Magazine article Geographical

A Desert Engagement

Magazine article Geographical

A Desert Engagement

Article excerpt

Lawrence of Arabia was a brilliant propagandist and manipulator, who deliberately turned his life into a conundrum. Michael Asher set out to retrace his childhood hero's steps and discovered that Lawrence's greatness owes as much to his weaknesses as to his strengths.

I reached the top of the Hafira pass in Jordan just before sunset, after an exhausting climb lasting six hours. I had dragged my camel, Shaylan, up thousands of feet across slippery screes and along the edges of sheer ravines, where several times he had bucked and shied, threatening to pull us both over.

It had been one of the most difficult days I had experienced in the 16,000 miles (25,750 kilometres) of the world's deserts I had covered by camel. When we reached the summit, I sat down for a rest, somewhat disgruntled. For the past few months, I had been retracing the journeys of TE Lawrence -- "Lawrence of Arabia" -- in the Middle East, researching my new biography the 43rd biography of Lawrence), using only his book. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as a guide.

Often this had been easy, as Lawrence -- who began his career in Military Intelligence as a map-maker -- had a superb eye for physical detail, Today, though, I was well and truly confused.

This had to be the same Hafira pass Lawrence described, as the details were overwhelmingly accurate. What bothered me was the fact that Lawrence claimed to have ridden down the gorge on his camel, quickly and easily, hardly ever having to dismount. There was no hint of the terrible, potentially fatal struggle I'd experienced traversing the said pass. I realised that either Lawrence had been exaggerating or that he was a far better camel rider than myself, despite my 20 years experience.

Lawrence has been a hero of mine ever since, as a youth, I had seen David Lean's classic film Lawrence of Arabia. Were it not for Lawrence, I would probably have not become an Arabic speaker, never been a camel rider, nor lived with a traditional Bedouin tribe for three years. Neither would I have served in the SAS; because, without Lawrence to articulate the form of modern guerrilla warfare, there would probably not be an SAS.

Who was this man who had affected my life with such power? In the two years during which I researched my book, I found this question increasingly difficult to answer. One problem is that few Lawrence scholars have tried to look at their subject in any kind of objective light. The lengths that reputable academics have gone to to prove that Lawrence's every utterance was true have only been outshone by the efforts his detractors have made to debunk him.

During the course of my research, however, I discovered that there were at least two Lawrences at work. There was the Lawrence who was determined to record his experience in absolute detail, and the self aggrandising Lawrence who sought to make himself a living legend and succeeded with remarkable efficacy.

Lawrence's background was unusual. Though his father, Thomas Chapman, was an hereditary aristocrat with a vast estate in Ireland, his mother, Sarah Lawrence, was a servant in the great man's house. So dominant was her personality, however, that she persuaded Thomas to abandon his wife and four daughters, and his privileged life, to elope with her to England and eventually to settle down in the middle class suburbs of Oxford under the assumed name of Lawrence. It was here, that Thomas Edward and his four brothers grew up. The Lawrences were comfortably off, though not wealthy, and while Thomas Chapman himself had attended Eton, his sons had to be contented with the less exclusive attractions of Oxford City Boys' School.

Lawrence's illegitimacy has often been cited as an excuse to turn his life into an existential tragedy. In fact, it probably hardly affected his childhood. To Lawrence and his brothers, as to the world in general, the family were a respectable, church going, middle class folk. …

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