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.