If I were a complete dick, I could say “it seems fitting that at a time when hideous military things are happening in Syria, I have just finished reading about the liberation of Damascus in 1918”, but I am not the kind of dick who wants to tie that stuff together. That’s a job for journalists and historians, not people who write weird books about London and cry about T E Lawrence at inopportune moments.
The desert I’m leaving is the remembered desert of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: the book is finished. I’ve ploughed through the 9000-odd Kindle pages (this is not an exaggeration) of description, introspection, isolation, photographs, and guerilla warfare, and Lawrence has had his last whisper in my ear until I pick up The Mint.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this book already. They’ve wavered between being impressed by his prose, impressed by his exploits, horrified by the activities of both himself against others and others against him, fascinated by the landscape so eloquently given voice in this book that it feels like a series of still photographs supplemented by memories of travelogues and nature documentaries, exasperated by Lawrence’s outbursts of what feel like very juvenile whining (forgetting of course that he was younger than me while doing most of this), and often quietly in awe of the scope and seat-of-the-pants nature of several of the victories.
In completing the book there’s a sense of relief and loss, as there usually is at the end of any good book; the creeping horror of the oncoming scenes at Damascus turned out to be unfounded as it turned out that I’d misremembered the account from A Prince of Our Disorder and that the David Lean movie was as full of lies in this regard as in every other; the chaos did not end in disaster but rather in the return to function of the city.
Overall in spite of the jittery action and the push and pull of military minutiae, in spite of the electric relations between the men of the Arab Revolt and Lawrence’s occasionally tenuous grip both on his plans and on his person, the cast of the book is of a kind of peaceful reminiscence: coming away from it, the stresses of a military campaign appear like faded memories in a rear view mirror. It is, initially, a hard book to break into: Lawrence makes his prose unfriendly, almost, to intruders: but soon he slackens off and as the campaign begins to shape up so does the ease of reading.
In A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack comments that a lot of the men who spoke with Lawrence throughout his life found he gave something to them, and that they saw parts of themselves in him. It seems to be a common theme: I’ve already joked a few times about getting a “what would lawrence do” bracelet with “do the opposite of that” on the other side (for a start: always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a motorbike, especially when riding a Brough Superior at preposterous speeds on winding country roads; do not utterly refuse to get into any kind of relationship on the basis of some mad ideals which cause you emotional distress, etc), and it occurs to me that there are a few lessons to be learned from him in the course of this book and the circumstances of its publication which could well be applicable to me.
First, with regards to his back-and-forthing on and lack of confidence in his manuscript, leading an exasperated Siegfried Sassoon to send him a testy letter containing the phrase “you have written a great book, blast you”: his eventual decision to produce a small print run funded by subscribers is remarkably similar to my own idea for what to do with my next novel. It is of course a different matter, I’m not trying to hide my work because I have issues with the quality of it (if you like, I have long since ceased to care whether what I’ve written is perfect or not as long as it says what I need it to say), but because I can’t fund the thing on my own. And unlike Lawrence I don’t have an eager public desperate to hear what I have to say because unlike Lawrence I’m somewhat not a hero of a gruelling war and an eloquent Oxford alumni with a great wealth of friends in hundreds of places.
… Also I’m taller than him by about two inches.
Second, a less practical consideration. In the latter chapters of the book especially I “saw” Lawrence come into conflict with people who found his manner inappropriate or his attitude ungentlemanly, and both chastened him for it and occasionally physically assaulted him (one officer “struck him across the face”, for example). His sense of vision generally kept him from being smothered or particularly bothered by attacks on his persona: while he was prone to introspection, and also to what looked like self-hatred, this was at the instigation of his own conscience and comparison of his awkwardness, his “other”ness, to those around him. He fretted about his guilt and despised himself for his deceptions, necessary though he believed they were, but did not care for propriety or “what others might think” of his demands for resources or his person unless the manipulation of his image in their eyes was vital to the fighting strength of his little army. He talked often of flattering or phrasing things in specific ways, but not of feeling ashamed of pursuing the things necessary to his task.
This represents a lesson in that while it is important to consider the possibility of harming others it’s not actually necessary to concern oneself overly with whether or not their approval is bestowed. I’m on the verge of stifling myself for the sake of not appearing ridiculous, for the sake of not being “talked about behind my back”, and in a timely manner have read an example of why that’s not feasible or worthwhile: it doesn’t matter if you look ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter if people gas and gossip. The thing you set yourself to should be more important than the vagrancies of strangers and acquaintances, and if your real friends have doubts they will voice them honestly and without spite.
I plan to start reading Lawrence’s book about the conditions of the fledgling RAF – The Mint – by the end of this year, and I’m eager to see what I can learn from that, as well as to listen to a voice separated from mine by a good eighty years.