A friendship explored: Wilfred Thesiger remembered

Feature After an awkward first meeting, Alexander Maitland became the confidant of the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Talking to M, he remembers his 'good chum'.

Alexander Maitland first met the explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger in June 1964. At the time Maitland was working as an architect in London. He had secured the meeting through mutual friends because of his passion for Africa and photography, which he was keen to discuss with the great traveller. Their friendship was to last 40 years and spawn several great books. But, as Maitland recounts, their first meeting was inauspicious.

"I was rather apprehensive about meeting him and then I was kept late at the office so was 20 minutes late, which I never normally am," he says. "His mother did everything to put me at ease. We met at her flat. She also gave me some advice. 'You must stand up to Wilfred,' she told me. But standing up to Wilfred was not always easy." Maitland says the meeting was not a great success. They sipped a sherry and talked politely. He tells of his first impressions of the explorer.

"He had a tremendous presence, although he was very gently spoken and didn't have a particularly strong handshake. In fact, everything about him was rather genteel, almost diffident in a way. I was very quiet too and not a great socialiser. I suppose the thing I found most difficult was that he was not an immediately open person, not one to give much away. He was holding some prayer beads made of purple glass and at intervals in the conversation I could hear the click of the things as they were going through his hands."

By the time Maitland met him, Thesiger had already written the two books that made him famous: Arabian Sands, published in 1959, and The Marsh Arabs, which came out in 1964. And he was well on his way to becoming a great explorer with two crossings of the Empty Quarter to his name as well as numerous other expeditions. This year is the centenary of his birth, and Maitland was scheduled to discuss their adventures and collaborations at the Emirates Literary Festival. However, he had to withdraw at the last minute due to a family illness.

Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910, and is now regarded as the most important British explorer of his generation. After an education at Eton College and Oxford (where he took a third in history and became captain of the Oxford boxing team), he returned to the wild and what he called the "gorgeous barbarity" of his birthplace. He lived in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Arabian deserts and the East African Highlands.

He lived for much of his life in conditions most people would find intolerable but often said he was at his happiest when he had no communication with the outside world. He felt a special affinity with the desert which began when he made a journey to the Tibesti Mountains in the Sahara. "I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand," he wrote his 1987 book The Life Of My Choice. "I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent on their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills." He won many honours for his work and writing and was knighted in 1995. He died in 2003.

From their first meeting on, to his surprise, Maitland was to become very much part of Thesiger's life. "I thought that would be it, that we would not meet again. It was a sticky meeting. But when I was leaving he took out his pocket diary. 'What are you doing on Sunday?' he asked me. I said I wasn't doing anything much at all. 'Well, come along and we'll cook supper together,' he said. That was it really, we became friends."

And this despite Thesiger's disdain for Maitland's chosen career. "Cluttering up the place with more bloody buildings," as he put it. Shortly after that first meeting Maitland got married and moved to Scotland. The pair stayed in constant touch through visits, letters and telephone calls. Then in the early 1980s Maitland moved back down to London with his wife Margaret. By then he had given up architecture in favour of writing.

It was in 1984 that Thesiger first mooted the idea of a biography. "Well someone's going to do it," he told Maitland. "And I'd like it to be you." Maitland had already begun amassing material in the form of notes he sometimes took during their meetings. Not with any real aim in mind but "because he interested me. I knew he was important apart from anything else. And he knew it too, not in an immodest way, but he did realise he had done things and I realised I was in an absolutely unique position to do something about it. I really knew him; you don't spend so many years with someone and not get to know him. He knew my wife; I knew his friends and family. It was always a very steady relationship, although we argued a great deal, about politics for example, or how to put things into words sometimes."

By now they were working on books together, mainly because Thesiger's eyesight was failing him and he could no longer see well enough to write. The collaboration began with My Kenya Days, dictated to Maitland by Thesiger in a hut in Maralal, northern Kenya. "We wrote the sample chapter in London and the publisher was overwhelmed by it and said, 'Right let's have this book.' We went out to Kenya for the whole of October and November 1992 to where Wilfred had been living since 1978 in a cedar-wood hut. We would have breakfast and then work right through until it was dark, seven days a week. Wilfred would march up and down his hut dictating it and I would write it out in longhand on a pad. In the afternoons we would read through the whole thing again."

"Aren't you bored?" Thesiger would ask Maitland. "Aren't you getting fed up?" "I never was," says Maitland. "It was amazing watching it happen, it was like sitting with George Eliot." My Kenya Days was published in April 1994. The pair worked in the same manner on The Danakil Diary, an account of the two journeys Thesiger described as his most dangerous into the Danakil country in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, when he was just 24 years old.

The book came about one day as they were sitting in Thesiger's London flat feeling "rather cold and fed up," says Maitland. "Wilfred was rather gritty with me and said 'What about Danakil?' I said, 'What about Danakil?' He said, 'It was my most dangerous journey and if you look in the drawer over there you might find something about it.'" Maitland went over to the drawer Thesiger had pointed out and found his original Danakil diaries and a lot of notes.

"We've got the makings of a book here," I said. "What about it?" The Danakil Diaries came out in 1996, followed by another four books. But it was the "Arabian years", as Thesiger called them, that would remain the high point of his career. "Arabian Sands was his biggest achievement," says Maitland. "That was the book that did everything. It was the book he meant when he talked about writing something outstandingly good. He called the Arabian years the most memorable five years of his life; the summit of his life as a traveller. In the book he was able to describe the experience of the desert and bring it alive for readers who would never see it. He also brought variety into endless days. It could have been a very dreary book; sand, sand, an oasis, more sand."

Why did the Arabian years have such a profound influence on him? "He came to the desert and fell in love with the people, with the timelessness connected with their world, the hospitality, the kindness, generosity; all timeless values that Wilfred attached great importance to," Maitland explains. "And I think the feeling was mutual. Among other things they felt he really understood, or at least as far as it is possible for a European to understand, what it means to be a Bedu."

Maitland laughs as he recalls an anecdote Thesiger often repeated. "Wilfred used to say it was astonishing. You would be travelling all day and then stop at night and make a little fire. Then you would sit around shoulder to shoulder, practically huddled up, in this huge space." Thesiger was not happy with the development of Abu Dhabi and Dubai when he returned in 1977. As he wrote in the preface to the 1994 edition of Arabian Sands: "When I first went back to Oman and Abu Dhabi in 1977, for the first time since I had left there in 1950, I was disillusioned and resentful at the changes brought about by the discovery and production of oil... The traditional Bedu way of life... had been irrevocably destroyed by the introduction of motor transport, helicopters and aeroplanes." But he gradually "reconciled [myself] to the inevitable changes... Abu Dhabi is now an impressive modern city, made pleasant in this barren land by avenues of trees and green lawns."

The explorer was a good friend of Sheikh Zayed; the two first met in 1948. "Sheikh Zayed was really at heart a Bedu," says Maitland. "He understood the desert manners and desert ways. Thesiger rated him very highly." It seems the feeling was mutual. When Thesiger left his photographic collection to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Sheikh Zayed paid for the cataloguing and the preservation of it. In 2008 Maitland was invited to Abu Dhabi to receive the Abu Dhabi Award on behalf of Thesiger. "I arrived with my wife. Nobody could have been kinder to us. Sheikh Mohammed [bin Zayed Al Nahyan] himself received us. He was charismatic and a man of extraordinary intellect. But what struck me most was his utter devotion to his father Sheikh Zayed and how much he enjoyed talking about his father's friendship with Wilfred."

Maitland also enjoys talking about Thesiger and says he misses him "desperately", adding that he was "such a good chum, such fun to be with. Knowing him was a wonderful experience and it was a wonderful friendship. To use the overused word I feel genuinely privileged to have known him." Maitland's biography has been criticised for not revealing enough about Thesiger as a person and his personal relationships. Thesiger was a very private man who never married, saying that he would have found marriage "a crippling handicap".

"I got to know him as well as anybody," Maitland argues. "But even if you do know somebody well, you're not going to say everything about him. Renoir didn't put in every single last blade of grass, did he?"

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