How does one write the biography of a legend, a legend who is also a controversy, a writer of some distinction, a commander of irregular troops whose effectiveness is still argued about, a sexual question mark, a film hero, an object of debate and a participant in that running Middle East crisis which has proceeded from imbroglio to mess to prospective calamity; how does one satisfactorily tackle a subject variously seen as gallant paladin, pathological liar and career oddity?
Mr James, in this sensible, not too long life, answers with as much moderation and dispassion as can be asked for. He strikes no pose: Arabist, Zionist, Regular Army, anti-Army, Lawrentian or anti-Lawrentian. The book is a steady climb by the South Coll, rather better in its earlier chapters about the boy and scholar and on the early military career. A couple of maps short of what we needed, its account of the skirmishes and railway fights is neither quite as clear nor as fascinating to read as this ripping yarn deserves. There are also a couple of silly mistakes which Mr James and/or his proof-readers should have stopped. St Aid-gates for St Aldates twice on the same page (with St Aldates above them) is painful, and not just to Oxonians. Also what’s with Nuri Al Said? It was Nuri es Said in his late days.
But overall, Mr James is fair, cool, straightforward and highly readable, refusing the frantic requirements of the learned armies who on this topic dispute by night. Ultimately his Lawrence is a genuine scholar, a man of irresistible charm, a sympathiser who genuinely cared for the Arabs, but also a shocking fabricator, though more a man who told lies than a malign liar, a surprisingly good soldier (he stresses the excellence of Lawrence’s intelligence reports) but the maker of a problematic contribution to the conflict. The cheerful efficiency with which the Turks repaired the Hejaz railway line which Lawrence kept blowing up is not the sort of point which any director was going to point his cameras at for the film. The relaxed observation of a local Turkish officer – ‘Now my lazy boys will have to do some work tomorrow’ – is one of those delicious correctives to history which get missed out.
Mr James’s level, unpartisan narrative probably gets us as close to a credible Lawrence as longer undertakings with grander apparatuses. Since he at no time drags us into the camp of the half-civilised desert tribes of Lawrentian controversialists, we have good reason to be grateful. The thought occurs, though, that Lawrence had more in common with James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, than with any other historical figure. A man appears among undeveloped traditional tribal people. He can communicate with them and has a deep sympathy for their ways, not at all shared by his peers. Demonstrating a blessed failure of contempt, he recruits them to fight as irregulars in a war otherwise run along professional lines. He finds them excellent in spasms but unreliable under steady fire. They have crops and herds to return to, they like the loot, and are preoccupied with local rivalries and vendettas. Communication is through chieftains and won on a personal basis. A brilliant success is achieved, if of a slightly flimsy sort, but ultimately the shimmer and the glory disperse. The big battalions take over and the tribes retreat and diminish – the tragedy of the true conservative throughout history.
The difference, of course, was that after Invercharron, Montrose was afforded the infinite consolation of being hanged – not a gentleman’s death but something which, with the flair of his historical type, he turned into a great occasion and a vivid embarrassment to the enemies furtively looking on. He died, as was said, like a gallant bridegroom. This sort of life is as much theatre as military campaign so that ribbons worn in the hat on the scaffold make a superb curtain. Lawrence was denied such a thoughtful conclusion, though there were Regular Army types like the snarling Arnold Wilson, a sort of Cheltenham Man, who would have been delighted to afford it him. Instead, his post-conflict life was the strange half-world of Shaw and Ross, a couple of flaunted incognitos worn during his days as a ranker. They have fascinated posterity and produced a successful play from Terence Rattigan: but the thought occurs that whatever other driving psychological urge sent Colonel Lawrence DSO, CB into the ranks of the Army and Air Force, the lure of anthropology may have played a part. The Mint, published posthumously as an account of the foul-mouthed soldiery he knew, lineal descendants of the goddams of Harfleur, could have been the product of a cool, interested expedition among the marsh Arabs.
The boy Ned Lawrence drove himself with fasts and narrow diets, including a spate of vegetarianism. He travelled – ironically for the dedicated Francophobe of the Syrian dispute – throughout France, first as brass-rubber, then as a student of fortifications, displaying a certain scholarly ruthlessness in those pursuits. The Oxford first in History, accomplished with the guidance of David Hogarth, later a senior archaeological colleague, then a fellow officer, included a study of Crusader castles done in the field, which involved an examination of the Syrian citadel, Krak des Chevaliers, then little-known in Britain. This suggests exacting, not to say exalted, requirements in the Oxford History Schools in 1910 which might cause some anguished amazement now.
The observation of one young officer in the desert was that he did not give orders in the customary barking, peremptory fashion, but gave ‘directions’ in the way of a don asking for and listening to your opinion before finally saying what should be done. For a man fervently determined to get his own way, this is an interesting sidelight and a clear indication of one aspect of the famous charm. Another part of it was patience. Many officers, even those who did not write off the Arabs as ‘a degenerate race’, a phrase I heard from an educated source only last week, were justifiably exasperated by Arab unreliability, non-arrival when and as promised and needed (their Shirley Williams qualities), as well as their candid venality. Lawrence could see the good and waited for it. With the fall of Aqaba and thereafter he would argue, playing down essential support from the Regular Army, that his Arabs had delivered.
Such understanding, tolerance of fault, long-term faith and encouragement, is of course leadership, the sort of special, irregular leadership appropriate to irregular troops which an adaptive academic might best give, the sort of thing which in our own time Sir John Hackett would fully understand. It has not been unknown in great soldiers; neither was Lawrence’s other quality, a dishevelled contempt for punctilio and natty dress; Oliver Cromwell, no less, was referred to in awe as ‘that sloven’.
Lawrence, for all his fervour and dash of fanaticism, was soft-voiced and rational. He was also deeply sympathetic. In the case of the Arabs, this is part of his attraction. With his solid historian’s background, as well as his romantic imagination, he saw the Middle Ages flourishing and in mid-course in Arabia. The man who had written a thesis about Crusader castles, who as a postgraduate had researched the settlement of Karkamis, saw the present, often with brilliant accuracy, through the filter of the past. His view of the Sheiks as feudatories, and in the rougher cases Rhineland robber barons, was exactly right. Lawrence was accordingly equipped to talk to the impossible, shrewd, acquisitive old Hussein Sharif of Mecca and understand him in proper non-patronising 15th-century terms. The moronic commentator in the Daily Express who referred, à propos the present crisis, to the Sharif’s great-grandson as ‘the quisling King of Jordan’ demonstrates in extreme form the demotic insolence and oceanic ignorance of those whose understanding of history is kin to the linguistic flair for speaking to the French in shouted English. Hussein ibn Talal ibn Abdullah ibn Hussein has the same instincts – in a far better mind but under similar mobile conditions – as his sceptical, watchful (and surviving) great-grandfather.
Wisely, the episode which keeps Lawrence in the prurient eye is dealt with here without much instant psychologising. Lawrence’s written claim that on a spying mission to Dera, he was caught, flogged and anally penetrated by the local Turkish commander has to be untrue. It is contradicted by those able to contradict it, by the known timetable of Lawrence’s comings and goings, by the equally known character of the alleged rapist Hajim, a practising heterosexual of repute, and from the absence of one of those brilliant, detailed reports which followed Lawrence’s genuine excursions to a new venue. The significance of the episode relates to his compulsive theatrical romancing and throws precious little light on supposed guilt about his part in governmental double-dealing. Everybody double-dealt – the British, the Arabs, the French and T.E. Lawrence. In simple terms, Lawrence was a working masochist and probably a double-action homosexual who would lose no caste among Arabs, whatever the frisson in Cheltenham, by the active role, but go below the salt in the desert as a catamite. But he was also a man of the theatre, and the Dera narration allowed him to play out his charade of guilt and impart his sexual practices in a context which told his British audience what he did and enjoyed while confecting false circumstances of coercion to remove social and legal offence. That is a swift judgment but surely the only one to make sense. If Lawrence were a contemporary, he would have told the broad truth and gloried in its dissection.
The present crisis finds plenty of echoes in this account of the Middle East in the First World War. It is interesting to learn that serious thought was given in London to a proposal that Iraq should be annexed, not by Britain, but by India acting as a sort of second-generation imperialist, and providing territory for Indians to settle and colonise. This was the high time or late tubercular flush of imperial thinking, the era of Rhodes and Milner as well as of Balfour, and the concept of an actual land with people in it as a plastic subject apt for the baroque mouldings of policy-makers and demographic engineers was quite agreeable. But better-read men in a similar mood of assurance had as grand delusions. The strand in current American thinking which speaks of the Arabs as being ‘unfit to be in charge of oil’ – something which a US presence in Saudi Arabia and a brisk conquest will put to rights – fulfils all of Lawrence’s nightmares in the sort of technicolour which only very great insensitivity could devise. An indifference to geography has disobliged the manifest destiny of the top nation quite recently: a similar attitude to history will do them no favours.
What Lawrence praised in the Arabs and was drawn to was a small ‘c’ conservative socciety: nothing Mrs Thatcher would care for, but rural, pastoral, unthrusting, with private loyalties and obligations sustained by another small-letter word – an order. The inclination today is to spell that word with a capital and impose it.
Where the Lawrence camp surely go wrong, however, is to take his word, never a good idea with a man as much romancer as romantic, about the absolute betrayal and wickedness of London, and to contrast his motives, decently clad in white Sharifian robes, with London’s naked ones. Everyone had low motives. Certainly Sharif Hussein, with his eye for unconsidered trifles on a very big scale, was an imperialist on his own borders rather than at the bureaucratic arm’s length favoured by the Mother of the Free. Everybody coveted and cozened: European and Arab, Foreign Office and Beduin feudatory, regular and irregular. Above all, Edward Lawrence was every bit as manipulative as any Foreign Office mandarin doing a deal with the French over Syria.
Nothing illustrates this better than his treatment, coolly set out by Mr James, of Hussein’s two sons – Abdullah, later King Abdullah of Transjordan, and Faisal, the future King of Iraq. Here is Faisal ‘a brave, weak, ignorant spirit, trying to do work for which only a genius or a great criminal was fitted. I served him out of pity, a motive which degraded us both.’ And Abdullah: ‘too cool, too humorous to be a prophet: especially the armed prophet who, if history is true, succeeded in revolutions ... During the physical struggle when singleness of eye and magnetism, devotion and self-sacrifice were needed, Abdullah would be too complex for a single purpose.’ Faisal could be run. Abdullah could not. Put aside the maundering downstage self-pity of the passage on Faisal and one sees a manipulator measuring a manipulee. Faisal, who was to prove weak, incoherent and irresolute, was precisely the vessel into which Lawrence’s very real powers of personality could be poured, a lay figure for the attentions of the Desert Coppelius. Abdullah was a sophisticate, very much his grandson’s grandfather, someone who could take from the West without being awed or diminished by it and far too sharp to sit on Lawrence’s hand and perform.
Behind Lawrence’s patience and his admirable love and understanding of the Arabs, qualities which elevate him, lay his enjoyment of power. Yet it was not dishonourable. He had demonstrated himself in the archaeologist’s settlement near Karkamis to be an ad hoc squire of some enlightenment. Love of the past did not extend to admiration for robber barons and their exactions – the khawah, something better-known as protection money, levied notably on the poor. ‘Our donkey boy until last week was only getting 15 of the 45 piastres we pay him: the percentage of the sheik accounted for the rest; since he was a boy and helpless.’ Such episodes – Lawrence genuinely wanted to afford these workers sanctuary – are central to a just understanding of him and more rewarding than the debate about the precise achievement of his camelry. He was not a stupid romantic, not blind to those qualities in Arab life best-known to us in their Sicilian reflection. He was neither a London imperialist nor a Westerniser, but he sincerely wanted to inject honest leadership (and for all his Pinocchial fibbings, he was honest when it mattered) into the virginal impurity of Arab life.
It would give him power, which he rejoiced at, and fame, about which he was ambivalent, but was far from an ignoble notion, however anachronistic. ‘Helplessness,’ writes James, ‘was the common condition of most Syrians. As an Englishman Lawrence was repelled by the unfree condition of the Jerablus peasantry, who endured “the hideous grind of forced labour” or were fettered to debts they could never repay. His reaction was the chivalric code of his warrior heroes, which enjoined the knight to protect those too weak to fend for themselves.’ This is not the world of the actual knights – even Chaucer’s parfait gentle knight has been demonstrated by Terry Jones to have been a cynical operator. It suggests that the evils of the Arab order gave him a function.
Mr James has a chapter, one of the best things in the book, on ‘Lawrence and the Arabs’. It describes, among other things, the necessarily sordid acts which Lawrence had to do to make his desert war work at all, like distributing money. Government funds payable in sovereigns ‘gave him one of his Arab nicknames, Abu Khayyal, “the father of the horsemen” ’. This refers to the St George who appears on the obverse of the sovereigns Lawrence distributed in Syria. There was a precedent for this, as Mr James points out: the same saintly knights had seen service in Europe as ‘Pitt’s grenadiers’. Into such operations Lawrence the idealist, the protective squire and self-assembled Quixote, cheerfully threw himself. His life and career had to be made up as he went along. But the writer could see with great clarity. ‘Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule but with more ardour and more fertile than any other in the world. They were a people of starts for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, a process of infinite courage and variety, the end nothing.’ This also is a failure of contempt. With all his faults, Lawrence will always matter for having tried to understand a wrongly scorned people. It is no longer the fashion.