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Only the Camels

Robert Irwin: Wilfred Thesiger, 6 April 2006

Wilfred ThesigerThe Life of the Great Explorer 
by Alexander Maitland.
HarperCollins, 528 pp., £25, February 2006, 0 00 255608 1
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... Wilfred Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and spent the first nine years of his life in Abyssinia. Visions of Abyssinian barbarism and splendour were to stay with him for the rest of his life, in particular his presence at Ras Tafari’s victory parade in 1916 after a battle on the plain at Sagale. The defeated but proud Negus Mikael walked in chains, while victorious tribesmen with spears, banners, drums, trumpets and horses draped in the bloody clothing of slain enemies processed in triumph through the Abyssinian capital ...

Abel the Nomad

Bruce Chatwin, 22 November 1979

Desert, Marsh and Mountain 
by Wilfred Thesiger.
Collins, 304 pp., £9.95
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... Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs are classics in line with Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta. Yet his new autobiographical sketch, Desert, Marsh and Mountain, though it borrows large chunks of the two earlier books, is more absorbing than either. The subtitle, ‘The World of a Nomad’, gives a clue about what he is up to ...

Blacks and Blues

E.S. Turner, 4 June 1987

The Life of My Choice 
by Wilfred Thesiger.
Collins, 459 pp., £15, May 1987, 9780002161947
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Worlds Apart: Travels in War and Peace 
by Gavin Young.
Hutchinson, 344 pp., £14.95, April 1987, 0 09 168220 7
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... In the eyes of Wilfred Thesiger, the world has all but succumbed to galloping and indiscriminate Westernisation. He is grateful to have completed his wanderings just in time. Unlike Chesterton’s Last Hero, the Last Explorer will not need to cry, at the end: Know you what earth shall lose tonight, what rich uncounted loans, What heavy gold of tales untold you bury with my bones? A few tales may well remain untold, but the heavy gold (with a certain amount of ballast) is here in The Life of My Choice, a treasure galleon built to the same specifications as Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs ...

Seeing Things

John Bayley, 18 July 1996

The World, the World 
by Norman Lewis.
Cape, 293 pp., £18.99, April 1996, 0 224 04234 3
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Omnibus: ‘A Dragon Apparent’, ‘Golden Earth’, ‘A Goddess in the Stones’ 
by Norman Lewis.
Picador, 834 pp., £9.99, January 1996, 0 330 33780 7
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... neatly written, and full of a dry detached humour, make Lawrence of Arabia or Bruce Chatwin, even Wilfred Thesiger and Freya Stark, look like the most tremendous show-offs, auto-destructive as wildlife films on TV. But then flamboyance – or flamboyant understatement – is usually what travel writing is about. It is a style that protects and passes the ...


R.W. Johnson: Magdalen College, 19 November 2009

... excellence for centuries past. Although it continued to attract an unusual variety of people, from Wilfred Thesiger to Dudley Moore, it was as likely to be known for the radicalism of its fellows as anything else: A.J.P. Taylor liked to argue that the college chapel should be turned into a swimming-pool. Meanwhile the college was badly run, the buildings ...

On board the ‘Fiona’

Edward Said, 19 December 1991

In Search of Conrad 
by Gavin Young.
Hutchinson, 304 pp., £17.99, October 1991, 0 09 173524 6
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... whose traces Young discovers in Pulan Laut in 1977. Along with Young on that trip there is also Wilfred Thesiger, the celebrated traveller who spent years among the desert Arabs; he seems withdrawn and strangely out of place on the yacht Fiona, as it prowls the Makassar strait among the Bugis tribespeople, who have a particular fascination for Gavin ...

High Spirits

E.S. Turner, 17 March 1988

Living dangerously 
by Ranulph Fiennes.
Macmillan, 263 pp., £14.95, October 1987, 0 333 44417 5
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The Diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten 1920-1922: Tours with the Prince of Wales 
edited by Philip Ziegler.
Collins, 315 pp., £15, November 1987, 0 00 217608 4
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Touch the Happy Isles: A Journey through the Caribbean 
by Quentin Crewe.
Joseph, 302 pp., £14.95, October 1987, 0 7181 2822 2
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... his publishers say, was the fourth European to cross the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia (shades of Wilfred Thesiger); he has also memorably traversed the Sahara. Touch the Happy Isles is a refreshingly acerbic account of island-hopping in the Caribbean, one of the notable pleasures of life for those who do not fret too much about missing the odd ...


Michael Gilsenan: In Yemen, 1 October 1998

... it can still be dangerous. After some hours of night driving, and just when I’m thinking that Wilfred Thesiger would really despise this four-wheel drive voyage across Arabian sands, the murafiq suddenly shoots ahead of us to the right and switches off his lights, disappearing instantly in the total darkness. I’ve been told at the start that this ...

One Enduring Trace of Our Presence

Maya Jasanoff: Governing Iraq, 5 April 2007

Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq 
by Rory Stewart.
Picador, 422 pp., £17.99, June 2006, 0 330 44049 7
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... the blue-blooded, imperially-reared, Eton and Oxford-educated traveller, administrator and writer Wilfred Thesiger. Most of all, Stewart shares the passion for the ‘Orient’ that has long exerted its pull on British male travellers; it inspired his first book. Stewart opens The Places In Between with the unassuming disclaimer that he ‘is not good at ...


Kathleen Jamie: In the West Highlands, 14 July 2011

... lured from the nearly burns and inlets, but no: Early in the New Year of 1956, I travelled with Wilfred Thesiger to spend two months or so among the little known Marsh Arabs, or Ma’dan, of Southern Iraq. By then it had crossed my mind … that I should like to keep an otter instead of a dog … [...

Making history

Malise Ruthven, 19 June 1986

Gertrude Bell 
by Susan Goodman.
Berg, 122 pp., £8.95, November 1985, 0 907582 86 9
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Freya Stark 
by Caroline Moorehead.
Viking, 144 pp., £7.95, October 1985, 0 670 80675 7
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... this quality, and its attendant self-centredness, that makes Freya Stark (with, some might say, Wilfred Thesiger) second only to Doughty as an Arabian travel-writer. Where Gertrude Bell, a grand Victorian lady who believed that it was essential for the natives to know that one came ‘from a great and honoured stock’, travelled with her cook, her ...

A Ripple of the Polonaise

Perry Anderson: Work of the Nineties, 25 November 1999

History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the Nineties 
by Timothy Garton Ash.
Allen Lane, 441 pp., £20, June 1999, 0 7139 9323 5
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... is rarely hard to see which is dominant. Evelyn Waugh in Ethiopia was an adventurer sans phrases. Wilfred Thesiger, although unquestionably adventurous, was an admirer. In 1916, at the age of six, he had watched Ras Tafari’s triumphal entry into Addis Ababa, his enemies hauled behind him in an atrocious procession. ‘I believe that day implanted in me ...

A Common Assault

Alan Bennett: In Italy, 4 November 2004

... would not go to a country where I did not speak the language,’ says the doctor, confirming that Wilfred Thesiger he isn’t. Now Rupert and the nurse help me up from the table and suddenly seeing us side by side, a solution to the crime presents itself to the policeman, a solution (the police being the same the world over) which hardly makes it a crime ...

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