Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Is Lawrence my hero?

Not worshipping but following Lawrence:
the author near Mudawwarah in southern Jordan

Two more contrasting reviews, in the New York Sun and Wall Street Journal, which are both well worth a read, both agree on one point: T.E. Lawrence is my hero. Rubbish.

When I started out writing the book I was determined to be controversial, picking holes in Lawrence's story and finding flaws in the man himself. As his many biographers have already pointed out, there are plenty of them. In particular I wanted to highlight that he was one of several British advisers to the Arab guerrilla forces in the First World War, men like Stewart Newcombe, Herbert Garland and Henry Hornby, all now largely forgotten. Knowing that the man had a reputation for lying, I went about my research in a very particular way. I did all my other research before I finally turned to Lawrence's own, later, account of what had happened. I wanted to know the story from contemporary accounts before I read Lawrence's version of events.

The evidence I found surprised me. First was how the perception of Lawrence changed among his colleagues during the war. In 1916 he was described as a too-clever-by-half "bumptious young ass" who needed "kicking, and kicking hard at that". Subsequent events forced Lawrence's colleagues to change their view. By midway through 1917 they admitted his indispensability as an adviser to Feisal - a position he had singlehandedly carved out. Lawrence was of "inestimable value," commented one colleague, prompting another to wish that he could find other officers to act in similar roles with Feisal's older brothers. As he admitted: "Such men, however, are extremely difficult to get". Finally, as news of Lawrence's exploits spread, there was outright praise for him. According to the Conservative politician and arch-imperialist George Lloyd, Lawrence had "done wonderfully good work and will some day be able to write a unique book. Generally the kind of men capable of these adventures lack the pen and the wit to record them adequately. Luckily Lawrence is specially gifted in both."

Lawrence's ability to write a compelling book (like Churchill's after him) has inevitably guaranteed him a central role in the story that I tell in Setting the Desert on Fire. But these comments from his contemporaries at the time (and long before it was clear how famous he would become), which I unearthed in the archives in London and Durham, suggest that this prominence is not undeserved. Even Colonel Cyril Wilson, the man who had labelled Lawrence a "bumptious young ass" would, less than a year later, write what Lawrence described as a "very kind note" to praise him for his achievements. It was hard to avoid the conclusion, based on the evidence that Lawrence - the awkward, devious, mendacious intelligence officer - had won the respect of his peers. That was what inclined me to portray him in a positive light, while still, I hope, showing that he would have been hell at times to work with.

I reached another conclusion after examining the contemporary evidence. The book that Lawrence wrote, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was largely accurate in its depiction of events, not least because it quoted extensively from his campaign notes. The emphasis was different, however, for by then Lawrence had realised that he faced a political battle to lobby "opinion formers" internationally that the Arabs deserved to be offered self-government. One of those he met, in Paris in 1919, was the US President, Woodrow Wilson. It was to make this case that he largely suppressed his wartime frustrations with the Arabs and instead put emphasis on their role in the First World War in the Middle East. Realising that the battle was for a favourable public perception of the Arabs, he had started doing this before the war was even over.

Few historians ever appreciate the reason why Lawrence's version of events does change over time, because they rely exclusively on Seven Pillars of Wisdom to tell the story of events that happened at least ten years before. And that inevitably leaves them open to allegations of favourable bias. I hope that the way that I went about researching Setting the Desert on Fire has made a book that provides a more nuanced analysis of why, eventually, he proved so popular a figure.

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