The Man in White

Edward Pearce

  • The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Lawrence James
    Weidenfeld, 404 pp, £19.50, August 1990, ISBN 0 297 81087 1

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.

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