The Only Minds Worth Winning : Review of T E Lawrence exhibition at The Imperial War Museum
Country Life, January 2006
Since the invasion of Iraq there has been a vast new readership for T.E.Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Demand has surged eight fold as Pentagon staff officers and beleaguered combatants (on both sides of the firing line) look to his account of the Arab Revolt for instruction and inspiration.
It is good to see him back in fashion for the cult of Lawrence of Arabia has taken a few hard knocks in recent decades as revisionist historians and prurient biographers have been picking away at the legend. He has been exposed as a masochist who paid men to beat him while the dark secret of his families illegitimacy has been paraded before the world. Even his confession to being raped by his Turkish inquisitor at Deraa, after he had been arrested whilst spying behind enemy lines, has been questioned. With rather greater dignity Arab historians have tried to patiently explain to the world that T.E.Lawrence did not lead, incite or organise the Arab revolt. He was but one of the many laison officers that assisted the Arab revolt of 1916-1918 against the rule of the Ottoman Empire with advice and the supply of war materials from British military bases in Egypt. Other historians, diligently chronicalling the 20th centuries obsessive relationship with media-observed personalities, see Lawrence as the accidental creation of an American war reporter and his cameraman.
These critiques, far from undermining T.E.Lawrence’s character, have however only succeeded in drawing a more vigorous profile of his character, making him an ever more fascinating and Byronic figure. We like our heroes to be complex and flawed and Lawrence has been proved to be just such a man. Nor do I imagine that any of his friends and colleagues, from Winston Churchill to Siegfried Sassoon, from David Garnett to General Allenby would be greatly surprised by any of these revelations.
The exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, while inevitably focused on the epic two years of the Arab revolt, allows us to see Lawrence against the whole tapestry of his whole life. So whatever the future may or may not conclude about his historical importance in Arabia, his role as a writer and a romantic traveller are forever assured.
Small and slight of stature and brought up in a bourgeois Oxford household obsessed by the consequences of sin (his father an Anglo-Irish landowner had run away from his first family to bring up a second family with his ex-governess – T.E.Lawrence’s mother) there is no doubting the zeal of the young Lawrence. He would put the seal on his history degree with a walking tour across the mountains of Syria and Palestine, to make his own maps, sketches and observations of some twenty Crusader castles – his route first mapped out from a well worn copy of Doughty’s Arabia. Later working as an archaeoligist at the Euphrates city of Carchamesh (which would reveal one of the most splendid series of bold relief Hittite carvings) he would break the great gap in education and income by learning Arabic and befriending the lowest of the low – a penniless, young water-carrier. It may be that the young Dahoum (literally the ‘dark one’) was the love of Lawrence’s life who is acknowledged in the dedication page of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Certainly the pair of photographs that they took of each other in native costume are filled with a delight and enchantment.
For all his later celebrity as a spy, Lawrence’s first taste of espionage as one of a pair of proven archaeologists providing cover while an Engineer army officer mapped the Sinai mountains in pre-war 1914, left him so full of disgust at the artifice that he wished to be left of the public record. He was also full of remourse at the staff job in Cairo that kept him safe for two whole years while two of his beloved brothers died in the trenches. It was only in 1916 when he was sent to make an appraisal of the characters leading the Arab revolt – already in action – that he tasted real adventure. The dynamism of those subsequent two years still leaves even the most cynical observer breathless with his energy. He was nothing but an adviser but what good advice he gave; whether it was the assistance he gave in creating postage stamps for the new state, championing the character of Feizal over his brothers, organising supplies, leading raids and helping design a flag that symbolically unites the different threads of Arabic history (the green stripe of the bloodline of the Prophet through his disciple-cousin and son-in-law Ali, the white stripe for the Ummayad dynasty of Damascus and a black stripe for the Abbasid dynasty of Baghdad all united by the red triangle of the Hashemites). Looking at the hammered silver mess kit that he had made for his personal use, or the small gold Meccan dagger that he commissioned as it better suited his size, or the diamond ring that he wore in battle – he was also patently involved in creating his own living myth. The notched rifle, seized in the battle of Gallipoli by the victorious Turks and then subsequently given by Enver Pasha to Feizal – from whose hands Lawrence received it, also told its own deeply symbolic story. What is so endearing that all these carefully thought about treasures were so freely given away once Lawrence had no further practical use for them.
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by Barnaby Rogerson