Wilfred Thesiger


Gert has always been fascinated by Wilfred Thesiger, the quintessentially British combination of extreme, buttoned-up conservative and extreme, risk-taking explorer, lover equally of Queen and country and  of the Bedouin and the marsh Arabs, with whom he lived for seven years. If you haven’t read his classic  Arabian Sands, scuttle off immediately and get it. There’s also a terrific biography by Alexander Maitland – Wilfred Thesiger: the Life of the Great Explorer (Harper 2006).

June 3rd is the  115th  anniversary of his birth, and  here’s a poem about him as an old man:


I think of you always in disguise

burnoosed and bearded, trailing

a whip at one brown ankle, cuffed and bowlered


outside the Travellers’ Club

your posh Eton mumble masking the infidel.

Now here you are togged up


as an old man, and making a good fist of it.

Still just as alarming, though

your eyes have lost their far-seeing desert squint


and your lips fall open

in the gape of age. You are alarming, still.

 ‘One must stand up to Wilfred’


said your mother. Who ever did, or could?

As well stand up

to the glistening buffalo stockstill in mud


the camel’s inhuman gaze, the sheer

red dunes of the Rub’al Khali

the sands themselves extending silence


into silence. Marsh, desert, precipice

extreme to the pure and stony core

you have the look of someone walking far ahead


where the waterway vanishes

into reeds. The Pleiades are overhead

  the moon’s among the stars


  the life of man is short, the Bedu sing.

How long will you need this

patience, courteous alien? For God’s sake


– your last words – for God’s sake

let me go.


*This poem first appeared in Triptych Poets 3 (Blemish Press, 2012)

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/felibrilu/553644894

And here’s an article about him:


4 thoughts on “Wilfred Thesiger

  1. He is truly one of the great characters of the century, Leslie. ‘Arabian Sands’ is all the more poignant now that Iraq and the neighbouring countries are being torn apart. He was sad enough in his own time about the destruction of the Bedouin way of life. Thank God he’s not here to see what’s happening now.

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