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WILFRED THESIGER: THE LIFE OF THE GREAT EXPLORER. Maitland 2006 UK hardcover
By Mailtland, Alexander
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2006, UK edition. 528 pp, many photos. A new and extensive biography of one of the 20th century's greatest explorers, Wilfred Thesiger. Hardcover, DJ, New.

This account of the life of Wilfred Thesiger traces his many journeys from wanderings in Abyssinia, across the Arabian desert lands and around East Africa. It's a gripping account of an enigmatic figure - one we'll never see again. Maitland's highly detailed narrative, culled from documents and personal acquaintance with Thesiger, will not be easily displaced.

The son of a diplomat in Addis Abbaba, capital of what was then Abyssinia, Thesiger had an adventuresome childhood. The life toughened him from an early age. It also led both to an unsettled existence matched by an enduring desire to return there throughout his life. Even when far afield, the Ethiopian hills beckoned him. Adding to that lure was a friendship with a man who ultimately became Emperor of that nation, Haile Salassie.

Family circumstances removed him from Addis, and he found ways to exercise his wanderlust. The intrusion of WWII gave Thesiger an opportunity to put his exploration and language skills to work. Having mastered Arabic in addition to his academic training, he was able to negotiate arrangements with various tribes. In the Western Desert, after El Alamein, his exploits are exciting reading.

The disruptive era of war lingered in the Middle East as oil became the focus of The Powers. Thesiger's deep aversion to the internal combustion engine kept him away from petroleum exploration. Instead, he was commissioned to hunt locusts! The job allowed him to penetrate into Arabia's 'Empty Quarter' where some people had never seen a European. These jaunts nearly had Thesiger incarcerated or killed as local sheikhs resented European intrusion.

In other exercises, Thesiger is largely credited with bringing to view Iraq's 'Marsh Arabs'. These enigmatic people lived an isolated existence in an immense area. Thesiger spent long, fruitful periods with them, often acting as a medical technician [he had no formal medical training]. His fondness for young Arab men gained a further hold in those years. As a semi-official circumcisor for the locals, there was ample opportunity.

Maitland, while not overly adulatory of Thesiger in this book, notes some of his subject's more disparate thoughts and habits. Apart from his detestation of the internal combustion engine, the wanderer never found the need for music. That's a bit out of character for a man who manifested the 'Old School' attitudes of middle-class Britons. He even over-dressed on many unlikely occasions, rejecting an appeal to 'peel some layers' at a dinner in Kenya.

His attachment to his mother was intense. The loss of his father and Kathleen's later re-marriage only seem to have strengthened that tie. Perhaps, suggests Maitland, the years spent with an abusive headmaster of Thesiger's preparatory school drove him from 'father figures' and may have led to his propensity for young men. Although all those relationships appear to be platonic, Thesiger seems to have avoided sex as demeaning or repulsive.

Thesiger left a legacy of writings of his travels and the people he met. Maitland suggests Thesiger's orientation was always toward people over places. Geography was merely background to be dealt with as he visited, exchanged greetings, partook of the same fare as the locals and generally 'blended in'. He fit in, sometimes uncomfortably, with the mob of others producing similar travel accounts. He stood above those other writers, however, to become the giant of 20th Century voyagers on the ground.

The most compelling of his works, which Maitland draws on extensively, is 'The Life of My Choice', his autobiographical rendition. As Maitland makes clear, that book remains only the beginning in depicting this rather fabulous figure. Never truly Arab - he never considered becoming a Muslim - yet certainly not really British, despite his attitudes, Thesiger was a man without a country, yet of many.


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