Simon Courtauld

A far from plodding pedestrian

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Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer

Alexander Maitland

HarperCollins, pp. 528, £

How much more do we need to know about Sir Wilfred Thesiger? Alexander Maitland, his literary executor and friend for the last 40 years of his life, collaborated with Thesiger on six books of his travels, and we have Thesiger’s first two classics, Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, not to mention two other mainly photographic books. Then there is his autobiography and an excellent biography by Michael Asher published in 1994.

One of the merits of Asher’s book was that he retraced, by camel and donkey, several of Thesiger’s journeys. It was also informed by anecdotes, some of which Maitland has overlooked or chosen to omit. Maitland makes only one passing reference to General Auchinleck, Thesiger’s commander-in-chief in North Africa during the war, whereas Asher noted interestingly that in the 1960s Thesiger spent two days in the Atlas mountains of Morocco with the old soldier whom he described as ‘the noblest man I ever met’. I remember Thesiger telling me that the two men he most admired — who had ‘the quality of nobility’ — were Auchinleck and Haile Selassie, which is worthy of mention if only because Thesiger’s own character and achievements were in the heroic mould.

His life began in what he preferred to call Abyssinia. He attended Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930, was the first European to cross the sultanate of Aussa and was a significant member of Orde Wingate’s Gideon Force which expelled the Italians from the country and restored the emperor to his throne in 1941. (When Wingate afterwards tried to kill himself in Cairo, he explained to Thesiger, as related by Asher, the right and wrong ways to cut your throat.)

Quite apart from his best-known adventures — twice crossing the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, and living in the Iraqi marshes, where he performed something like 6,000 circumcisions in eight years — the record of Thesiger’s travels is remarkable. He was the first Englishman to get to the Tibesti mountains of French Equatorial Africa, he roamed the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he accompanied the Bakhtiari nomads on their annual migration in Iran, he witnessed the 1960s war in the Yemen, and in his seventies he was still making journeys on foot in northern Kenya and with yaks in Ladakh.

What we have not read before, and what makes Maitland’s book so worthwhile, are the letters which Thesiger wrote home to his devoted mother Kathleen. Here are vivid descriptive passages, which would often be abbreviated or rewritten when he came to write his books, and occasional bits of self-revelation. We learn that Thesiger had a horror of spiders, and that, despite his love of most primitive tribal peoples, he found the Nuer of southern Sudan to be ‘naked, uninteresting, uncompanionable savages’.

The sometimes naked Samburu, with whom he lived for 20 years in Maralal, northern Kenya, he found much more interesting and companionable. Maitland takes on the question of Thesiger’s devotion to handsome, often long-haired boys, whether in the Sudan, the Arabian desert, the Iraqi marshes or in Kenya. Thesiger told the author that the idea of physical sex revolted him, but he often found the androgynous looks of young brown- or black-skinned men ‘disturbingly beautiful’. To Thesiger, in Maitland’s words, they had a voyeuristic appeal, and in his photographs ‘he viewed his male subjects as forbidden objects of desire, signalling his feelings for them by his choice of pose and his sensitive handling of light and shadow’. Perhaps one should leave the matter there, adding only that he shared his love of male youth with many a blameless schoolmaster.

There were contradictions in Thesiger’s character, which Maitland identifies. He could be affectionate and caring, or capable of spontaneous and bitter hatred; his kindnesses contrasted with a cruel streak in his behaviour; with his money he could be very cautious, or wildly reckless, as he was with his Samburu friends. (His two favourite companions in Kenya both died very young, at least one of them from Aids.) From my own experience, Thesiger was mischievous, he enjoyed gossip, though not about himself, and having told me in Maralal that he didn’t like alcohol, was happy to share a bottle of wine when we lunched in London.

While living with a Samburu family in a mud-walled house with no plumbing or electricity, he used to talk admiringly of the British empire and nostalgically of his days at Eton. Having been mugged shortly before I stayed with him, he kept a spear and a warrior knife by his bed and seemed to relish the chance to use them. Most intriguingly, I remember him telling me that Joy ‘Born Free’ Adamson got what she deserved when she was murdered by a Turkana servant; then, in a throwaway line, he said that he had known and liked the man.