When we hear about Saudi, it reminds us the Mecca of Muslims where they go for Umrah but Sir Wilfred’s weather-hardened face creased into a smile as we shook hands. He supported his lean six foot frame with a walking stick but nevertheless climbed with relative ease the steep stairs at the retirement home that led to his small room. Framed photographs lined the walls. Arabia, Morocco, family memories. A book case sagged under the weight of classics – Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Conrad’s Lord Jim and volume upon volume that he’d written about his own life. Videos balanced precariously upon the books. I asked what they contained. Sir Wilfred’s reply was barely audible over the noisy modern music that drifted in through the open window.
“I don’t really know. You could watch them on that,” he pointed at the TV, his right hand shaky with Parkinson’s disease, “But I haven’t turned the thing on since I came here.”
A stack of magazines filled the lower part of a desk heaving with paperwork, his face stared out from the front page of one colour publication after another. An ancient Congolese dagger decorated the sideboard and a walking stick, a gift from the Zulu Chief Buthelezi, hid behind the door. Two swords, one gold encrusted with jewels, the other ornate silver, gifts from an Arabian Sheikh, leaned casually against a bare patch of wall.
“Are they special?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “They aren’t. I don’t know what to do with them.”
I had taken care to leave my rose coloured specs at home and view Sir Wilfred objectively. I believe that I achieved this. If I sound in awe, then it’s because I am and don’t see the point in pretending otherwise. To anybody with an interest in adventure and history, his tales are electric. Trying to put them into perspective afterwards, I asked myself how I would have reacted to the situations he’d described. If I were warned on pain of death to stay out of a certain region, would I continue? He did, and in doing so saw Arabian lands that no other European had previously trod upon. If a lion attacked, knocked me down and stood roaring, would I panic? Sir Wilfred calmly placed his gun in the lion’s ear and blew its head off. What would be my move if, during a war, I commanded one hundred men against a force of twelve thousand? He met the twelve thousand in a head on battle.
It went on. He’d survived in Arabia’s Empty Quarter for weeks on just half a pint of water each day, and in Iraq he’d acted as informal doctor to rural tribes and on one occasion, despite a complete lack of training, had competently cut out a mans diseased eye. He hadn’t just written the classic book Arabian Sands; he’d isolated himself in a Copenhagen bedsit for three months, a town where he knew nobody, in order to write it properly. As a photographer he’d never taken a single picture in England; whilst overseas he’d use only twelve rolls of film on each six month journey and still achieve enviable results.
Did he ever pose people, I asked, as many of us would today?
“No, you can’t do that! One of my favourite photographs, of Bin Kabina and Bin Ghabaisha, they just climbed up onto a ridge and were standing there with their rifles and I thought, that’s my photograph. I’d never pose, never. I wouldn’t even say ‘d’you mind looking this way!”
We looked through his books together. His memory was precarious, he explained, and without the prompting that his memoirs provided he would find it very difficult to remember anything. His fondest recollections seemed to be of the desert and the hard life and companionship that he’d found there.
“When I went to the desert I was facing up to two challenges, one of which I didn’t recognise at the time. I knew that it was going to be a desperately hard life, the Bedu way of living. The other thing I didn’t realise was that I was going to have to face up to their standards. I hadn’t assumed that they’d be people who in their way outshone everybody else I’d ever met. Their generosity, their loyalty, their courage, their endurance, their patience, all these qualities.”
I pointed to a dedication in his book “Desert, Marsh and Mountains” and the single line “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”. What had he meant by it?
“Well, I mean you publicise it.”
“So by publicising places…?”
“Other people go, and then it changes.”
I was not so totally blinded by my admiration of his exploits that I missed the hint of sadness that glazed his eyes as he inferred that while in his view it wasn’t right to publicise places, he’d done just that on a regular basis.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot to ask you if you wanted to pee before lunch,” Sir Wilfred said as we waited to be served, ever mindful of his manners. The waitress delayed slightly in attending us and he stood up impatiently, waving his arm at her. I wouldn’t have wanted to annoy him in his younger days, when he was the captain of the boxing team at Oxford. After eating we walked in the gardens and spoke freely although he frequently veered off our conversation to comment on the birdsong, or how fine the trees were, and on one occasion the beauty of sunlight reflected from water dancing on the veranda roof.
What did he think was the most spectacular man made sight?
“Oh, undoubtedly Lalibela in Ethiopia. No question. Lalibela ranks with me as more marvellous than the Pyramids.” If he were younger now, and still had an urge to travel, where would he go?
“To the mountains. I don’t think the desert has anything left for you at all because it is all so approachable, just take enough petrol and water with you and you can go wherever you like in the Empty Quarter now. But if you went off to the Karakorams, or the Hindu Kush, I think you’d still find a challenge.”
Did he feel privileged to have lived when he did?
“I don’t know about privileged, but extremely lucky. Fortunate is perhaps a better word, fortunate to have lived when I did. I was just in time to visit places and do the journeys before the car arrived there.”
Ah, the car. Sir Wilfred raged about it often during the morning, exclaiming that it had robbed the world of its diversity and polluted our atmosphere. He was quite convinced that humans will be extinct as a species in less than a hundred years as a result of our damaged ozone layer. Looking back I can see that when he spoke of the past it was mostly positive whilst on subjects concerning the present and future he was at best non-committal and at worst incredibly pessimistic. But perhaps that is the lot of somebody who lives a long life. How else do they deal with the human compulsion to replace what is right with what is financially practical on a regular basis, more often than not at the world’s expense?
I prepared to go, but there was one last question. Was there any advice that he’d give to travellers today?
“Only that the pleasure of your travel is enhanced if you stay more permanently in one area rather than just flit around all over the world…go to one area and get on terms with the people who live there. I think you want to settle down for a time with some people and travel and behave as they do. Today it’s all cars anyway, very little to be said for it.”
“What?” I asked, “Travelling or life?”
“Well, life really…”