Masters of the Desert

The Hunt for Zerzura (2002)
Saul Kelly

Wheels across the Desert (2008)
Andrew Goudie

These two books treat of the same subject – the exploration of the Libyan Desert in the interwar period and the role of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) on behalf of the Allies and men such as Laszlo Almásy for the Nazis during the Second World War – but from different angles: Saul Kelly writes a straight-forward history while Goudie tells his story through portraits of the explorers as well as key events.

My interest in the interwar exploration of the Libyan desert goes back to when I saw The English Patient in 1996. Has it really taken me nearly twenty years to find out more about the real International Sand Club (i.e. the Zerzura Club), the real Almásy, Cliftons et al? I’m afraid it has.

Actually, I am being a little unfair towards myself – a few years ago, I did read John Bierman’s The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy. Nothing followed it, though. This time, I read The Secret Life again a while back* and now these two books. If the library has any more books on the subject, you can bet I will be taking them out.

***

Before I talk about the people – what is it about the desert that appeals to me? Goodness knows. The fact that it was once a savannah might have something to do with it. The mysterious rock art – featuring a variety of animals and even humans swimming – definitely has something to do with it. The strange names, such as Gilf Kebir, Uweinat and Qattara surely have something to do with it. The challenges provided by the desert to the intrepid men and women who risked all to explore her has to have a lot to do with it. I love reading about heroes.

***

When I started reading The Hunt for Zerzura, Laszlo Almásy, by virtue of his leading role in The English Patient, was at the front of my mind. New players quickly stepped forward, though. Chief among them was Ralph Bagnold. He not only led a series of expeditions into the desert but conducted scientific experiments there, for which he won awards from the Royal Geographic Society, founded the LRDG and – years later – even had his work used by NASA.

Others of interest to me were the dashing Patrick Clayton-East-Clayton and his wife, Dorothy (the models for Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton). In The Hunt for Zerzura they come so near, and yet, due to their untimely deaths, end so far from me.

Then there is the deaf geographer John Ball, mad genius Orde Wingate, possible self-aggrandiser (David Hogarth liked her, though) Rosita Forbes and even the Duke of Westminster who did much during the First World War to develop the use of cars as means of crossing the desert.

The duke, Hugh Grosvenor, is an interesting character. A hero in the desert he becomes a villain for me back in England. In the 30s, he brought about the downfall and exile from Britain of the Earl of Beauchamp on account of his homosexuality (Grosvenor was a homophobe). Beauchamp was patriarch of the Lygon family with which Evelyn Waugh was so close.

***

If you are interested in reading both these books, I would definitely pick up Wheels across the Desert first. At only 182 pages long, it is a perfect introduction to the places and people concerned. Both Wheels and The Hunt for Zerzura contain helpful maps – the latter also has a dramatis personae to help you remember who everyone is.

In terms of recommendation, I heartily commend both to you. I have to say, though, that Saul Kelly’s work is that rare breed of book – one that I am not only happy to have read but feel privileged to have done so. Not so much because he opened up a new area of history for me – He didn’t: I had a knowledge of the desert explorers before thank to Bierman, etc – but because his book is detailed, readable and, best of all, infused with his own love of the subject. A reader cannot ask for more.

* ADDENDUM I’ve just realised that I read it in March last year. Here is my review of it on my Alexander blog

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