Magazine article The Spectator

Speed Freak

Magazine article The Spectator

Speed Freak

Article excerpt

Clouds Hill, Colonel T.E. Lawrence's former Dorset pied-à-terre, comprises four cramped rooms - two up, two down - and you have to mind your head as you go up the stairs. At the top of the stairs is a cell-like bunkroom, lined from top to bottom with aluminium. The wooden ship's bunk would only be remotely comfortable to a man of Lawrence's height, which was 5'5''. Daylight comes in via a first world war battle cruiser's porthole, fitted by Lawrence just days before he was catapaulted from his Brough Superior motorbike and fatally injured.

A theory on a website for sadomasochists I've visited, one of many theories surrounding this refreshingly complex individual, states that Lawrence was often confined here before being summoned to the music room and assiduously thrashed. Whether an aluminium-lined bunkroom was an essential part or not, his keen participation in an elaborate sado-masochistic punishment ritual is well documented. In fact, Lawrence played his submissive role so convincingly that for many years the man employed to wield the whip, Private Jack Bruce, innocently believed Lawrence's fantastic story that his (Bruce's) wages were being mailed by a rich uncle, who wanted his world-famous nephew regularly chastised for some unspecified past misdemeanour. Bruce was thorough. An eye-witness said afterwards that the beating he watched was so savage it made him feel physically sick.

I was the first visitor of the day. Next to the bunkroom is a larger room, dominated by a large gramophone, known as the music room. In here a National Trust lady volunteer was perched on the window-sill. She appeared to have been seduced into a reverie by Clouds Hill's profound peacefulness. So as not to distract her, I tiptoed about, quietly examining the huge gramophone, the leather sofa, the mahogany writing table, the knackered old Royal typewriter, and the mantelshelf that Lawrence stood at to eat his meagre suppers, presumably because it hurt too much to sit down.

Unfortunately, I had a burning question to ask; a question that the National Trust lady had probably been asked about 15 million times. After asking her for permission to speak, I said, 'Is it all original?' She said it was. Except for the removal of the valuable book collection, all was as Lawrence left it on that fateful day exactly 70 years ago when he popped out to send a telegram to Henry Williamson.

She went on to speak admiringly of Lawrence and disparagingly of the visitors who go there convinced that Lawrence was assassinated by the British government, another one of those Lawrence of Arabia theses irresistible to fantasists. …

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