his credit, Butcher offers superlative descriptions (‘the sweet sedgy scent of Sierra Leone’), and strives to evoke a mood of Greeneian darkness and danger, as he sets out to investigate secret bush cults and evidence of human sacrifice. Alert as he is to the threat of violence, he reveals a very Anglo-Saxon prejudice that whatever happens outside of England is the work of rogues. (‘I convinced myself a plot had been hatched to lead me round in circles before delivering me to an ambush.’)
The book is marred by flights of lazy journalese, as non-words such as ‘meaningful’ (‘meaningful development’) crop up frequently, along with ‘arguably’, ‘relatively’, ‘encapsulate’ and the frightful ‘guesstimate’. Infelicities of this sort might be forgiven in a novice writer, but clunky similes cling like grime to Butcher’s prose (thus mosquitoes drone like ‘Stuka dive-bombers’).
Unknown to her novelist cousin, Barbara Greene had written her own book on Liberia: Land Benighted (reissued in 1981 as Too Late to Turn Back). It remains a marvel of comic observation and mock-heroic misadventure; privately Greene thought it superior to his own. Chasing the Devil adds little to either Barbara or Graham Greene’s vision of Africa; it is journalism merely, if superior journalism.