Book review: The forgotten hero: Suffolk's own Indiana Jones

God's Fugitive: The Life of C M Doughty by Andrew Taylor HarperCollins pounds 17.99

Who? Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926) would have turned puce at such an impertinent question. According to Andrew Taylor, he was "the foremost Arabian explorer of his or any other age". His account of two years' wandering in the Middle East, Travels In Arabia Deserta, proved so useful to T E Lawrence that he later admitted that it "became a military text-book, and helped to guide us to victory in the East".

Doughty boldly went where no European had gone before and yet, for all his trail-blazing, he spent most of his life looking back to the works of Chaucer and Edmund Spenser. He is a supreme example of the Victorian eccentric, a fatalistic Englishman determined to secure his reputation for posterity by preserving the relics of the past.

Doughty's memorial at Golder's Green Crematorium epitomises him as a "poet, patriot and explorer". It's a case of the first, the worst: "Cold fleeting Ver, mingled with blood, ran down / All night; and corses of slain steeds and men / Cumber his sedgy brinks." These are just two and a half of the 30,000 lines that make up The Dawn In Britain (1905), an epic poem - three times longer than Paradise Lost - about the coming of Christianity to Britain. Doughty's mission impossible was to protect the English language from what he saw as modern decadence: hence his frequent use of archaisms, biblical cadences and strangulated syntax. The above is as good as it gets. The Times Literary Supplement judged the 24 cantos "infinitely wearisome".

The bad reception was, of course, down to ignorant critics - not a stubborn author engaged in a perpetual battle with long-suffering publishers, printers and readers. Undaunted, Doughty embarked on Adam Cast Forth, a sacred verse drama which he thought might have a more direct appeal. "The disadvantage was", remarks Taylor drily, "that Doughty had hardly ever watched a play, let alone tried to write one." The result was "unactable".

Was the red-bearded beanpole mad? Quite possibly. "That my work might be of some service to my country has always been, and still is, a principal aim of my life," announced Doughty in 1916. From his home in Eastbourne, he could hear the incessant crump of guns in the Flanders trenches but, stuck in a mental world where gentle knights were still pricking on the plain, Doughty could only produce war poetry that, says Taylor, betrays a "blind jingoism ... made even more repulsive by the dripping sentimentality that surrounds it". Although he does not excuse Doughty's failings, he does attempt to explain them. In 1916, for example, Doughty was a sick old man, out of touch with the 20th century. He even claimed not to have heard of Thomas Hardy.

Taylor portrays the clergyman's son as an original young fogey. At 35 he was already tugging his beard and demanding the veneration due to a much older man. The loss of his parents - and inheritance - at an early stage prompted Doughty to seek solace in historical certainties. To make matters worse, the faith of a man "oddly lacking" in human sympathy came under further pressure as new theories of evolu- tion continued to erode the bedrock of his beloved Church of England.

There can be little doubt that, in some ways, Doughty was running away when he set off round the Mediterranean in 1871. For a start, it was cheaper to live abroad. He was following the familiar route of losing himself to find himself and yet the real discoveries only came afterwards in Arabia. He may have been the first European to visit the legendary desert capital of Kheybar, but it was his details of how the main drainage channels of northern Arabia ran into the great Wadi Hamdh that provided vital information for Lawrence's military campaign. The war hero was instrumental in gaining Doughty an annual pension of pounds 150 and some last-ditch literary recognition.

What Doughty learned in the back of beyond - that, as far as religion is concerned, instincts are more important than institutions - stayed with him for the rest of his life. There are times when God's Fugitive wanders as much as its subject but it comes into its own in the chapters that deal with the desert. Taylor, like "CMD" before him, evokes it in all its lethal beauty and shows how the hypochondriac Doughty struggled to live up to his name. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines "doughty" as an archaic word meaning "brave and resolute". Because he steadfastly - some would say suicidally - refused to deny his Christianity in the Muslim heartlands, Suffolk's own Indiana Jones never knew whether he would be met with hostility or hospitality: sticks and stones or camel milk and roasted locusts. The fact that he survived at all is his greatest achievement. If Taylor fails to inspire affection for Doughty, he does succeed in demonstrating why such an "absurd" and "pompous" pioneer deserves to be both respected and remembered.

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