Obituary: Richard Trench

By nature, the writer and traveller Richard Trench was a nomad.

He was a scavenger for information and because he found almost everything interesting he adapted to any situation with relative ease. This desire for knowledge made him a very lively companion; he took a keen interest in what one had to say and was positively delighted if he stumbled across an arcane fact in the course of a conversation. He was always keen to learn something new and was generous about sharing his knowledge.

In the late Seventies, starting from Mauritania, he crossed the Sahara by camel caravan to try and find out what was happening at the notorious Mali salt mines at Taoudenni where political prisoners were sent to die. His account of the journey, Forbidden Sands, was published in 1978. Other Europeans have crossed the Sahara by camel, including Geoffrey Moorhouse in 1972, but this does not detract from the omnipresent dangers of the desert: sandstorms, isolation, constant thirst, rumblings of war from the Spanish Sahara and fear of both discovery and imprisonment.

Trench wrote convincingly about his fears but also about his love of the country. When he returned to the Sahara a year or so later the Polisario were in charge of Mauritania and the feeling of the country he had so admired had changed. A few years later he went to Eritrea where he joined the guerrillas and from where he wrote for the Observer. Later he also wrote for the Guardian and the Financial Times on a freelance basis.

Trench was educated at public school; he went on to Essex University but dropped out after two years, as he round university life boring and too restricting. He became a journalist in Northern Ireland, where he learned "incredible lessons", and reported for the newspapers Seven Days, Friends, Oz and Ink; he later scripted a documentary about Ireland. He also wrote for IT and at some point went to live in a tent in a friend's garden, from which he entertained, but he badly neglected his health, becoming skeletally thin and losing all his teeth. He had strong political commitments, and he was a firm believer in social justice in Britain.

When he returned to England from the Sahara in the late Seventies he began to lead a more settled life with his family and children in London. But his talent for throwing himself into whatever he was doing did not desert him, and his original approach to London, London Under London, a subterranean guide, was first published in 1984; he found burrowing around under London with his co-author Ellis Hillman as engrossing as any of his travels, and when the book was updated in 1993 he kept producing new pieces of information.

Between 1982 and 1987 Trench compiled the annual Time Out guide to Paris, despite speaking very little French, although he did have a sister living in Paris. This kind of project which required the ferreting out of facts was something he much enjoyed. He also wrote regularly for Chronicle, another project which required accumulating facts.

But the desert world continued to fascinate him. Arabian Travellers, published in 1986 with a foreword by Wilfred Thesiger, is a comprehensive look at the travellers to Arabia and their reasons for travelling in that "huge white blot". Trench wrote in his introduction that "Few were attractive characters; they were imperialists, sacrilegers, adventurers, romantics, opportunists, spies and simple searchers." Most of these characteristics were the kind of things which Trench despised. When he travelled he believed in identifying with the people and the country he was in; he had no time for the imperialist attitude or any other kind of pretension.

His enthusiasm for new things, places and people included an enthusiasm for his own appearance; he would often appear sporting a dramatic new hairstyle. He rather delighted in looking shambolic and unkempt and was thrilled one day when a lady who saw him waiting to cross the road pointedly wound up her car window and locked her doors.

Recently his younger son had been chosen to play the part of Oliver in the big new Disney film, being filmed in Ireland, and only a few weeks ago before his sudden death from a heart attack he had been discussing a new idea for another book on the Middle East with his publisher John Murray, having just finished a gazeteer of Arab tribes.

Sarah Anderson

Richard Hugh Roger Chenevix Trench, writer and traveller: born 11 March 1949; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died London 18 May 1997.