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

Tales of a tribal traditionalist
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The Independent Culture

In June 1910, a lanky baby was born to the head of the British legation in Addis Ababa. Aged three, Wilfred Thesiger witnessed his father shooting an oryx in the Ethiopian highlands, and years later he would identify this as the life-forming moment that led to his becoming the most famous British adventurer of his generation.

Thesiger's life was nothing if not well-travelled. For most of it, he spent at least three-quarters of each year in regions such as the marshes of Iraq (subsequently destroyed by Saddam Hussein), the Arabian deserts, the Darfur region of Sudan (where he served as a colonial officer), the mountains of Afghanistan and Iran, and the highlands of East Africa. He would usually travel by camel or on foot, disdaining all motorised transport, before at some point returning to London.

Here he would meet friends at his club, and every year or two spend time travelling with his mother in Iberia, Italy, Morocco and the Near East.

Such was Thesiger's rootless existence. If he were a young man today, he would doubtless be fast-tracked to the upper echelons of MI6. At the time, economies had not reached such high levels of oil-dependency, so these regions were less strategically significant. Thesiger was able to live and travel with people more or less "untouched" by Western culture, allowing him to create beautiful verbal and photographic portraits of ways of life which have gone forever.

Thesiger was a remarkable person. His life story contains material rich enough for several biographies, and also raises universal questions: on the origins of wanderlust, the nature of fiercely ambitious and single-minded individuals, and the origins of the "Orientalist" fascination of the British for the exotic at the height of empire.

Though this book is the authorised biography, Alexander Maitland has avoided any self-invented mythology. Instead, he chooses to begin with a revealing anecdote of his first meeting with Thesiger, in 1964. When Thesiger went to get some sherry, his mother Kathleen "offered me the unforgettable advice: 'You must stand up to Wilfred'."

This advice appears to have been something of a motto for Maitland. He makes exceptional use of personal papers, comparing Thesiger's own letters with published accounts to bring out both the exaggerations and lapses of memory which allowed him to construct - and believe in - his own legend. Maitland's use of the letters brings out the way in which a persona is constructed, and the narcissism inherent in most claims to "greatness".

This critical picture is offset by Maitland's genuine sympathy for his subject. He devotes much attention to Thesiger's childhood, in particular the early death of his father and the sado-masochistic bullying he suffered at boarding school. Strongly influenced by Freudian theories on character formation, Maitland finds the origins of Thesiger's wanderlust here, rather than in stories of his father hunting down the oryx. There is an unerring consonance between the attraction of the desert, and the emotional and physical desert of Thesiger's childhood bereavement and abusive schooling.

The consequence was that Thesiger became a romantic traditionalist who never quite fitted in with his surroundings. When he returned to Arabia after 25 years to meet the men who had guided him across the desert, he was distressed to find them owners of 4x4s. Retiring to spend his latter years in Kenya, he gave away large sums of money to Samburu people, most of which vanished without trace. Though having "an abnormally acute perception of reality" through his journeys, he lived "in a quixotic parallel universe of his own creation".

Thesiger retired to Britain from Kenya in 1995 and died in 2003, aged 93. He spent his latter years overseeing the publication of the books which cemented his reputation, recreating the years when he had travelled with groups of young men, dominating them by force of personality and replicating, Maitland suggests, the childhood when he dominated his band of four brothers. Here, with the psychological acuity characteristic of his superb biography, Maitland appears to use his own relationship with Thesiger - as a young, potential biographer in a position of subordination - as a prism for understanding the explorer's relationship with his guides throughout his desert travel.

The last years of Thesiger's life were lonely. In Maitland's hands, they fall into place as the product of his lifelong attempt to recreate the perfection of a childhood ruptured by exile and bereavement. Shortly before his death, he shouted to the nurses: "What is your tribe"; he had always been an outsider to his own tribe, and to those remote peoples that he came to love. But it is not a little consolation that out of Thesiger's personal struggles, and isolation, came some of the most remarkable journeys and human interactions of the 20th century.

Toby Green's book on the Inquisition will be published next year by Macmillan