Thomas Edward Lawrence arrived in Oxford aged ten, together with his family and what was to become a crippling chip on his shoulder.
His parents were devoted, but unmarried. Sir Thomas Chapman (who had left a wife and four daughters in Ireland) and Sarah Lawrence, a children’s nurse of strict Calvinist upbringing, had eloped.
Lawrence’s own accounts of his life vary in detail, but invariable in their inaccuracy, and his Oxford days have naturally been eclipsed by his later exploits as Lawrence of Arabia. Nevertheless, Oxford is where he grew up and it is possible to pinpoint a number of sites of pilgrimage for the hagiographically inclined, beginning with the family home, 2 Polstead Road, where the teenage Lawrence persuaded his parents that he needed his own bungalow in the back garden.
Educated at Oxford High School, his sporting prowess was largely confined to solitary sports and to a much publicised sortie by canoe about 1 908 down the Trill Mill Stream (the Oxford underground sewer, emerging at Folly Bridge) in order to “epater les bourgeois” by firing blank pistol-shots under the gratings in the streets.
An early attempt to excavate the Round Hill on Port Meadow, a Bronze Age burial site, and frequent visits to the Ashmolean impressed David Hogarth, the museum’s Keeper. He gave Lawrence his first big break, engaging him in 1910 as artist/assistant archaeologist in the excavation of Carchemish, the ancient Syrian Hittite centre.
Lawrence loved Syria. His Carchemish years, he was to say (for once honestly) were the happiest of his life. He enjoyed the work and there he met Dahoum, the donkey boy, probably the love of his life, whom he brought in 1913 to his Oxford bungalow.
When war broke out in 1914, the government found itself in need of an intelligence expert in the Middle East and Lawrence, being a young man of intense ambition (remember that chip?) who spoke Arabic (although not as well as he implied), who knew the terrain (though not as well as he implied) and who understood the Arab people (Dahoum, presumably) had apparently found his niche.
Alas, while Lawrence was to become adept at boyish exploits, like blowing up trains and wearing Arab dress, he was not the diplomat for whom they might have hoped. His letters were indiscreet — an uncensored letter to Hogarth detailed the Anzac Gallipoli landings a month before the event and sketch maps he drew for the army were inaccurate. “What I didn’t know I made up,” he confessed airily.
Lawrence hated the French, Britain’s allies. When, after the war, the infamous carving-up of the Middle East began, Lawrence was adamant that Syria should not go to France. The French education system was, in his opinion, “not good enough”.
The French, for their part, had more class. “If he comes to the Versailles Peace Conference as a British colonel, in British uniform,” they said, “We welcome him. If he remains in fancy dress, he is not wanted here.”
The Lawrence of Arabia legend was created by Lowell Thomas, an American journalist in search of a scoop.
“I was sent to make propaganda, not to collect material for history,” he said later. Thomas couldn’t enthuse America about joining the war by stories of death in muddy trenches, but the ‘Prince of Mecca’, a blue-eyed honorary Arab in flowing robes fitted the bill for a popular hero and his subsequent lecture tour complete with film and stirring music was a sell out.
And, of course, there is Lawrence’s great book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was always intended to be a great book and was published under the name of Aircraftman Shaw.
Because Lawrence, to whom publicity was apparently anathema, had sought anonymity in a false identity within the RAF The “Shaw” was a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, Lawrence’s ideal mother. She was married, she thought he was brilliant and she persuaded GBS to give Lawrence a motorbike.
Lawrence loved speed. In 1922, eight copies of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom were printed by The Oxford Times for distribution to selected friends for comment. Then successful writers like Forster and Sassoon were pestered for reassurance “Damn you, how long do you expect me to go on reassuring you?” wrote an exasperated Sassoon.
The carefully orchestrated ‘non-availability to reviewers’ lent an air of excitement and the rest of the publicity was just as duplicitous and just as successful.
When the secret of Aircraftman Shaw’s identity was ‘leaked’ to the press, he was dismissed but, desperate to get back into the armed services, he was finally taken into the tank corps.
Churchill offered Lawrence posts in the Colonial Service (although not the grand ones he claimed) but he refused them all, preferring (he said) life in barracks. Perhaps he would have been out of his depth?
He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935, just as the fantasies were becoming overwhelming. King of Egypt? Fascist dictator? World dominion in concert with Hitler?
In 1919 Lawrence wrote to a friend that he had lost the entire original manuscript of the Seven Pillars on Reading station and had to rewrite from memory. Remember the time the dog ate your homework?