Wilfred Thesiger, who died in 2003, was the greatest British explorer of his generation. He rode camels or walked across deserts and scrub land from Northern Kenya to Western Pakistan. Iraq and Afghan-istan were more home to him than his native England ever was, and the emptier the terrain the more his heart ached for it. Closest to his soul were Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and he encapsulated their allure in his classic travel account Arabian Sands (1959).
What is it about deserts and the British or, to be more precise, many British men from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries? In the famous David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Thomas Edward Lawrence is made to answer that deserts are "clean," and his answer is classed as very significant by his American interlocutor. Undoubtedly both the answer and the significance were real for Thesiger as well.
He was a man of extreme austerity. The harder a journey was -- extreme shortages of food and water, hostility of terrain and weather -- the more he enjoyed it. He was a ferocious boxer (at school at Eton he once broke an opponent's jaw) and a manic killer of wild animals -- lions, pigs, deer, anything that was foolish enough to come within range of his rifle. He hated the modern world and its comforts. Planes, trains and especially cars, he believed, were robbing remote peoples of their nobility, and the austere beauty of their way of life.
Yet Thesiger was an aesthete of a kind, and the human beauty he found in the desert wastes, and by which he admitted being "disturbed," was always adolescent and male. He was quite open about this, photographing a long line of noble-looking young men, appointing them as guides, giving them presents of rifles and ammunition, and later in life, in Northern Kenya, employing them as houseboys and even sharing a bed with one of them.This has led commentators to pin-point a maso-chistic homosexuality as Thesiger's fundamental character trait. There is an important ante-cedent. Thesiger has often been called a "modern Lawrence of Arabia," but Lawrence has been shown to have had an addiction to flagellation and, when serving anony-mously in the UK's Royal Air Force, to have paid a young Scottish fellow-serviceman to cane him "to orgasm" over a period of several years, sometimes with witnesses. Was Thesiger like this as well? Was a desire to be punished at the root of his seeking out phenom-enal deprivation in the remotest, driest, hottest corners of the globe from the Hindu Kush to the Sudan?
This new biography, while providing most of the factual information you could wish for, doesn't answer such questions. Its author was a close friend of Thesiger's from 1964 onwards, if anyone could be described as close to such a man. They worked on books of Thesiger's photos together, for instance, and this is an approved, official biography. Alexander Maitland is not the kind of person to betray confidences -- always assuming that there were any.
But it seems to me that Thesiger belonged to an era when this parti-cular syndrome -- savage school beatings, an intense love of adolescent men, total non-interest in women, extreme self-discipline -- was rather common, at least in England. Society had got itself into a certain mind-set in which physical homosexuality was both unmentionable and not to be thought of. Alfred Edward Housman, the poet of A Shropshire Lad, was made in the same mold. When he fell in love with a fellow student, Moses Jackson, and Jackson got married and went off to India, Housman resorted to a life of fiendishly metic-ulous, and frequently acrimonious, textual criticism of Latin authors. He too left a collection of flagellation pornography to Cambridge University Library on his death. But it seems probable that both these men would have considered actual sex with the young men they so adored to be a defilement and something they perhaps couldn't even imagine. Manly comradeship, not sex, was their ideal.