Saturday, May 16, 2009

No prisoners


On my book pile: Lawrence of Arabia: the life, the legend by Malcolm Brown. My last book about deception in WWI and WWII contained a fascinating chapter on T. E. Lawrence, so I was inspired to do some more reading. This book is actually a companion piece to an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, so it's probably more a coffee table book (not the easiest thing to read with a cup of tea and a cat on your lap). It does assume that one knows a bit about the man, and of course, one doesn't. But as a visual biography it's fascinating. Lawrence was a keen photographer and documented his activities extensively. He's such an enigmatic character that it's easy to find yourself pouring over the pictures, trying to make sense of the man.

His role in creating the whole schemozzle that is the Middle East is heartbreaking. A Welsh-born archeologist, Lawrence found himself leading guerrilla forces against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The Arab tribes offered their support in fighting a common Turkish enemy, with the dream of establishing an Arab state. It soon became apparent that the British had no such plan - indeed, they were soon eyeing off potential additions to the British Empire. Lawrence found himself in a bind, yet he continued to encourage Arab involvement - so raising the stakes and rendering the inevitable disappointment all the more bitter. Lawrence's plan had been to so involve the Arab forces in support of the British, that it would be difficult for the British government to dishonour promises of independence. The British, however, felt no such obligation. It's all very complicated, very messy and very, very sad.

Particularly sad, and puzzling, is Lawrence's life after the war. A national hero, hounded by the press, he changed his name and re-enlisted as a lowly soldier. Tracked down several times, changing his name and moving to different military units, Lawrence could find no peace; clearly struggling with a devastating sense of guilt - and struggling to find a life after an extraordinary career. There are tales of paying people to whip and beat him.

His writing is beautifully literary (his formal war despatches far outclass my latest book club reading). Not sure if I'm up for reading the Seven pillars but I've certainly got my hands on Peter O'Toole.

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