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A Life of My Choice by Wilfred 	 Thesiger
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A Life of My Choice (1987)

by Wilfred Thesiger

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Wilfred Thesiger is a legendary figure who roamed portions of the planet which were filled with hardships and extraordinary people. He was an Englishman when the British were "important" to everyone else but not to him. He attended the coronation of Haile Selassie, then led an expedition into the country of the Danakil, whose men earn status by the count of men killed and castrated. ( )
  keylawk | Jan 12, 2014 |
Wilfred Thesiger was very much in the tradition of the great British eccentric, a man with little time for the comforts of the 20th century, who managed to spend most of his life in wild and exotic places. He is chiefly known for his books Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs where he describes his travels between 1945 and 1964. The life of my choice, written in retirement in 1987, is a memoir describing his life up to roughly the end of the Second World War. In particular, he focuses on Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the country where he spent his childhood and travelled extensively later; on his education at Eton and Magdalen; on his time as a colonial administrator in the Sudan, and on his war service in Abyssinia and the Western Desert.

Apart from being a thoughtful, well-written account of an extraordinary life, what runs through the whole book is Thesiger's great romantic affection for traditional ways of life - whether he's talking about desert nomads, marsh-dwellers in southern Sudan, Islam, Abyssinian Christianity, or the flogging rituals at Eton, it is the continuity of the cultures that he is interested in, not whether they offer people a free, healthy and fulfilling life. He hates anything that threatens to undermine these traditions, whether it's motor transport, literacy, agriculture, or foreign religion (he does seem to have a bit of a blind spot for guns and Western medical science, though).

With hindsight, he does make a sort of apology for his wholesale slaughter of wildlife: at the time he "couldn't anticipate" that many African animals would be driven to the verge of extinction. However, he also argues that hunting is in itself an important cultural activity, and that he had to go hunting with his hosts to establish a proper bond with them.

He doesn't make any excuses for his small-c conservatism: basically, he takes the view that he's seen the old world and the new, and the old world was better. And of course it's difficult to argue with that, particularly as it's very clear from his account that he is not just theorising, but is motivated by a genuine affection for the men and boys of the various cultures he's been involved with, and has made a serious attempt to understand their traditions and share their way of life (royalty apart, he never mentions a woman by name, and one suspects that he never really noticed women as individuals).

Obviously, Thesiger is right when he says that the innovations of the twentieth century did a lot of harm to people in Africa and the middle East. He knows as well as we do that there's no going back, though: it's a shame that he is too modest to offer any advice on how we could better manage development and find a way of sharing the benefits of progress without causing so many problems along the way. ( )
  thorold | Jan 13, 2011 |
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To the memory of His late Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie
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In the summer of 1924, during my first year at Eton, Ras Tafari, later to be Emperor Haile Selassie but at that time Regent, paid a State Visit to England and invited my mother and me to call on him in London. I had seen him on a number of occasions during my childhood in Abyssinia where my father had been British Minister at Addis Ababa, but this was the first time I spoke to him. Wearing a black, gold-embroidered silk cloak over a finely woven shamma, he came across the room to greet us, shook hands and with a smile and a gesture invited us to be seated.
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