Books: Liar, liar, his reputation's on fire

Nicholas Fearn
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:27

Lawrence, The Uncrowned King of Arabia

by Michael Asher Viking pounds 20

Documents released earlier this year by the Ministry of Defence showed that Colonel T E Lawrence told a white lie or two during his career. This would have come as no surprise to his 40 or so biographers, and it certainly did not to Michael Asher, his latest. Lawrence was the consummate liar, exaggerator and embroiderer. He lied to his official biographer, Basil Liddell Hart, as freely as he would lie to strangers on the train. In despatches and reports, he lied to his superiors, and in the field he lied to his comrades.

As a small, physically unremarkable boy, he had learned that one must lie one's way out of shyness, and by the time he reached the height of his powers he had discovered that the ability to fib convincingly was chief among those powers. Let it at least be said that he always played to his strengths. But this biography is not the final debunking of the Lawrence myth. On the contrary, it is the account of a worshipper who idolised Lawrence in childhood and followed in his desert footsteps in adulthood. It is also the telling verdict of an age in which a prowess in brazen bullshit is as respected and as indicative of bravery, as deeds on the battlefield were in Lawrence's time.

The story as told here begins with a beautiful woman - Lawrence's mother - and ends with his fatal motorcycle crash. Between these there is the coming of a messiah figure from humble beginnings, taking on superior odds and triumphing against them, and all against the biblical backdrop of the desert. This basic plot is agreed upon by all his biographers, Asher included, and needs no exaggeration. The telling is first-rate all the same.

While he follows the young Lawrence, Asher keeps us abreast of the progress of the Sharif and his sons on the other side of the world. In this way and with reprisals of his own travels in Lawrence country, Asher's style is well suited to the legendary status of the story in question. But he is careful also to acknowledge the hand of chance. He makes clear that "Lawrence of Arabia" might never have been if Abdallah, the effective leader of the Arab revolt at the time, had put the phone down on this irritating Englishman in mid-bluster when they first spoke. Instead, he stayed on the line long enough to arrange a meeting for him with Feisal. On that occasion as on many others, a lie had done the trick - this time regarding Britain's sincerity on committing troops. Lawrence showed early on that he was the original Desert Fox.

Asher himself, however, has more reason than most to curse Lawrence's economy with the truth. There is a flash of black humour when he reconstructs with three companions Lawrence's most famous feat of endurance - the 49- hour camel dash from Aqaba to Cairo to break the news of the port's fall. Asher and company have to walk through minefields laid in the six-day war and nearly die of exposure only to give up in their attempt after falling 10 hours behind schedule. Later, in the comfort of the British Museum, Asher discovers by chance that Lawrence had in fact taken a more leisurely three days over the original journey, with a night's sleep in the middle for good measure.

But Asher never loses patience with his idol. Though most of the major events portrayed in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (and the David Lean film) probably did not occur - including his rape by the Turkish Bey, the shooting of his servant in cold blood and the rescue of Gasim from the Nefud Desert, "the anvil of the sun" - countless engagements were fought and Lawrence became a hero to the Arabs as to the British for good reason. There is a sense in which his lies bring a balance to the story. The account of his rape Asher suspects to be a measure to assuage his guilt at failing to cut off the Turkish retreat at the Yarmuk River. Anything that did not happen as he reported is perhaps nevertheless what should have happened as Lawrence saw it. You could say his myths were based on true stories.

Asher seems to understand Lawrence's psychology better than other biographers, though he admits only to finding "his" Lawrence. His "reverse exhibitionism" is held up as the most likely candidate for a key to his character. He had a masochist's fascination with pain, but he was not one to suffer in silence. He would always take a companion along to witness his dives into the icy water of the Cherwell in winter, for example. At times of tension or danger he would launch into a "flight forward", a kind of retreat to the higher ground as it were. Not naturally a brave man, he would affect bravery through a kind of madness induced by rebellion against his weaker qualities.

Behind the hero was the blusterer, and behind the blusterer the master manipulator. In The Seven Pillars he had known instinctively upon meeting him that Feisal was "the man who would bring the Arab revolt to full glory". But he later admitted that the potential he spotted in Feisal was merely that of looking the part of the "noble Arab". To look the part, he knew, would be necessary to appeal to the shallow British. And when Feisal fell far short as an iron man, it was a simple matter for Lawrence to massage his image to the contrary. He could achieve this since he was not only a major British player in the Arab revolt, but the only player. He was the only British officer to go to the front and so was in sole control of information passing both ways between the Bedu tribesmen and the British High Command. He exploited this privileged position mercilessly. While he puffed up Feisal to the British, he puffed himself up to Feisal and his fellow Arabs.

Distrusting his own nerve, however, Lawrence attempted time and time again in the early stages of the revolt to ensconce himself in a desk job, only to be sent back to the action. In his own considered opinion he was all mouth, and mouth was what he was good at (in his first engagement he accidentally shot his own camel in the back of the head). But he was taken at his own inflated word and the rest is history. Among the Arabs, Lawrence was more a power behind the throne than a leader of men, manipulating the impressionable Feisal and keeping tight-lipped at conferences among the xenophobic Bedu. In this way he persuaded them to play to their own strengths and fight as guerrillas when they were as inclined to be bloody- minded as any British general on the Western Front. He also conceived the notion of the special forces' raid as later taken up with such zeal by Asher's old regiment - the one and only SAS.

The Lawrence who emerges here is one paradoxically more acceptable to today's world and more resilient to debunking, albeit not in the details. Today we would not look favourably on his onetime order that all Turkish prisoners were to be slaughtered (though it was probably another invention). His cunning and diplomatic skills would make him a hero today even if he had demurred from any front-line fighting. To Asher, Lawrence was the century's first international megastar and the product of its first PR campaign. He thus adds a post-modern twist of media studies to the more familiar biographical methods of tale-recounting and psychoanalysing. This both justifies a new Life of such a master media manipulator and perhaps hints at the shape biography will take in the future.

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