Blacks and Blues

E.S. Turner

  • The Life of My Choice by Wilfred Thesiger
    Collins, 459 pp, £15.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 00 216194 X
  • Worlds Apart: Travels in War and Peace by Gavin Young
    Hutchinson, 344 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 09 168220 7

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. It is the record of a man magnificently and unabashedly out of step with his times; an adventurer imbued, in the words of a superior officer in the Sudan, with ‘an excess of certain ancient virtues ... a brave, awkward, attractive creature’ (a tribute quoted without comment); a virile, unsentimental, fashion-scorning writer, defying the reviewers to seek out and identify whatever daemon drove him, if (as is likely) they reject his own tight-lipped explanation or suspect him of a proud pose.

By coincidence, Thesiger’s book appears along with Worlds Apart by Gavin Young, of ‘slow boat’ fame, who once aspired to follow him into the Empty Quarter of Arabia, but settled instead for a stint in the lands of Sumer and Babylonia, which yielded him a book on the Marsh Arabs too. Young gives us a closeup of Thesiger today. The veteran of the sand seas, the salt flats and the lava fields lives in the Samburu country of northern Kenya. He resembles a tanned, lined version of Sherlock Holmes with a broken nose, and seems to have rejected most of the pleasures of civilisation except for Earl Grey tea.

Thesiger’s life has been in the Buchan mould. It is true that, unlike Auberon Herbert (‘the man who was Greenmantle’), he was never pressed to accept a throne – he would certainly have declined even that of Albania – but he played a bold part in restoring his own favourite emperor to the throne of Abyssinia. In doing so, he won ‘one of the better DSOs’, in Buchan parlance: there is, after all, no better DSO than that won as a subaltern. If he did not take part in the Great Game against Russia, at least he was sent to Syria in 1941 with orders to watch for a German incursion through the Caucasus and, if it happened, to stay behind and do something about it. He was also asked whether he would care to stay behind in Cairo if the Germans overran it: another good opportunity to do a Sandy Arbuthnot in disguise. Instead, he served in one of the better ‘private armies’ behind Rommel’s lines in Libya. A long career as an explorer still stretched before him, and it was to bring him a handful of the better international medals – those bearing the names of Livingstone, Burton and Lawrence.

Thesiger was ‘the first British child born in Abyssinia’, where his father, the British minister, had been escorted to the legation by a tyrant none the less dangerous for having been castrated as a boy. Thesiger’s uncle was Viceroy of India and the family included a general, an admiral, a Lord of Appeal, a High Court judge and a famous actor. As a small boy in Addis Ababa, which reeked excitingly of rancid butter and burning dung, he heard the throb of war drums and saw captive princes being led past in chains, a scene which implanted in him ‘a life-long craving for barbaric splendour ... a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world’. The savage scene, judging from a photograph, included corpses dangling from trees. It was 1916, an insensitive year everywhere.

At his prep school the other boys mocked his tales, as if he were a young Munchausen. He was a fish out of water, hating cricket and team games. At Oxford he wanted to study the great earth-shakers who set mass populations in motion, but seemingly Attila, Genghiz and the like ‘fell outside the scope of Oxford’s history school’. He read military history instead and won his Blue as a boxer.

In 1930 he was back in Abyssinia, attending the Duke of Gloucester at the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie, whom he had already encountered as Ras Tafari. There are sharp words for a fellow guest. Evelyn Waugh, of whom he had not then heard, was ‘blind to the historical significance of the occasion, impercipient of this last manifestation of Abyssinia’s traditional pageantry’. He was also contemptuous of the British minister for not inviting him to lunch. ‘I disapproved of his grey suede shoes, his floppy bow-tie and the excessive width of his trousers; he struck me as flaccid and petulant and I disliked him on sight.’ Waugh enquired at second-hand whether he could join Thesiger on an expedition into the dangerous country of the Danakils. ‘Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.’

The Danakil expedition had to be postponed until 1933. There was more than a sporting chance of being caponised: the Danakil males collected testicles rather than scalps and they wore the tally of the men they had slain like cricket colours, which is not to say that they were entirely unamiable. With the explorer’s passion for finding out where mysterious rivers emptied – an obsession which down the ages has caused prodigious inconvenience to man and beast – he let it be known that he wanted to trace the flow of the River Awash. The sultan whose permission was needed thought such a quest was idle folly, but the 23-year-old was not to be dissuaded, and very stimulating the journey turned out to be. ‘The knowledge that somewhere in the neighbourhood three previous expeditions had been exterminated, that we were far beyond any hope of assistance, that even our whereabouts were unknown, I found wholly satisfying.’

Almost inevitably, Thesiger now became one of ‘the Blues who ruled the Blacks’ in the Sudan. In the Political Service, scornful of desk work, he was for ever on the trek, seizing every chance to shoot lion as the vermin they then were, dispatching 70 in five years. Could he not have photographed them? Well, there is not much point photographing an angry lioness leaping at one’s throat, and many of those Thesiger destroyed were man-eaters. However, as a hunter, he does not deny the excitement of stalking a rare quarry – ‘the sound of the bullet striking home and a clean kill, with the animal dropping where it stood ... ’ There was another aspect: a skilled shot was the more likely to find men to follow him everywhere.

Thesiger had doubts about the rightness of Britain’s presence in the Sudan, and felt the supposed benefits of education should be deferred as long as possible. He was all for letting native peoples get on with their traditional lives. As it was, the Blues held power of life and death. One of Thesiger’s colleagues tried a murderer whose wife had taunted him in front of the other wives at the well; the reason for her fatal scorn was that she had undergone ‘the severe Pharaonic circumcision, which leaves only a small aperture’, and her husband could not effect entry. The death sentence was passed with a recommendation for mercy, duly granted.

‘We realised when we selected you that you were rather odd,’ said a superior, chiding Thesiger for an unauthorised journey. Another, closer, superior was grateful for a subordinate who did not worry endlessly about his marriage allowance and his next leave and was happiest in the wild amid famine and fleas. The lightest hardships were not negligible: ‘We filled our waterskins at the deep pool of Oudigue, where the water was yellow by now after years of staling by countless camels, and almost as bitter as quinine.’ However, Thesiger seems to have baulked at the Nuer habit of compensating for salt deficiency by mixing cows’ urine in the milk: ‘I always gave someone else my share of this blend.’

Thesiger says things like: ‘I had no intention of marrying; I valued personal freedom too highly for that. As for money, I had no expensive tastes, and wanted only to serve in places remote from civilisation, where the cost of living would be minimal.’ Elsewhere: ‘Sex has been of no great consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled.’ What mattered to him, and mattered greatly, were the comradeships of his travels: there are grateful tributes to those who, for long spells, in one tribe or another, played the role of fidus Achates.

Came World War Two and Thesiger switched to the exotic rank of Bimbashi in the Sudan Defence Force. Under Orde Wingate he leapt at the chance of driving the Italians from Abyssinia and claims to have fired the first shots – unauthorised ones – at the Duce’s troops. Wingate had undoubted military talents, but was deficient in other ancient virtues, and he posed yet another threat to the drinking water: his ‘only ablutions were to lower his trousers and cool his bottom in the occasional waterholes’ (one of many fairly gruesome Wingate stories). Bimbashi Thesiger ordered an Italian fort to surrender and raised the Abyssinian flag over it. A photograph of a long column stretching far away into the hills is captioned ‘Prisoners who surrendered to me at Agibar’ (2500 of them). He was present when the restored Emperor presided over another of those old-fashioned march-pasts of a defeated army, with the Italians, as the saying goes, feeling their position keenly.

Next Thesiger found himself briefly in the Druze Legion, another eminently romantic assignment, by courtesy of Special Operations Executive, but his real desire was to serve in the Western Desert, behind the German lines. He did so in the Special Air Service regiment, newly founded by Colonel David Stirling, and engaged in some lively rough shooting among the enemy encampments. At one point he was very close to Rommel. There was a crack Greek Sacred Squadron and it was the obvious unit to join next. Eventually he saw the shattering of the Mareth Line and experienced the exhilaration of heading the Eighth Army’s advance into Tunisia, not too busy to observe the unaccustomed profusion of poppies, marigolds, daisies, irises and gladioli. But he did not really care for jeeping and had never even learned how to change a wheel; the vehicle for Africa was the camel.

With the Greek Sacred Squadron he was posted to Palestine, where he learned how to jump from aircraft. Here he befriended Arab villagers who, thanks to British and American connivance, ‘were to be driven from their homeland or subjected to the intolerable rule of the Israelis, who claimed the right to a country from which they had been expelled two thousand years earlier’. Jerusalem papers, please copy.

After the war Thesiger, in the cause of locust research, made his double crossing, in disguise, of the Empty Quarter of Arabia, as told in Arabian Sands. The incessant hardship and thirst would have been a pointless penance, he says, but for the comradeship of the Bedouin. They, like him, could have found gainful employment elsewhere, but preferred to match themselves against the succession of 700-foot dunes. He well knew that blood feuds raged among the tribes, and says that if anyone had killed one of his companions he would unquestionably have sought to avenge him: ‘I have no belief in the “sanctity” of life.’

Soon the oil men came to desecrate the Empty Quarter. Thesiger spent eight years in Iraq with the Marsh Arabs, whose life has since been hopelessly disrupted by the war with Iran. Glorious, barbaric Abyssinia has become the intolerable Marxist state of Ethiopia. Now, in Kenya, he lives as far from tourism as possible, in reach of spectacular country where the skies are alive with ‘lammergeyer, augur buzzards, griffon vultures, as well as bald-headed and fan-tailed ravens’. The old hunter is now an honorary game warden.

Briefly, he wonders what drove him to this rootless but, as he insists, never lonely life. Was it, as he suspects, the hurtful rejection of himself as a schoolboy which made him look for comradeships among peoples of other lands? Gavin Young quotes him as saying: ‘I’d risk my life to save a black man or a brown one. I’m not so sure that I’d do that for a white.’ But perhaps that is just the sort of thing people say in interviews, over the Earl Grey tea, as the hyenas howl: he keeps a flat in Chelsea and would presumably help his neighbours in a fire. Down the years the many tribes with whom Thesiger lived were of varying compatibility. His second posting in the Sudan was among the Nuer, of whom he writes, ‘I knew these naked savages could not provide me with the comradeship I most enjoyed,’ though he concedes that had he been sent among them on first arrival it might have been different. Throughout, the Last Explorer was clearly one for the hot parched lands: it is hard to picture him among little men in the rain forests. If he ever yearned for a Brazilian adventure, in the Peter Fleming style, he does not mention it.

Worlds Apart is a round-up of Observer travel pieces, along with miscellaneous interviews, a few of them suffering from the march of time. The scene ranges from Nagaland to Vietnam, from Cuba to Taiwan. It is a less austere vision of the world than Thesiger’s and contains much percipient and vivid reporting. One chapter deals with a return to the now-tormented land of the Marsh Arabs. As well as the interview with Thesiger, there is one with another ‘post-imperial John Buchan character’, David Stirling, who added that new regiment to the Army. The interview is dated 1974, a bad year in Britain, when Stirling launched an organisation to train people to keep sewers and power stations operational in emergency. He had earlier been associated with the Capricorn Africa Society, a utopian project designed to foster a common patriotism among black and white in East and Central Africa, but this had ‘sunk quietly into the sand’. In 1970 he was persuaded to drop a plan to raid Gaddafi’s jails and free political prisoners. Perhaps he should have been induced to infiltrate Britain’s peace movements in search of traitors, as Richard Hannay, in Mr Standfast, did among the pacifists of ‘Biggleswick’ (Letchworth?), sinking down with as little revulsion as possible ‘deep into the life of the half-baked’. Gavin Young, not one to deride a gallant figure encountered in White’s, assures us that though at times Stirling might seem ‘a bit dotty’, he was ‘certainly not a silly old buffer ... indeed, as you might say, quite a formidable bloke’.