The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 31: T E LAWRENCE

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There were, as has frequently been observed, several T E Lawrences. He was an archaeologist, a soldier, a diplomat and, of course, a writer. He was both a myth and a mythomaniac, a not uncommon combination in the 20th century. He was also the idealised protagonist of a famous - some would say classic - movie biopic, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Historically, Lawrence was an important figure whose influence on political developments in the Middle East between 1916 and 1921 was real, if ultimately neutered. Despite all his efforts to promote the cause of Arab independence, Syria, Palestine and Iraq were eventually mandated to France and Britain, and he returned home an exhausted and disappointed man. His efforts at self-promotion, however, were to prove rather more successful, at least in the short term.

If he were alive today, he'd probably be represented by Max Clifford. It was of his later, supposedly reclusive period as an ordinary serviceman in the RAF that the often-repeated putdown "backing into the limelight" (coined by the American journalist Lowell Thomas) was originally used. And the panache with which - in those early years spent sashaying across the desert - he would sling his own glamorous aura around his shoulders like a velvet opera cloak, not to mention the rakish angle at which he sported his hero's halo, suggest that the cult of self-nurtured celebrity, which we tend to regard as virtually an invention of the late 1990s, is in reality no newer than anything else under the sun.

There is, though, a paradox. If you try too hard to fabricate a "memory" - if, for example, knowing you will never see someone again, you laboriously attempt to create the conditions for an unforgettable last meeting - what you're actually likelier to end up remembering is less the mise en scene of the "memory" itself than the labour you put into creating it. So it is, in a sense, with Lawrence. All that posturing self-aggrandisement, that obsession with his public image, and what is his current reputation? Increasingly, that of a posturing self-aggrandiser, obsessed with his public image.

And Lawrence the writer? If, as I have done, you have ever ploughed through Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you will know, as I do, that a more accurate title would be "Seven Pillars of Boredom".