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  Book review

Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer 

by Alexander Maitland

HarperCollins, 2006. Pp.xv + 528. Maps. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb.£25. ISBN 0-00-255608-1.

Many people have stories about meeting Wilfred Thesiger. The best is of course Eric Newby’s – of Thesiger running into him and Hugh Carless on some rocky mountain in the Hindu Kush and saying, at the sight of them blowing up airbags to sleep on, ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’.

My own introduction to him was of a different kind. I was exploring Ennedi (in the Tibesti massif) on camel-back in 1954 when my Guraani guide, Ordugu, suddenly extracted from his pocket a piece of homespun, unrolled it, and passed over, from his camel to me on mine, a passport photograph of Wilfred Thesiger! He explained that he had guided Thesiger on his Tibesti trip thirty years before, amazed at the way he rode at great speed on his camel for hours without dismounting. The photo had been given him by Thesiger, and he had treasured it ever since as a sort of talisman. But since Idris Daud was actually Thesiger’s guide and companion on that occasion (as on many others) I can only suppose that Ordugu had been one of those who (as Thesiger recorded in a letter to his mother) ‘came with me from Darfur [but] fell out by the wayside, only Idris remaining to the end’.

My next introduction to Thesiger was bizarre in a different way. In the great hall of Buckingham Palace I observed his craggy profile along the lines of people waiting to be presented with medals by The Queen. (Thesiger’s was of course well earned; mine, as a mere diplomat, ‘came with the rations’). Over the teacups that followed, I ventured to address him and told him of Ordugu and the passport photo. He seemed entranced, and before he returned to Africa, we lunched together several times, he wearing, as he always did in London, an immaculate pin-striped suit and carrying a rolled umbrella. I had not expected to feel at home with a man who so enjoyed shooting beautiful wild animals, but that series of lunches at least disabused me of accepting the often-repeated charge that Thesiger ‘lacked a sense of humour’.

It was incidentally his Tibesti trip in 1938 that led Thesiger, with his lifelong passion for testing his powers of endurance, to explore bits of the world inhabited (if at all) by desert bedu. The Marsh Arabs, with whom he would spend seven years, may have been regarded by him as what one might call ‘waterborne bedu’. They worshipped him, especially for his ability to carry out circumcisions (no less than 6139 while he was with them) much less painfully than the operations of local practitioners.

Readers of the splendid books he was eventually persuaded to write may have been so riveted by his more famous adventures as to overlook his fearless conduct as a soldier in World War II with the LRDG and Stirling’s SAS, let alone his earlier participation in operations against the Italian invaders of his original ‘home’ in Abyssinia, for which he was awarded the DSO. Of all this Alexander Maitland gives us a full account, as he does of Thesiger’s unusual childhood in Addis Ababa where his father was Britain’s representative at the Imperial court and where he himself was to attend the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie (whom Thesiger greatly revered); and of the equally unusual 20 years at the end of his life in the wilds of Kenya living with Samburu tribesmen (who fleeced him mercilessly). Maitland also describes Thesiger’s time in Kutum as a member of the Sudan Political Service, his experiences in Palestine, Syria and elsewhere, and his work for Britain’s Anti-Locust unit in the Hadhramaut area, which prepared him for his crossing of the adjoining Empty Quarter.

It is the practice of writers on Thesiger to speculate about his sexuality. They all note his admiration of young Arab tribesmen and what he calls their ‘androgynous beauty’, and he certainly chose such young men as his companions everywhere. He himself declared that the attraction they had for him was ‘only aesthetic’ and he quoted Bin Kabina (who was one of them) as saying that homosexual practices were ridiculous and obscene. Whether the attraction of his young companions went beyond the aesthetic is none of our concern. So let us leave it at that.

The only woman he clearly adored was his formidable mother, Kathleen, to whom he constantly wrote long affectionate letters and took with him on many less exacting expeditions. Her death in 1973 in her nineties was the severest blow he ever suffered.

Alexander Maitland was for many years Thesiger’s close friend (as well as an expert on other travellers in the Arab world), and he has had unique access to his diaries and other manuscripts. No one else could have written so full and magisterial a biography. Everyone intrigued by Thesiger’s complex personality and astonishing life must be extremely grateful. My only small criticisms are that it is here and there a trifle repetitive and would have benefited from closer proof-reading and a fuller index. But the book is a magnificent tribute to a most remarkable individual – the last great traveller in the old style.

Perhaps I may just add a brief account of my last experience of Thesiger since it discloses an engaging feature of his personality. This was when I took my wife (the author of books on Indigo) to call on him in his Chelsea flat in 2000 to ask if she might see (and even borrow to copy) some of his photographs of indigo-wearing denizens of South Arabia. He couldn’t have been more gracious, ushering us into the room where his thousands of splendid photographs were carefully stacked, and saying, ‘Make yourself at home and use any you fancy’.

Requiescat in pace. If anyone deserves to rest in peace, Wilfred Thesiger does.

Glencairn Balfour Paul