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November 25, 2005

Richard D. North considers Lawrence of Arabia - Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, The Legend at the Imperial War Museum

Posted by Richard D. North

Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, The Legend
Imperial War Museum, London
14th October 2005 - 17th April 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm

Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, The Legend
by Malcolm Brown
Pp. 208. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005
Hardback: £24.95

Is Lawrence of Arabia a hero? A role model? An object of curiosity? If so, to whom? Soldiers? Writers? Repressed homosexuals? Explorers? When you look for comparisons, there are very few. Rather, you find yourself casting about, triangulating rather than comparing. There are bits of Thesiger, bits of Nelson. Thomas Merton, the loquacious member of the Trappists, comes to mind. Orde Wingate is in there. There is something illicit in Lawrence, and not merely on account of the boy thing; but he is also, if not pure, at least pellucid. It is not too much of a stretch to think of Rimbaud and even Verlaine. Better yet, surely, is Charles de Foucauld, except that the Frenchman could abandon himself to a religious vocation and our hero crucially could not.

The Imperial War Museum has produced a brilliant exhibition and catalogue devoted to Lawrence of Arabia. A couple of old girls rightly complained to staff – in the polite but firm voices of the WRVS – that the looped commentary of one of the last items in the show was audible – by chance of layout – as one went in and for all too much of the time spent in the show. But that was a small failing, and it was in any case an interesting piece of news film of Lawrence's funeral. It made clear what seemed, in 1935, to matter about the man. Romantic warrior, desert wanderer, "Empire Builder", and celebrity anchorite.

No wonder Churchill turned out for his funeral: here was another literary swashbuckler. Here was another man who had ridden an animal into war, banners and pennants flying. As usual, WSC had the best coinage:

He could only fly in a hurricane.
Here was a man, as the populariser of his myth, Lowell Thomas, had it:
who had a genius for backing into the limelight.
Fancy having Thomas to put on shows about one: poor Grey Owl – another Englishman who adopted "savage" ways – had to do his own.

It is vastly to the point that England's supposedly stuffy Establishment knew Lawrence's worth. Sir Robert Vansittart said:

Everyone was indeed potty about this flood-lit man ... what a gifted pair of poseurs Monty and TE would have made.
Quizzed about whether people weren't being a bit OTT, General Wavell remarked of doubters:
They knew not the man.
A couple of weeks before my visit to the Imperial War Museum, I revisited Lawrence's cottage, Cloud's Hill, in Dorset. TE wrote:
It is as ugly as my sins.
It is the home of a classicist, with its owner's own carving of the words, "Why Worry?", in Greek over the door. (They recall Frederick the Great's "Sans Souci" inscribed on his summer palace in Potsdam). The National Trust has agreeably foregone its normal custodial habits here. In place of the tweedy ladies, a couple of men sounding distinctly Other Ranks show one round. They regale one with stories a little in the manner of the retired matelots who man HMS Victory. This is absolutely right. Firstly, it heads off casual questions about how extraordinarily gay is TE's leather bed. Secondly it reminds one – what their patter rather missed the day I heard it - that though Lawrence hated his days at nearby Bovington Camp, he found real comfort in his later time in the RAF. On retiring, he wrote to the Chief of the Air Staff (that was the class of his correspondent):
…losing the RAF numbs me.
It happens that I took away from the show the grease-monkey side of Lawrence, that and his racing around the English coastal seas in prototypes of the kind of launch which Peter Scott would glamorise in the Second World War, and which have all my life been romantic, rotting houseboats in mud-berths in estuaries up and down our country.

More generally, the show demonstrates that the first thing to say about him is that he has been admired by every generation of Englishman and by people of every class and type. Nor, I think, did different types go to different bits of T E Lawrence. We all, I think, came to the whole of what we all knew. We come to him in something of the spirit with which we admire national heroes – national prototypes – such as Thomas More and Horatio Nelson. Cussedness is crucial, but also romance. Not for nothing, by the way, did Robert Bolt provide the script for David Lean's fine portrayal of Lawrence, as he had also charted More as A Man For All Seasons: More and Lawrence shared a complicated integrity. Kenneth Minogue notes on these pages that More did not luxuriate in principle or volunteer for it so much as find it, finally, irresistible. It came looking for him. Lawrence was, after all, curiously duplicitous in his dealing with the Arabs, and agonised over it. He was perfidious, or patriotic. He didn't wear, but never forgot, his uniform.

Perhaps that was the motor of his self-loathing. Or was his self-abnegation the expression of a secular vocation of monasticism? Was that in any case the result of his loathing of his own homosexuality? Or was he depressed by pederastic leanings? Or by his pleasure in killing people?

One great merit of the Imperial War Museum is that it is doggedly unfashionable. Who else would have staged the Eric Ravilious and the William Orpen shows which preceded this one? Who else would have so grandly avoided a media studies approach to the fame of Lawrence? Perhaps the curators were aware that the majority of the audience for the show would be reliving their own love affair with Peter O'Toole's rendition of the man. How apposite then to see that one of best images of Lawrence, Eric Kennington's medievalist effigy of him as an Arab knight, a reverse Crusader, could very easily be a portrait of O'Toole.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom was on our parents' shelves, along with the Reprint Society's Arthur Bryant books and John Hadfield's Saturday Book. Even now, octogenarians who thrill to the Lawrence story – and who have never abandoned their admiration of the man – are inclined to treat him as they do Noel Coward: as a special case. They wince at the supposed homosexuality, or whatever oddity – depravity, even – Lawrence seems to insist is also there. They do not expect him to be as other men.

Malcolm Brown's picture book to accompany the show recalls the exhibits and the flow of the museum's narrative well. It is a master class in tact and frankness. Like the show, it gives one a flavour of Lawrence's writing. Like the show, it drives one back to the camel-borne Lawrence, without whom he would be an interesting footnote.

The show and the book have, in short, driven me to read – for the first time at length and in adulthood – large bits of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. No wonder it is being read by British officers in Iraq now. It is a manual of asymetrical war, rather as is Che Guevara's little tome, Guerrilla Warfare. But it is, of course, beautifully written. An insurgent band should be:

A thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas.
Soldiering at such close quarters is taxing and exhilarating:
Blood was always on our hands, we were licensed to it.
There are peculiarities in the style, perhaps intended to feel classical: verbs there are, but in word-order unusual.

Where the show leaves off, and what a proper look at Seven Pillars gives one, is a sense of Lawrence's distance from the Arabs he led. He races about the desert, harder of sole and backside than anyone, short of sleep and writhing with boils, and proud of it all. But he enjoys being amongst straightforward Englishmen again, and scouts around the desert with them in Rolls Royces, with a desert song in his heart. He clearly adores his miscreant Arab bodyguard, and his own more personal servants, but never quite loses his bearings or his judgement about the forces he was working with. He loves the immemorial, but is a modern. Weirdly, he was the right stuff.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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