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"Biographies of famous travelers—and Mr. Maitland's Wilfred Thesiger is an especially good example of the genre—are always an excuse to ponder first principles . . . Mr. Maitland has interesting things to say about all the books, noting the way, for example, in which the autobiography,The Life of My Choice (1987), embellishes without ever quite betraying its original material."
"Maitland's respect for his friend shines through all 544 pages ofWilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer . . . In this biography, Maitland paints a portrait of Thesiger detailed in a way that only the work of a close friend could be . . . Maitland puts his work in order, preserving Thesiger's calm fascination with his travels while filling in the accounts with excerpts from letters, photographs, reports and interviews. The result is a striking and thorough biography of one of Britain's last great explorers."
An eccentric explorer in the tradition of T.E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) lived with tribal warriors in Africa, traveled on camel through the Arabian desert and journeyed to the hitherto-unknown source of the Awash river in Ethiopia.
Maitland (A Tower in the Wall: Conversations with Dame Freya Stark, 1983, etc.) relies on Thesiger's extensive publications, many of which he helped edit, and he had access to personal correspondence as well as personal conversations over the 40 years of their friendship. Thesiger spent his early years in Ethiopia, where his father served in the British diplomatic service. While his childhood was a time of idyllic freedom, his education in England at the elite St. Aubyns and then Eton and Oxford was an unhappy period, in which he was beaten by sadistic headmasters for minor infractions and isolated by his peers. After graduation, he received an appointment in the Sudan Political Service, which gave him the opportunity to hunt big game and explore the wilderness areas as well as acquaint himself with tribal customs that included the murder and castration of enemies whose genitals were preserved as trophies. During World, War II, he served with British Special Forces and participated in the liberation of Ethiopia from the Italian occupation. As a big-game hunter, he was licensed to shoot two elephants per year and sought "the heaviest-tusked animals he could find." He also claimed to have killed 1,000 wild boar in 1958. The author quotes Thesiger's experiences living with Arab nomads, as "times of excitement and hardship, accidents, pig hunts [and] blood feuds." The explorer's adventures are impressive, but some of his pejorative remarks about Africans became tiresome—at certain points in the narrative, he comes across as a Colonel Blimp type character.
For those nostalgic about for the glory days of the British empire, this biography should have a certain appeal.