Magazine article The Spectator

A Far from Plodding Pedestrian

Magazine article The Spectator

A Far from Plodding Pedestrian

Article excerpt

WILFRED THESIGER : THE LIFE OF THE GREAT EXPLORER by Alexander Maitland HarperCollins, £25, pp. 528, ISBN 0002556081 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

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. …

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