You couldn’t grow up in my family without knowing the name of Wilfred Thesiger. As a committed bookworm, I spent hours in the local library and talked to anyone and everyone about books. Not much has changed. Yet by the time I reached my teens, I avoided all but the most cursory book talk with my non-fiction reading father. One of his favourite books was The Marsh Arabs by Thesiger.
No matter what book I wanted to talk to him about, I knew that we would end up with Thesiger. Quite honestly, there are only so many tales of one man’s life with primitive peoples a girl can take before she’s 18.
Jump a few decades, and I meet Warwick Cairns. A lovely man who has written a couple of very interesting books, one on measurement and one on How To Live Dangerously. As I slide my shop stock of his second one, About The Size of It, one by one, under his pen to sign, I ask about his next book, knowing that at some point I will read and review it.
I like to think I kept my cool, but the bombshell that it was about Wilfred Thesiger, left me with a little voice in my head screaming , oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, what will I say?
It is usual when reviewing to refer to the author by their surname, but I can’t do that with this review, so:
Dear Warwick, I have read it, and this is what I say…
What a totally charming, completely engrossing, and entirely fascinating tale In Praise of Savagery is.
Warwick’s conversational style draws you in and makes you an armchair companion in this part history, part biography, part travelogue. Interweaving his own journey following in Thesiger’s footsteps, with that of Thesiger’s own expedition to the Aussa Sultanate, the anecdotes, stories and events vividly contrast the differences between the two. Thesiger risked his life in a way Warwick never did, crossing into unknown territories, peopled by blood-thirsty tribes, from where other white men had not returned. Yet both journeys make the reader markedly aware of the distance between the developed world each leaves and the Africa each visits.
I love the tiny details that make so much difference in this book, where Warwick paints portraits and landscapes with a few well-chosen words.
He describes Thesiger as a ‘mountain of a man’ with ‘bear-sized hand’ wearing ‘antique tweeds’, and this is the man in his eighties. Sometimes amusing, occasionally witty, Warwick’s unassuming attitude doesn’t hide the fact that he loves his subject. We meet a wonderful array of characters and places, past and present, not least of which is Warwick himself.
If, like me, you aren’t given to reading travel books, I would highly recommend this one. In Praise of Savagery is adventurous, bloody and exciting, while at the same time undemanding, funny, and entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Is The Marsh Arabs still one of my father’s favourite books? Yes, it is.
For the first time in decades, I talked to him about it last year, and it was me who brought the topic up. He is very elderly and in poor health, but I wanted so much to tell him about Warwick, a man who met and lived with Thesiger. It was a lovely, long conversation, and this time I really listened.
Thank you for that Warwick.
Have I ever read Thesiger’s book? Well – no I haven’t, but will I?
After reading In Praise of Savagery, the answer is a resounding yes. Warwick’s book has given me a delightful introduction to the man, his life and a disappearing/disappeared world, and I do so want to talk to Dad about it again before he pops his clogs!
Carol Dixon-Smith is Beat Magazine’s resident book reviewer
Carol Dixon-Smith reviews all kinds of books for Waterstones and they can be found here
Carol also Twitters @Cidix