OF ALL THE great twentieth-century explorers, travellers, geographers (call them what you will), Wilfred Thesiger is perhaps the hardest to keep in perspective. The generation that spent the most time with him, and remembers him at first hand, lionises him still, having festooned him with medals, awards and civic honours when he was alive - David Attenborough puts him 'on the pedestal of the great explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries'. A younger generation that was not there to experience the impact of his two landmark books, Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964), is, however, becoming increasingly cynical about his methods and accomplishments. For the moment it is simply too soon to tell whether the traditionalists or the revisionists will hold sway; whether Thesiger's achievements are of their age or have a more enduring meaning. Robin Hanbury-Tenison neatly describes this tension in his obituary of Thesiger in Geographical magazine: 'I thought him . . . an archaic figure with excessively reactionary views. Only later did I realise that behind the facade of the British upper class lay a passionate environmentalist, whose radical views on globalisation, the misuse of the planet the significance of traditional societies and values have now entered the mainstream.'
Thesiger is currently undergoing the predictable scrutiny that any eminent person with a formidable reputation suffers when they have the misfortune to die at an extremely old age, as Thesiger did in August 2003. Orthodox views will always be challenged, and it is becoming almost trendy to cock a snook