Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Homeric Age


Heroes are unfashionable these days, but we are unrepentant in our reverence for Wilfred Thesiger, last of the great explorers, as he is dubbed by Alexander Maitland’s recent biography. Born in Addis Ababa to British parents in 1910, by the time he was twenty Thesiger had tracked animals in the bush, crewed on Icelandic fishing boats, attended the coronation of Haile Selassie, the “colour and savagery” of which left a strong and abiding impression on him, and planned and led an expedition to discover the source of the Awash river, deep in the closed Sultanate of Aussa. The latter trip, into one of the last blank spaces on the map of Africa, took him through the lands of the Danakil, one of the Horn of Africa’s most fearsome tribes, who took pride in castrating their defeated enemies (using their traditional curved dagger which, this author can attest, they still carry today).

One of those lives that simply could not be lived today, Thesiger’s took him first to the now-infamous Darfur region of Sudan as an Assistant District Commissioner in the 1930s, about which he spoke fondly and where he, among other things, raised twin lion cubs as house pets before shooting them on their first birthday “for their own good”, and undertook arduous week-long treks on horse and camel to outlying stations which were to prepare him for his future journeys. The war saw him a key player, alongside Orde Wingate, in Gideon Force, which liberated Abyssinia from a particularly brutal Italian occupation – and, notably, returned it to Abyssinian rule shortly thereafter – as well as in the famed Long Range Desert Group.

After the war, Thesiger became famous for his books documenting his double crossing of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Arabian Sands, and his time spent among the peoples of Southern Iraq, The Marsh Arabs, alongside numerous other works. Arabian Sands is an extraordinary book, capturing the magnificence of one of the least hospitable places on earth (as seen below), together with informed, passionate but unsentimental portraits of its Bedouin inhabitants. The Marsh Arabs is in much the same vein, including startling portraits of the grand reed architecture of the marsh peoples and boar hunting among the waterways. Both are testaments to a vanished, destroyed world: the Bedu irrevocably changed by the arrival of motor vehicles, the marsh arabs by the Ba’athist draining of their lands, which, despite now-stalled restoration attempts in the aftermath of the Second Iraq War, are now less than one tenth the size they once were.

Thesiger published his own autobiography, The Life Of My Choice, in 1987, a wonderful read for the adventurously inclined, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty short on anything approaching feeling or emotion. This only served to inflame our more prurient interests, largely because for us there has always been a constant and undeniable homoerotic motif running below the surface of much of Thesiger’s work.

Whether it is the intense friendships with other boys at prep and public school; the beautiful, otherworldly figures of his Nuer porters in the Sudan; his constant companions in the Empty Quarter, Salim bin Ghabaisha (right) and Salim bin Kabina; or his extended family of Samburu houseboys and servants in Kenya in his later years; Thesiger’s pen, and camera, seem to linger over male adolescents and young men wherever he travels. Despite this, and his notable lack of a wife, he maintained an aura of hardbitten asexuality throughout his life, up to his death in 2003.

Now comes the authoritative biography by his friend and amanuensis Alexander Maitland, and we read it, we must shamefully admit, desperate for new information. We were not disappointed, but the information we came to – and which, for once, we have no desire to spell out here – left us with a bitter taste in the mouth. Thesiger could be overbearing and occasionally cruel but he was in no way a bad or unpleasant person, and it is clear his sexuality was formed early in such a way as to make him reject most intimate contact for the rest of his life. On second thoughts, we would rather not have known this.

We can’t blame the biographer for this: it is his duty, and probably the most telling detail about an otherwise fairly straightforward and plain-speaking man. That the rest of the book is made up of daily minutiae and extensive quotes from Thesiger’s own writings – which, to be honest, we have and have read already – does not help matters.

We’d be very happy indeed if this post, which we’ve been meaning to write for ages, got one more person interested in our hero, but we’d advise against the biography. For the life, read the auto-version. For the expeditions, read Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs and The Danakil Diary, and for the stunning photographs (which illustrate this post, courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum) see Maitland’s far more enjoyable contribution to the legend: Thesiger: A Life in Pictures. Many, unprurient, pleasures await.

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