People ask me who is the most interesting person I’ve met, most famous, etc etc, the usual type of question which is almost impossible to answer. Mostly I do answer with ‘Nelson Mandela’, ( as I’ve written about previously a while back), but another person who I feel lucky to have met is this gentleman, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, explorer, photographer, author, intrepid traveller, historian, military man.
Many years ago I read his book ‘ A Life of My Choice’, after having bought a book of his photographs called ‘Visions of a Nomad’. His life is too long, too interesting, too varied, too rich to describe in a few words here, best to buy the book and read of his life. But if you love travel, history, adventure, then you will enjoy it.
Back in 1990 whilst being at an office in a full time job I hated, I thought I’d look up Thesiger in a phone book, see if he was listed, and sure enough there he was. I wrote to him, I explained I also have enjoyed Jerusalem as a city, and had been down the Nile, and that I loved to photograph, and…could I come and visit him. And off the letter went, first class.
Few weeks/months later I get a letter in the post, written in spidery, olde worlde hand writing. Not written with a biro, but with a real pen. Sir Wilfred was in the country, back from Kenya, and if I would phone him he would make an appointment with me. So I did.
I think I perhaps even travelled from Scotland to London to meet him, I’m not sure. But I went to meet him, in his apartment near Sloane Square. I ascended in an elevator, the type with heavy, shiny brass folding concertina gate. And when I stepped out, there he was, very tall, and very properly dressed in a three piece suit, with watch chain, polished shoes.
He showed me into his small apartment, and we sat in a living room full of his treasures and momentos of his life; carpets and rugs, bones, small bird skullls on the desk, framed photos. We chatted for about 2 hours perhaps, we talked of travel, we talked of the Nile and Abu Simbel (he saw Abu Simbel before it was moved…), we talked of Lalibela and his visits there and my wish to go there, we talked of train travel versus car travel, we talked of photography and his camera, we talked of Glasgow where he had never really visited only having passed through once to catch a steam boat passage.
For a little break he showed me into his sparsly furnished kitchen and made me some instant just-add-hot-water hot chocolate, and we drank it with some ginger snap biscuits eaten straight from the packet. In his kitchen he had a book shelf with leather bound photo albums. He showed me one, opening it at a page of small prints, one of which I remember showed dead bodies after a tribal battle. We talked of his printer in London who did all his processing and developing and printing.
I asked if I could take his portrait, and even though I’d read he did not like to be photographed much, he graciously allowed me. I shot a bare minimum, a mere four or five frames or so. Incredible, I should have shot more. You can see them here.
Soon he indicated it was time, my time was up. But before I could leave, he would give me a book, and he knelt on all fours on his living room carpet, rummaging around in an old wooden side cabinet, and pulled out a copy of ‘Arabian Sands’, which he then proceeded to sign for me. I of course still have it. He showed me to the door of the elevator, and asked me to keep in touch, and then I left.
I wrote to him a while later, telling him of a visit to Romania that I had just completed, and enclosed a photo I had taken, but I heard no reply.
A few years later I was in Dublin, in a book shop, and came across a new book of Thesiger’s writings, a book called ‘The Danakil Diaries’, and on turning it over, to my pleasure the author image was one that I had taken of him.
Many years later, in August 2003, I read that he had died in a nursing home in England. Sad news indeed, the end of a certain type of gentlemen, the end of an era. A sad day.
Today in The Times you can read, from their archives, original contemporaneous reports from Thesiger as he travelled through Abyssinia in 1930-34. (Make sure to click on the dates to read the fascinating entries as they appeared in print in The Times in 1933…)
And here over on Photo Histories, there is a book review of the 1979 edition of ‘Visions of a Nomad’, written by my good friend Graham.
And here you can see many of Sir Thesiger’s images, be sure to take a look.