Top Grumpy’s Top Hate

Robert Irwin

  • Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale by Fred Crawford
    Southern Illinois, 265 pp, £31.95, July 1998, ISBN 0 8093 2166 1
  • Lawrence the Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher
    Viking, 419 pp, £20.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 670 87029 3

The heroes of my schoolboy reading back in the Fifties were mostly men of action, like Tarzan, Berry and Biggles (though I did read Worrals books too). These were nonchalantly modest, clean-limbed fellows ready for a scrap, if there was a chance of delivering a knockout punch to the half-shaven chin of Evil. I was reassured to discover that such fictitious protagonists had their real-lite counterparts and to read of the true exploits of the pilot Douglas Bader, the spy-master Colonel Oreste Pinto and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. Although I was reluctant to lose my heroes, I was not very much older before I gathered that there was something not quite right about T.E. Lawrence. Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, which came out in 1955, denounced its subject as a bastard (literally), a liar, a charlatan and a pervert. It also disparaged the importance and the achievements of the Arab revolt, mocked Lawrence’s literary style and queried his knowledge of medieval French poetry. Reading Aldington’s book is a bit like standing under a waterfall of venom.

The relentless ferocity of his denunciation was and is really rather shocking. What was behind it? The first thing to note is that Lawrence went to Oxford. As an Oxford man myself, I have no hesitation in identifying Aldington’s main problem as being that he did not: he went to University College London. ‘Untruthful! My nephew Algernon? Impossible! He is an Oxonian.’ This quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest served as the epigraph to the Life of Lawrence. Aldington, punching air, suffered for most of his life from the conviction that he was either being persecuted or, at the very least, neglected by the British establishment. It was hard to know who or what the establishment consisted of, but Aldington was pretty sure that one of its decision-making bodies was the dinner table at All Souls, and of course, from 1919 onwards, Lawrence was a fellow of that college. According to Aldington, ‘All Souls was “a sort of weekend club” forwell-known Oxonians of large private means or high salaries residing in London.’ (Aldington was never rich.)

Secondly, Lawrence had had a ‘good war’. British casualties were light on the Egypto-Palestinian front. Deeds of individual heroism were highly visible. There were Arthurian echoes in Lawrence’s account of the brotherhood of arms, the ceremonious diction of the desert Bedouin and the mounted combats in the wilderness. At the end of it all, Lawrence was made into a celebrity by Lowell Thomas’s wildly popular travelling illustrated lecture, ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’. This was the sort of war the public paid money to see. Aldington, on the other hand, like millions of other British soldiers, had had a terrible war, much of it spent in icy, water-logged, rat-infested trenches. Before the notoriety which came from his Lawrence book, Aldington was chiefly known for his anti-war novel, Death of a Hero (1929), which told his readers bleak things about the war, things they would have preferred not to read about: ‘all suffered from diarrhoea due to the cold. There was the added diversion of frequent visits to the latrine. Those in the line were primitive affairs of a couple of biscuit-boxes and buckets, interesting from the fact that the Germans had fixed rifles trained on most of them and might get you if you happened to stand up inopportunely.’

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