Wilfred Thesiger - The life of a great explorer: Alexander Maitland

By Reviewed by Simon Wilson

At age three, in Abyssinia, the legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger watched his father shoot an oryx. At 16, he saw the victorious Abyssinian Army, draped in the bloodied clothes of the defeated, parade through Addis Ababa. He regarded these events as the defining moments of his life, which he spent, in the main, in the deserts and upland wilds of Arabia and Africa.

Biographer Alexander Maitland makes a good case that other events should also be included. The frequent naked beatings, administered by a sadistic headmaster with a steel-cored riding crop, when Thesiger was 9 and 10. The great pleasure he found, among the sophisticates of Eton and Oxford, in boxing. The devotion of his mother, the only woman ever to feature in his life.

Thesiger shot 70 lions. He travelled tens of thousands of miles, almost always on foot or by camel or other animal.

Early in his career, he ventured among Sudanese tribesmen who collected human testicles as trophies. He described one of them, fresh from killing and dismembering several men, as looking like "a nice, rather self-conscious Etonian who has just won his school colours for cricket."

An immensely forceful personality who found his soul in the desert, Thesinger lacked T.E.

Lawrence's interest in the politics of empire. An ornery bugger with rare physical reserves, he lacked Hillary's commitment to philanthropic work. He was, instead, a writer.

Among 11 precisely rendered books, the classics are probably Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964). The latter is a brilliant evocation not just of the lost world of the marshlands of southern Iraq (drained by Saddam Hussein) but also of the lost ethos of the solitary Englishman who chooses a life in the midday sun. Thesiger was born in 1910 and lived until 2003, but he was at heart a Victorian.

Maitland is the official biographer and was a long-standing friend, but he works hard, following Thesiger's mothers advice, to "stand up to Wilfred."

"Sex has been of no great consequence to me", wrote Thesiger. When asked, in his 80s, if he was gay, he is said to have knocked the questioner down. Maitland discusses the obvious evidence of Thesiger's sexuality in the lovingly composed photographs of his Arab and African male travelling companions. "Furtive embraces and voyeuristic encounters", he notes, set the pattern of his sexual life.

Thesiger's gift to us was romantic. He valued a tough purity he found among the Marsh Arabs, but did not see the disease or the despair. He had a Rousseauesque commitment to the "noble savage", but his books and this biography tell a Hobbesian tale of adventure in beautiful empty places among people whose lives were nasty, brutish and short.

* Harper Collins, $29.99

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