Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who died on Sunday, needs no memorial beyond his own books and photographs. These will live for as long as mankind is interested in the traditional societies of which he left such a brilliant record. Nobody can ever again write that kind of book or take in such abundance that kind of photograph, for those societies no longer exist in the form in which Thesiger knew them.
But it is worth asking why it should have been Thesiger, rather than anyone else, who acquired the knowledge needed to write about the members of the Rashid tribe with whom he spent five years travelling on camels in the great sand desert of southern Arabia, or about the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, among whom he lived for seven years. What made him so interested in these people, and so capable of winning their trust, and so determined to spend his life among them? Part of the answer lies in Thesiger’s profound conservatism, which has virtually no connection with anything that has been said or done by the British Conservative party. The Conservatives have prospered for the best part of two centuries, and are now trying once more to prosper, by making their peace with progress and modernity. They want above all things to be on the winning side, so they accept in a somewhat ingratiating manner whatever they take to be the spirit of the age. They are valiant for democracy and economic growth and the motor car.
Thesiger hated the spirit of the age. As a small boy in Abyssinia, where he was born in 1910, he saw the victorious army led by Ras Tafari, who later became the Emperor Haile Selassie, return in triumph to Addis Ababa from victory at the Battle of Sagale: ‘Few Europeans ever saw a picture so utterly barbaric, savage and splendid….