Wilfred Thesiger

I write a “Comment” about something that is on my mind, most days. I hope some might be of interest to someone.

Phil Symmons

Last night I listened to the rebroadcast of a programme marking the centenary of Wilfred Thesiger’s birth in 1910.The journeys across the Empty Quartier that Thesiger described in his most famous book Arabian Sands were made in theory at least in a search for Desert Locust. His boss was Sir Boris Uvarov and a colleague Vesey-Fitzgerald. Vesey was a colleague of mine in Red Locust and Uvarov was my boss when I went looking for Desert Locust in the southern Sahara. So you might think I would understand what drove Thesiger and what he was seeking, but I do not.

My motivation was simple. The plan to investigate Desert Locust in the north of Niger was mine. I expected the trip to be hot, uncomfortable and altogether unpleasant, and in that I was not disappointed; but I thought the trip a necessary part of my job.

Thesiger however sought hardship but not incidental to achieving some difficult task, like walking across the Antarctic or rowing the Atlantic. As he makes clear his journeys in Arabia would soon have had no point since in a few years people like me in Landrovers would make the trips relatively easily. But that means his motive was not exploration. Nor was he an anthropologist. Nor was it to have the material to write a book. Thesiger was urged to write Arabian Sands only some years after making the journeys.

As far as I can understand him he admired people like the tribesmen he recruited who had to cope with a harsh environment. But they had no alternative. They do not strike me as having been a very nice lot. The tribes were in constant war with each other. Thesiger might share the life of Arabian nomad tribesman or later of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq but he could still not possibly have understood how they felt. He was born in Addis Ababa the son of a British diplomat, educated at Eton and Oxford, and there was always the flat in Chelsea between expeditions.

It seems to me that Thesiger was seeking some mystical experience. That required being far from what we call civilisation and having to subsist on what he and those he lived with could get from their natural environment. I suspect physical hardship- an equivalent of religious mortification of the flesh- was also necessary. I cannot see that there is anything to be admired in that but many think otherwise. Thesiger showed courage, fortitude, endurance, but not in face life’s adversities or in the pursuit of some greater good, but, it seems to me, by seeking situations where those qualities would be required.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Philip Symmons’s story.