My life and travels: an anthology
Wilfred Thesiger; edited by Alexander Maitland HarperCollins
Wilfred Thesiger recorded the lives of remote people and places throughout a career as traveller, explorer and writer which spanned almost the entire 20th century. His books, letters and black-and-white photographs reach back to the court of Emperor Haile Selassie (whose coronation, in 1930, Thesiger attended as an official guest); recapture the vanished world of the Marsh Arabs in the (now drained) swamps of southern Iraq; and allow us to know the disappearing pastoral and nomadic peoples among whom he spent decades of his life. "My achievement," Thesiger, now 92 and living in a retirement home in Surrey, has said, was "in so many of my travels, to have been there just in time".
The sense that the world was becoming uniform, its singularities vanishing, haunted the young Thesiger. He writes of standing on a hill in Africa at the age of 24, in "one of the last corners that remained unknown", and reflecting: "Fifty years earlier a great part of Africa had been unexplored. But since then travellers, missionaries, traders and administrators had penetrated nearly everywhere."
Born in 1910 in Addis Ababa, where his father was British minister, Thesiger tasted adventure and danger from infancy. The stories he heard of Zulus and big-game hunting were surpassed by the reality of the Abyssinian Rebellion, which the six-year-old witnessed at first hand in 1916. The adventures ended abruptly when, aged eight, he was sent to a prep school in England. The other boys found him strange and disbelieved his stories. In his autobiography, The Life of My Choice, he describes being beaten while naked by a teacher and withdrawing into himself. He says he found neither the beatings nor the isolation particularly worrying. Perhaps they prepared him for Eton and Oxford.
Returning, educated, to the continent of his birth, Thesiger embarked on his first exploration in 1933, a journey along the Awash River following its course through Aussa. Three earlier expeditions had been "exterminated" in Aussa and the Abyssinian governor had warned Thesiger of the dangers of crossing into the territory of the ruthless sultan. Thesiger persisted with his plan and describes the inevitable confrontation: "I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realisation of my boyhood dreams; the mapping, the collecting of animals and birds were all incidental."
He is not "exterminated" and obtains the sultan's consent to follow the river through Aussa ("never before granted to a European", he notes in his still celebrated first book, Arabian Sands). The incident reveals both the romantic Thesiger and the determined and courageous explorer. It hints, too, at the oddly (for such a loner) charismatic nature of a man who generally went where he wanted to go, attracting devoted companions and protectors.
For all his lust for danger, Thesiger rarely found it in encounters with reputedly wild or fierce tribespeople, with whom he generally fell into paternalistic roles such as doctor, judge or teacher. Gavin Max-well, of a later generation of travellers, describes coming across him in one African village working like a tailor, "stitching away at dog bites and pig gores".
This anthology offers a useful biographical introduction to Thesiger and a chance to dip into an extraordinary life, but it does not replace taking one of the works at full tilt. The choppy editing can irritate, and there is no distinction between passages written close to the event and the reminiscences of decades later. Thesiger was both a creature of his time (T E Lawrence, a hero whom he never met, and John Buchan, a friend at Oxford, were contemporaries) and oddly estranged from it. He proclaimed his pride in being English and Christian (to those who were neither), yet never shared the lifestyle or prejudices of the British colonial class into which he was born. He criticised Kingsley Amis for his racist reports of Haile Selassie's coronation and enjoyed friendship and deep affection with African and Arabs. He writes in The Life of My Choice that "the comradeship of the Bedu I travelled with drew me back to that land year after year - two among them in particular mattered to me as few other people have mattered".
He formed equally strong attachments to two Marsh Arabs and with Samburu in northern Kenya where, he once wrote, he hoped to end his days with the family he created there. His attraction to beautiful young men (most notable in his romantic photographic studies) is evident. Women seldom feature in his pictures or his travels.
A man who so detested the modern world might, on reflection, not much care to be remembered or judged on the basis of a book of soundbites. But this anthology is a welcome reminder that Thesiger's books (dating back to 1959) are still in print or available at good libraries.
Barbara Gunnell works for the Observer