Only the Camels

Robert Irwin

  • Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer by Alexander Maitland
    HarperCollins, 528 pp, £25.00, February 2006, ISBN 0 00 255608 1

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. In his classic travel book, Arabian Sands, Thesiger presented his enchanted memory of this colourful and noisy parade as one of the things behind ‘the perverse necessity’ that drove him out from England ‘to the deserts of the East’. But other, less exotic things shaped him, too.

His mother, Kathleen, who long outlived the father, a soldier and the British consul in Addis Ababa, was a powerful influence on her son’s life. Alexander Maitland introduces this biography with his meeting with Thesiger in Kathleen’s Chelsea flat in 1964:

Cocooned in a woollen shawl and an old-fashioned lace-trimmed mob cap, she lay propped up on pillows, with writing paper and books spread out on the bedcover within easy reach. Thesiger left us alone for a few minutes while he carried a tray with a decanter of sherry and glasses to the sitting-room. It was then that his mother offered me the unforgettable advice: ‘You must stand up to Wilfred.’

Thesiger kept diaries of his travels and sojourns in savage wildernesses. He then polished his jottings in the form of letters to his mother and it was those that furnished the main source for his books, written years later, most notably Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964). Thesiger’s correspondence with his mother continued for over half a century until her death in 1973 and it was his determination to make her see what he had seen that gives his prose its precision. These letters and the diaries are Maitland’s chief source. Michael Asher’s fine Thesiger: A Biography (1994) chiefly relied on conversations with Thesiger and those who had known him, supplemented by the published works. Now, Maitland’s painstaking use and critical correlation of the Thesiger papers allows him to detect many errors of chronology, exaggerations, false memories and conflations in the received story. The result is engrossing, but not all that much is changed. Thesiger did not have to bluff.

The all-male, competitive environment of Eton also had a role in shaping the explorer. There he ‘learned responsibility, the decencies of life, and standards of civilised behaviour’. In a remote part of Abyssinia in 1933 he met a young Danakil tribesman who had just killed three men: ‘He looked about eighteen, with a ready, friendly smile and considerable charm . . . He struck me as the Danakil equivalent of a nice, rather self-conscious Etonian who had just won his school colours for cricket.’ In the Sudan in 1936 he still wore a white sweater with the Old Etonian colours. Later yet, he voted Liberal because Jo Grimond was an Old Etonian. The school gave him a taste for formality and occasional luxury. When, in 1933, he set off to explore the Abyssinian mountains of Arussi, he bought his provisions from Fortnum and Mason. Later, in the Sudan, he had khaki knee-length stockings sent from the same shop, while his brother sent him its food hampers. Thesiger bought his panama hat from Lock in St James’s, and had the collar bones of the 70th lion he had shot mounted in gold by Asprey. When the ill-fated writer and Thesiger’s future travelling companion Gavin Maxwell first met him in London, he was startled: ‘The bowler hat, the hard collar and black shoes, the never-opened umbrella, all these were a surprise to me.’

Then there were books. What sorts of books did empire builders and explorers read? Those of an intellectual bent, such as Cromer and T.E. Lawrence, read Homer, Tacitus and Gibbon. The less intellectual read books about mountaineering, big-game hunting and pig-sticking. On the whole the young Thesiger belonged to the second category. He read the novels of John Buchan and Rider Haggard, Jim Corbett’s tales of tiger hunting, Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game, Blackwood’s Tales from the Outposts, Jock of the Bushveld, Henri de Monfreid’s account of smuggling across the Red Sea, Churchill’s The River War and, of course, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Thesiger thought that Buchan’s style was the one to emulate, though he was in fact a much better writer than Buchan. As Thesiger wrote his own books, his reading taste seems to have matured and when, in 1956, Eric Newby encountered him by chance in the Hindu Kush, he spotted copies of La Chartreuse de Parme and Du côté de chez Swann in his baggage.

His youthful experiences in Africa and public school, supplemented by his derring-do reading, made him a man who craved danger, rough living and the companionship of young males. According to Maitland, he hated ‘“soft” living, alcohol, “intrusive” female company’. This makes it difficult for me to empathise with him as a subject since I am fond of all three of those things. Thesiger was brave, tough and austere, but he had a bullying manner and was notoriously short-tempered. He was almost entirely humourless. (Here he differed from Gavin Maxwell, who in his account of time spent with Thesiger among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, A Reed Shaken by the Wind, managed to extract a lot of cruel comedy from the inability of the Arabs he encountered to speak English well.)

Though Thesiger was appreciative of boys and their beauty, he seems not to have seen the point of sex. He once remarked of Lawrence’s agonising about his homosexuality, ‘he should have slept with half a dozen of ’em and got the damned thing out of his system.’ Though he revered Lawrence’s writing, his own prose was tauter and free from moral ambiguities and psychological striptease. His descriptions are keen-eyed and astonishingly precise. When, in Arabian Sands, one has read his account of an Omani camel saddle being made, one knows how to make it oneself and exactly how it differs from the double-poled saddle of North Arabia. He sought to put himself on a level with the Arabs he travelled with in the Empty Quarter, the desert region of south-eastern Arabia, even though he was aware that this was not entirely attainable. He was a racist, with strong views about the French (not so good at dealing with the natives), the Abyssinians (litigious and avaricious) and the Nuer (too primitive and crude to be interesting). Even so, his racism was not straightforwardly triumphalist. He wrote, for example, about his time with the Arab tribes of the Empty Quarter: ‘I went there with a belief in my own racial superiority, but in their tents I felt like an uncouth, inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic world.’

Thesiger was fairly consistent in his contempt for fellow authors. He hated Evelyn Waugh’s account of Abyssinia (though he conceded that Waugh was a good stylist). He was rude about Freya Stark and Lesley Blanch, and he rowed with Joy Adamson. He described Jan Morris’s Sultan in Oman as ‘chatty rubbish’. He thought that the Marsh Arabs had been misrepresented in Maxwell’s book and that A Ring of Bright Water did not give him enough credit for procuring the otter, Mijbil. Thesiger was acutely and accurately self-aware. He loved the vanishing wildernesses and their tribesmen who had never seen a car or a radio. He hated American-style materialism, progress and globalisation, but he did not argue with the future. He found his austere pleasures where they were still possible.

In 1933, while still an undergraduate at Oxford, he ventured into the remote Danakil region. In the late 1930s he was in the Sudan Political Service and thereafter fought in Syria and the Western Desert. After the war, he returned briefly to Abyssinia before making a first crossing of the Empty Quarter in the service of a locust control project. Subsequently, in 1947-8, he made a second crossing, for the hell of it. Thereafter he travelled widely in Oman, Iran and Kurdistan, before spending a substantial part of the 1950s living among the Marsh Arabs, though he also travelled in the remoter parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Morocco. He spent a large part of his later life in Kenya, until infirmity forced him to return to England. He died in 2003.

By normal human standards most of the places he had chosen to travel and live in were pretty horrible. He rejoiced in the way of life of the Marsh Arabs (a way of life since destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s drainage of the marshes), but it is not so clear that the Arabs themselves enjoyed it all that much. Though Maxwell’s book on them is in all sorts of ways more superficial than Thesiger’s, Maxwell had seen that the lives of those Arabs were based on the harsh necessities of survival. Though the marshes were beautiful and quiet, there were tormenting fleas everywhere. Wild pigs were lethally dangerous. Excrement floated on the waters and awful diseases – dysentery, yaws, ringworm, hookworm and bilharzia – were rife. The women aged quickly; young boys died from botched circumcisions; older males died in blood feuds; thieving was endemic. Everybody was haunted by fear of the evil eye and djinns, and almost everybody was poor. Maxwell came away from Thesiger’s ‘private paradise’ oppressed by a vision of the cruelty of nature and the brevity of human life. But Thesiger thought that someone who wept so much over a dead otter should be locked up in an asylum.

Life in the Empty Quarter was no better, though one has to read behind Thesiger’s detached, almost autistic prose to get a full sense of how difficult and dangerous life was for the camel-rearing Bedu. The hardness of their lives made them callous about their own pain and the pain of everybody else. (Only the camels received sympathy and affection.) The discovery of oil in what were then the Trucial States, and the consequent rise in prices of commodities in local markets, destroyed the way of life of the Bedu of the deserts. By the time I ventured into the Empty Quarter in 1969 (on an ill-fated quest for the singing sand dunes) it was in an old army lorry. The Bedu that I encountered had all been on the hadj to Mecca, their flights paid for by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, and Thesiger was commemorated on the postage stamps of Dubai.