Thursday, 19 August 2010

TE Lawrence

My middle name is Lawrence*. Perhaps that's why I've always been fascinated by the story of Thomas Edward Lawrence. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, he was neurotic long before it became a recognised state of mind. In his years at Oxford studying classics, he would force himself on long cross country night marches, or fast for days, denying himself even water. In the long holidays he traveled across on foot across France and then the Middle East, studying the Crusader castles . Lawrence also worked on archaeological digs in modern day Iraq, where he learned Arabic dialects, the history and cultures of the region. As a sideline he worked for British Intelligence mapping those areas of semi-desert.

So in many ways his whole life had been to prepare him for his role in the Arabs' revolt against the Ottoman empire, when the red-top press of the day created the 'Lawrence of Arabia' myth.

Lawrence's curse was the realpolitik of the day. He'd been allowed to promise the Arabs a homeland and Arab state in return for their support of Allenby's army. Alas, under French pressure a deal had already done, the allies parcelling up the middle east into various client states.

One of the extraordinary things about stories of Lawrence's life is how the names continue to echo through history: Beirut, Damascus, Iraq, Baghdad and Aquaba.

Lawrence didn't have a good peace. The betrayal of the Arab cause effected him deeply, and he tried lose his hated 'Lawrence of Arabia' identify by re-inlisting in first the Army and then the RAF under pseudonyms. It was under the name 'Shaw' that he published his masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which related his story of the Arab revolt.

Lawrence tried to escape his troubles by riding fast bikes, and bought a series of Brough Superiors, the superbike of their day. He would use them for long, fast rides through the night, achieving average speeds that are impressive even by modern standards.

His life ended in May 1935, at the age of 46, when he crashed his bike avoiding a couple of bicycle riding youngsters in a local road. He died of the head injuries suffered in the accident - incidentally one of the surgeons involved in his treatment went on to produce the research that led to the first effective helmets.

Lawrence is buried in a quiet Dorset cemetery on the edge of the small village of Moreton. The other day I was passing on the way home from holiday in the area and visited his grave.

*Its a family name, no relation

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