A review of “The life of Wilfred Thesiger” by Alexander Maitland

On Wilfred Thesiger

Sir Wilfred Thesiger – that well-born “leather-faced explorer” of the twentieth century – has long been a character with whom I’ve been fascinated. Really, ever since I read his remarkable book “Arabian Sands“. My wife bought me this one, thinking I’d like it, although it was on my shelf for some months before I picked it up and read it. I thought – I’ve already read his autobiography “The Life of my choice“. Why do I need to read a biography as well? But I did.

Alexander Maitland, though clearly Thesiger’s close friend and his appointed biographer, does not shrink from writing things that may not be so positive; he does not shrink from saying what needs to be said. He spends quite some effort pointing out subtle and not-so-subtle omissions in Thesiger’s autobiography, aspects of Thesiger’s character that the man himself might have been tempted to gloss over. Yet, Maitland as a biographer is never less than sympathetic. This is no hostile biography.

He writes early on of “paradoxical aspects of Thesiger’s character and temperament…he was a maze of contradictions” and was his own worst enemy. Like the desert Bedu he so admired, he could be a man of extremes. “He could be affectionate and loving, yet he was capable of spontaneous, bitter hatred. He was either very cautious or wildly generous with his money and possessions; he was normally fussy and meticulous, but he could be astonishingly careless and foolishly improvident. He relished gossip, yet was uncompromisingly discreet. His touching kindness contrasted with sometimes appalling cruelty”. And “His vices were fewer, less extreme, and yet more conspicuous than his many virtues.”

Makes me think of the rather entertaining concept of “redeeming vices” – an expression used of Bill Clinton by his biographer. Thesiger once wrote, I recall, of a relative of his who was something of a gambler and a rake, yet married to an uncompromisingly upright and God-fearing battle-axe, that this male relative – not his poor wife – must have been “excellent company”.

Thesiger was well-born, at least by my standards and understanding. His uncle was Lord Chelmsford, one of the last Viceroys of India. He inherited from Lady Chelmsford, sufficient wealth, at least on paper, not to have to work for a living. In that respect he was perhaps a gentleman in the older and strictly literal meaning of the word. As regards him – or any of us – being a gentleman in the more modern sense of being honest, upright and kind, a story he tells against himself, recounted here by Maitland, is instructive.

On a time, he was out in the desert with two Bedu companions, weeks from shelter, carrying for food only water, flour and a handful of dates and some coffee beans. One of his Bedu companions caught a rabbit and prepared it for the pot. As it was cooking, all of them were drooling, ready for rabbit stew after weeks without a good meal. And just as it was cooked, some other Bedu arrived. After the proper greetings were exchanged, the Bedu tribesmen then offered this rabbit to their guests, and it was duly accepted, leaving Thesiger and his travelling companions with nothing. Thesiger wrote in “Arabian Sands” something to the effect that it was at that point he started to learn what true nobility, true hospitality, true generosity, really was.

We see under Maitland’s kind eye, Thesiger’s life progressing from boy in Ethiopia, to young man at Eton and then in the Sudan, to the mature explorer of Arabia he became and for which he is chiefly remembered. We see his very close relationship with his mother, and his domination of younger men around him – Maitland calls him a “gang leader”. We see how he struggled to write, and worked very hard indeed to prepare “Arabian Sands”. He was a prolific photographer and learned much from the great pioneer female desert explorer Freya Stark. He opposed modern progress and machinery, yet discreetly espoused it’s use when it suited him. In spite of his desire to see the ancient culture of the Arabian desert preserved, one might hold him partly responsible for its destruction. With the best will in the world, he must bear some of the responsibility for the (admittedly inevitable) opening of the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) to subsequent oil exploration (something I do know a bit about as my first employer was one of those corporations that conducted seismic survey oil exploration in the Oman and elsewhere in the Arabian desert.)

He was very wealthy; he was a scion of the privileged English upper class, and he had an unreconstructed, deeply conservative (and possibly offensive by modern standards) attitude to many aspects of life – for example, to hunting and animals, to relations between men and women, and to technology and machines. Yet, he was perhaps a listener to, and understander of, ordinary people, and he made lasting contributions to tribal life in many places. He was a decorated and notable warrior as well a great explorer and man of letters, a brave adventurer whose explorations still inspire people today.

A review of “A Winter in Arabia”, by Freya Stark

A review of “A Winter in Arabia”, by Freya Stark

Delicately, beautifully written.  Rather like Wilfred Thesiger, she draws attention to an Arabia that no longer exists, an Arabia she may have, however inadvertently, contributed  to the end of.  She writes of hidden pools hardly visited by anyone but Bedu shepherds, of strange castles on the dusty, arid, windswept plateau of what is now Yemen.  Of villages where few if any of the villagers have seen a European.  Of casual vendetta and war continued through generations, brought to a fragile and not entirely permanant stop by the “English peace”.  She writes of men with great vices and great virtues, of small men capable of much when tried; of big men who do mean and small deeds.

She is eminently quotable and copyable for inspiration in one’s own thoughts.  She writes, inter alia, “the fear of disturbing the peace tended to limit our plans more than the wars of the old days, when a casualty more or less could make no odds”

The point here being, war tends to collectivize us and dehumanize us, strip away our importance as individuals.  In war, the individual, at least ostensibly, matters less and less.  “One casualty more or less”, one more or one less dead person. But people do matter; individuals do matter.  One person dying matters.  “Jesus wept” – John 11:36.

Freya has a subtelty, a delicacy of tone, reminding me of the sky at dusk, that pastel shade that is so fragile and short-lived. She writes of Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, “a patient and pleasant people, not roused to petulance by the want of supper or by the fact that they had only a cotton shawl between them and the rigours of the night”.

How challenging for us in the west, to me, right now. In this respect for the bedouin she is also like Wilfred Thesiger, who acknowledged in the bedu true and deep nobility and greatness, to which he could not aspire.