Wilfred Thesiger, last of the great explorers, wrote two of the best books I’ve ever read. Arabian Sands is about his travels in the desert, in particular the Empty Quarter, which, in the late 1940s when Thesiger crossed it, was 250,000 square miles of uncharted land. He mapped bits of it. The Marsh Arabs is his account of the seven or so years he spent living with them, in the area of Iraq later written about by Rory Stewart in Prince of the Marshes. When Thesiger travelled it was basically him, a camel, a guide and a rifle, from which it may be seen that he was harder than nails. If you look at photos of him you can believe it:
I think this may be why Thesiger’s travels were so successful, by which I mean he wasn’t unceremoniously killed by the various dangerous indigenous peoples he encountered: he was just as dangerous himself, and they recognised their own.
Warwick Cairns met Thesiger when Cairns was a well-intentioned whippersnapper thinking of doing some voluntary service abroad, and Thesiger was the man invited to impress the group with the opportunities of adventure in store for them. Cairns had his adventures, met Thesiger again and was invited to visit him at his home in Africa. On arrival, he, his brother and a friend found that Thesiger wasn’t yet there but had kindly arranged a little 200 mile stroll in the desert, to please his guests. Cairns narrates this trip, interspersed with both an account of Thesiger’s own first and particularly dangerous expedition to find the source of the Awash, when he was just down from Oxford, and also with his own observations on the bafflingness of modern life. You might say ‘Eh? How does all that work, then?’ But it does, in a quirky kind of way, because the stories are interesting and they link together.
Thesiger served in the desert during World War II, and when war ended he headed straight back out to the most uninhabited places he could find. I’ve always thought of him as a man born out of time, writing his two books as elegies for a way of life – violent, brutal, harsh but, in his view, also happy – that was fast about to disappear.
Cairns isn’t turning his back on his contemporary age, and he isn’t taking the easy, ‘modern life is rubbish’ approach, but he is questioning: who’s paying for this disposable life we’re all living? And to some extent, what’s the point of it? The western world is mostly safe and tame, but does that equate to better and happier? There is a marvellous juxtaposition between an incident when Cairns isn’t allowed to get into a fight with the little thug who just nicked his bike; and two tribes through whose territory Thesiger’s Awash expedition had to travel, and who basically spent their lives killing each other just ‘cos. And yet, as Thesiger found:
they were a cheerful, happy people despite the incessant killing, and certainly not afflicted by the boredom which weighs so heavily today on our own young urban civilization. (1934)
A boredom, reinforced by unemployment and aided by social media, that is currently contributing to unrest in the Middle East?
Amid heat stroke, forced goat eating (he’s a vegetarian) and a sudden, unavoidable attack of diarrhoea, Cairns is jolted into what he feels is really living ‘rather than just being alive’. That might be a somewhat extreme dislocation (all it takes for me is to go and stand outside in a storm), but I think it’s about the intensity of experience: the opposite of the workaday anodyne. Feel something, feel anything but don’t just go through the motions.
Small print: I got a free copy of this from the publisher, via Twitter. (It was on my list anyway, though because Thesiger rocks and also because the author has such a cool name. When I get all my books back I will put Warwick Cairns on the shelf next to Warwick Deeping, regardless of who should come between them.)