Wilfred Thesiger: the life of the great explorer by Alexander Maitland

The desert aesthete forever on the retreat
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He had crossed the Empty Quarter twice - that alone made him remarkable. So did the shooting of 70 lions in the Sudan; not to forget the circumcising (the biographer helpfully calculates for us) of 6,138 boys while ensconced among the reed beds of Iraq. He had walked with the Afar ("Danakil") - then noted for collecting testicles as trophies - and there also was his time with the Nuer, although "these pagans" were "too primitive, unsophisticated, and crude to be interesting". He'd penned the near-flawless epic, Arabian Sands, and the magnificent, important record which was The Marsh Arabs. Born in a thatched mud hut, Wilfred Thesiger had been a wanderer of savannah, marsh and sand for 60 years.

I stalked up the slope, through the thorn scrub to his shack. Thesiger sat outside in his tweed jacket watching my approach, those unwavering eyes (even in boyhood suggesting, Jan Morris felt, a character "intent on a single destination") regarding me from either-side of that famous thrice-broken nose.

Our time together did not go as I'd hoped. He was courteous enough; side by side we drank tea as the zebra grazed below. However, Thesiger was reluctant to open up. I'd half expected it. The story goes that once, when someone asked the octogenarian, "Wilfred, are you gay?", he floored him. But I'd spent months alone with various indigenous groups and dared hope this might be of interest. Not a bit of it. He dismissed my participation in a New Guinean initiation ceremony as an act of betrayal of my own kind. Nor was there to be an enriching discussion on TE Lawrence or Doughty (who had been his early inspirations) or contemporary writers, though he did tell me Bruce Chatwin's prose was "ghastly, fanciful nonsense". By nightfall we had established common ground on only one thing - camels, which we both held in respect.

So I've been looking forward to Alexander Maitland's biography; Thesiger's close friend and literary executor, a collaborator on four previous publications, Maitland had long since gained his trust, and consulted him constantly for this book over the 11 years before his death in 2003. But how far under the thickened, wind-tanned skin had he ever got?

Maitland treads carefully through Thesiger's nomadic life. Too carefully, you are tempted to think. But that would be a mistake; he simply treats his subject with the civility that Thesiger would expect - and himself imparted to his ventures. He does probe, and we do begin to understand the complex impulses that led Thesiger to seek out an austere existence, the "clean harshness of the desert". Maitlaid plots the early, lonely prep-school years when, thrashed and fondled by a sadistic master, Thesiger found comfort dreaming of the "gorgeous barbarity" he'd left behind in his birthplace, Abyssinia. His self-belief destroyed along with his sense of belonging, he developed a quiet yearning for a sanctuary in worlds apart. Only while boxing at Eton and Oxford did Thesiger find "savage satisfaction" - and this satisfaction he would hope to find again in the brutal splendour of the desert.

The Thesiger that Maitland uncovers from his private papers is as fiercely resilient as we expect; but also endearingly vulnerable, manipulated by the young acolytes he adopts over the years. For someone of such physical endeavour he is oddly self-absorbed; we find him left stranded, rendered indecisive by the contradictions inherent in him. He's forever seeking companionship, yet unable to find comfort in physical intimacy - relationships are characteristically limited to "furtive embraces and voyeuristic encounters"; above all, he remains true to his distrust of modernity; here is a figure tragically marooned, a desert aesthete forever on the retreat, surrounded by rising seas of what he only ever saw as our insipid yet corrosive age. He does, though, at last find expression when coaxed by devoted friends and his adored mother, Kathleen ("a goddess unique in his exclusively male pantheon"), to write of his Arabian travels.

For all my lack of rapport with Thesiger, that day on his veranda in Kenya, I remember how empty by comparison my own life seemed; how unlived. Now, closing this book, I feel we are all of us diminished. Gone is this witness to the lost Arab marshes and Bedu: "a cheerful, courageous, dignified people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame". This book is a worthy testament to an exceptional life - and as an authorised biography it is also the last cry of Thesiger himself, someone who evoked complete worlds of brutal majesty now denied the rest of us forever.