BOOK REVIEW / A lifelong search for just deserts: Thesiger - Michael Asher: Viking, pounds 20

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'I THINK your book is a complete waste of time]' yelled Wilfred Thesiger at Michael Asher as he contemplated writing this biography. 'I'm not going to talk to you. I'm not interested.'

In a sense Thesiger was right. He has written a hefty volume of autobiography and definitive accounts of his most important journeys. His achievements and personality seem to repel scrutiny. Typically, as a child, he learnt to walk long before he could talk, and his first words were 'Go away]'

But Asher is well-equipped to provide further insights. He is himself an experienced desert explorer, familiar with many regions of Africa and the remoter Arab world - and Thesiger did, finally, talk with him. It speaks for both men that out of Asher's formidable investigation - he travelled thousands of miles in the explorer's footsteps - Thesiger emerges intact as a man of quixotic integrity and force.

It was a harsh road for Asher to follow. When only 23, Thesiger crossed the Danakil country of Abyssinia where many earlier expeditions had vanished, penetrated the remote sultanate of Aussa, and solved one of Africa's last mysteries by tracing the Awash river to its end. After fighting beside Wingate in Abyssinia, and with the SAS in North Africa, he became the only Westerner to cross Arabia's Empty Quarter twice - journeys celebrated in his classic Desert Sands - then sporadically spent eight years among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.

Already he had reached the Saharan Tibesti mountains and completed gruelling expeditions in the Nuer regions of Sudan. Later treks took him to remote areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kurdistan and Yemen. And always he travelled on foot or by camel, in the company of natives, seeking out the harsh beauty of lonely places, as if he were proving himself by pain.

The character which Asher discerns in this life of self-exile seems at once blindingly simple and impermeably complex. Self-contradictions abound. Thesiger is an ascetic who hates solitude (he never travelled alone); an upper-class traditionalist whose whole life subverted convention; a man of overbearing self-confidence but a lingering social shyness; and, most painfully, the champion of primitive values whose explorations unwittingly corroded them.

Thesiger once maintained that the Bedouin relished hardship for its own sake, and that they did not want change. Yet although this is no longer tenable - they have embraced change gladly - his old belief remains intact, even fashionable: that 'civilisation' can diminish a people's quality.

But few lives are philosophically coherent, and Thesiger's love of wild peoples emerges as primarily aesthetic and emotional. As a boy, when his father was Minister in Addis Ababa, he witnessed the victory parade of the future emperor Haile Selassie - brilliant with plumed warriors, minstrels and manacled prisoners - and he was never to forget it. 'I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour,' he wrote in A Life of my Choice, 'that it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands.'

When he arrived in England as a child, he became an object of ridicule and disbelief among his schoolboy peers, and to this rejection he traced an ensuing streak of misanthropy towards his own kind. The death of his adored father when the boy was only nine may have sealed his disillusion and bathed his Abyssinian childhood in a retrospective glow of romance and prestige.

But Asher avoids any intricate psychological speculation. If there is a pervasive theme here, it is Thesiger's romanticism - his desire to inhabit a boy's canvas exempt from modernity - and the contradictions which this entails. His earliest great journey - to the remote sultanate of Aussa - reads like a paradigm for all those which were to follow: the stuff of Kipling and Haggard. 'As I looked round the clearing at the ranks of squatting warriors and the small isolated group of my own men,' he wrote, 'I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realisation of my boyhood dreams. . .'

The dreams famously found their apotheosis among the Bedouin of the Empty Quarter. These tribesmen answered to his aristocratic ideal, as if they were an inverted image of his own class (to which he is fiercely loyal) - and in their material poverty and spiritual resilience confirmed Thesiger's philosophy of 'the harder the life, the finer the person'. They exemplified the qualities of manliness which he most esteemed: courage, loyalty, endurance, generosity - everything which he supposes to have been dredged out of modern man. It is a world in which compassion and the intellect scarcely feature.

This is a warrior's arena. Women are absent from it. Thesiger never believed in the possibility of losing his identity in that of others, but he came closest to realising himself beside the Bedouin. Asher divines that his allegiance was less to places or even to specific tribes than to a handful of individuals: above all, to lithely handsome adolescents. Thesiger describes this leaning as platonic admiration. Among the Bedouin, says Asher, homosexuality is taboo ('the mere mention of it would be enough to bring daggers out').

'It's individuals who draw me back,' Thesiger told him, '- there might be four of five of them or there might be more - with whom I want to spend my life. I don't know why I feel attached to certain people. Why does anybody feel attracted to anyone else?'

Asher's most striking achievement is to have tracked down Thesiger's travelling companions of almost 50 years ago: men in late middle age now, grown wealthy in livestock or banditry. They remember 'the Christian' with affecting clarity, and speak of him with esteem: of his hardiness, bravery, organisational ability. His only fault, in their eyes, was his irascibility. In no important respect does their version of the journeys differ from his.

Yet it comes as no surprise that while Thesiger valued them as paragons of nobility and physical beauty, they valued him because he supplied them with goods. 'I liked him because he was so beautiful,' Thesiger says of his companion bin Ghabaisha. Fifty years later a grizzled bin Ghabaisha told Asher: 'I wanted to go with him because he gave the Bedu rifles and camels and money, and those were the things I was interested in. Also a lot of people talked about his journeys, and I wanted to become famous. . .'

Once, in order to test the loyalty of his two favourite youths, Thesiger feigned death. As he lay on the ground, one of them, frightened of murder accusations, said they'd better take his body back to the authorities; the other objected that the corpse would start to smell and disturb the camels.

Compassion seems to belong neither to their world nor to Thesiger's. Already he had noted almost with admiration the cult of murder among the Danakil. From one perspective Thesiger might be seen as a victim of public school values or romantic self-delusion; from another as fiercely inhumane. But ultimately it seems no more relevant to judge him than to judge a magnificent animal (or perhaps to judge a Danakil by our own lights). Long ago he set himself foursquare against all modern softness, populism and mechanisation. 'His enemy,' Asher says, 'was the inexorable march of time itself.'

Not so his Bedouin. They, of course, hankered after the Western goods which he despised. When, after 28 years, he returned to the Arabian peninsula, his two old companions met him in their cars. 'Well,' Thesiger thought, 'already your standards have dropped]'

It is Asher's achievement to have diagnosed both the complexity and navety in Thesiger, yet to have evoked his hero's intransigent grandeur. Inevitably his account of Thesiger's journeys lacks the first-person vitality of their original, and sometimes his impressively detailed commentaries on them prove wearing. But Thesiger is a work of unmistakable stature and commitment.

Eventually Asher did enjoy exhaustive conversations with the explorer, where he lives - an old man now - in a Samburu shanty-town in northern Kenya. True to his past, Thesiger has adopted a people he admires - and they have exploited him. He is surrounded by a surrogate family of dependents, in whom his modern affluence (however poor his lifestyle) has awoken the cupidity he deplores.

These tape-recorded interviews between Thesiger and Asher became the skeleton on which this book hangs. They were granted, in the end, with touching candour, and it is hard to see how Asher's Thesiger will be superseded.

(Photograph omitted)