BOOK REVIEW / Curdled dreams abandoned in the desert: 'Thesiger' - Michael Asher: Viking, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ASHER tells us that nothing has influenced his life more than Wilfred Thesiger's classic travel book, Arabian Sands. It prompted him to join the nomadic Bedouin, as Thesiger did, and then to write a book about the experience.

That, and the fact that both men are ex-soldiers, is where the similarity ends. Asher is a family man quite capable of taking his wife and children on jolly desert treks. Thesiger, on the other hand, is an imperial relic, a solitary figure of towering austerity, drawn to all-male warrior castes, living most of his life with the tribal cultures of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Africa.

Thesiger mapped the Saudi 'Empty Quarter' for the first time; and at the age of 23 he discovered the source of an African river. To many, Thesiger is 'the last of the great explorers'.

The two men disliked one other. Thesiger was offended to discover that Asher had been living in Nairobi, only a few hours from where he lived, conducting interviews and research for Thesiger for a year without contacting him.

When Asher did eventually meet Thesiger, he was in for a rude shock. Thesiger first ignored him, then barked: 'I think that your book is a complete waste of time'. Thesiger had also banned his friends from speaking to the biographer and, in a calculated snub, withdrew an earlier offer to allow access to private papers.

Eventually, Thesiger gave Asher his interviews - but told him nothing new. By this time, Asher's attitude to Thesiger had hardened. He was irritated by Thesiger's romantic posture and haughty aristocratic manner; Thesiger was a 'toff' who displayed 'characteristic Etonian cheek'.

Asher angrily records how Thesiger pulled strings on his travels, and how he has a private income. He also calls him a 'misogynist' - on the evidence of a preference for male company and some flip remarks. But many of the outrageous things Thesiger said were clearly meant to tease.

Asher's inability to get to grips with Thesiger's mischievous sense of humour, or to understand the intricate late-Edwardian social nuances of Thesiger's world, are a serious flaw in the book.

He even glosses over Thesiger's quite fascinating love- hate (but non-sexual) relationship with Gavin Maxwell - one of the most interesting friendships in English letters.

Asher has revealed no great scandals, hypocrisies or untruths. Thesiger's life is revealed to be pretty much what he always said it was. Uncompromisingly romantic, ferocious and wilful, he has always gone his own way, always sought the world of his childhood imagination. Now aged 84 and nearly blind, he lives with a poor African family in Kenya.

Asher seems to resent the old lion for continuing to inhabit a myth about himself in which Asher no longer believes. The mythomane is always delightful to those who collude in the myth, hateful to those who think the myth false.

The result is a critique that weaves between baffled hatred and cautious admiration. Asher is preoccupied with chasing around to reach the root of Thesiger's many contradictions, yet he fails properly to examine any of the man's close relationships - usually a profitable psychological exercise for a biographer, one would have thought.

Asher is an honest, diligent researcher into a subject sexually and socially alien to himself, and weaker and crueller than he supposed. Such things fire up most biographers, but Asher simply seems unutterably depressed about it. There is a sour taste to this book - of dreams left in the desert and curdled expectations.