Michael Asher seems to be exactly the right person to write what is probably the definitive biography of Wilfred Thesiger: he’s a seasoned explorer himself, and familiar with many of the places Thesiger explored.
Thesiger comes across as a very conservative, dyed-in-the-wool aristocratic type, anti-democracy, anti-progress, in favour of people knowing their place – in short, a man from the past. He had a sufficient private income to fund whatever he did, and used to say that he had never worked a day in his life.
He deplored the ease of modern travel. He sought to live with the local people, as one of the local people, in his travels in Arabia and Iraq particularly, although Asher makes it clear that this was, at the same time, on Thesiger’s terms, and within his power; although he rejected previous explorers’ aloofness, superiority and difference from local tribes and peoples, he couldn’t actually escape it himself: how much can an outsider blend in and become part of a tribe? Through interviews with some of those Thesiger travelled with, Asher shows both how much they accepted him, and at the same time how he was always an outsider.
It’s as much a book about Asher as it is about Thesiger, in the end: Asher’s admiration of his predecessor shines throughout, though it is not romanticised, indeed it is often sharply critical; certainly Asher is clear about the many contradictions and inconsistencies in Thesiger’s life, and approach to people and exploration; he sees how Thesiger’s world-view was shaped and developed by his early experiences; he sees the flaws and self-delusion for what it was.. In the end, it boils down to this: what Thesiger liked was the tribes and peoples before they were ‘contaminated’ by contact with Western civilisation and technology, unspoiled, as it were, and he wanted them to remain like that, it seems almost in a zoo-like state, never mind that those tribes and people actually had the right to a choice about their futures and wanted progress and technology and Western medicine, for instance. To this reader, it seems that at times that Thesiger glimpsed the even bigger question about the nature of progress and what it does to us and our world, as a whole species, and unwittingly, but he was never able to ask the right questions at that level.
Asher was clearly fascinated by Thesiger the man, and the places he explored and peoples he lived with, at the same time as cutting him down to size and demythologising his approach; he recognises the greatness of his achievements as a traveller, and poignantly portrays his decline into old age.
Ultimately we are all creatures of our times, and Thesiger was from a bygone age even as he began his travels; Asher’s travels are different, and equally fascinating, and his perspectives on the people and places he has explored are more relevant (if that’s the right word) because more securely anchored in the issues of our times.
**I have written about some of Michael Asher’s travel books elsewhere on this blog; you will find them if you search the archive.