Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Birthday: "All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."


Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (1888-1935)
Author, Archaeologist, Diplomat, Soldier

He seems a perfectly modern man today, 129 years after his birth and nine decades after he died. It’s because he was, even in life, a man out of time. He occupied past, present and future in an uneasy collaboration.

Born out of wedlock to an Anglo-Irish baronet and the family governess, Lawrence read history at Jesus College, Oxford, 1907-10, graduating with a first class degree.

In 1909 he walked 1000 miles in Syria, surveying castles of the Crusader era. He accepted, then, declined a graduate fellowship to Magdalen College, preferring to spend several seasons on archaeological digs in the Middle East and Egypt.

In early 1914 he was borrowed by the British government to survey the Negev Desert in anticipation of conflict with the Ottomans; he joined the Army in October and was posted to the General Staff in Cairo.

Fluent in Arabic, French and Ancient Greek, and with broad knowledge of the geography of the region, Lawrence was assigned to the Arab Bureau’s campaign to fund an asymmetric insurgency against the Turks to tie up their troops defending their turf. He gained the confidence of the Northern Arabs under Faisal, and the attention  of American newspaperman Lowell Thomas, as he launched a dazzling series of raids against the Turks in 1917-18.

The war ended; Lawrence was a colonel and, at thirty, had peaked.

He spent 1918-19 with Faisal at the Versailles Conference, trying in vain to create a Middle Eastern map that made sense. In 1919-20 he was the start of a stage show/film/lecture tour put on by Thomas, and was elected a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.

In 1921 Lawrence served as an advisor to Winston Churchill in the Foreign Office. He then, abruptly, enlisted in the RAF under an assumed name; left the service in 1923 to join the Royal Tank Corps;  and returned to the RAF in 1925. His nom de guerre, T.W. Shaw, fooled almost no one; Noel Coward, addressing him by his serial number, asked in a letter, “Dear 338171, or may I call you 338?”

He spent two years in India, until rumors he was a spy resulted in his reassignment home. He worked for a number of years on power boats for the military, and pursued a fascination with motorcycles. He died, six days after a motorcycle accident, in 1935.

Lawrence’s literary fame rests on his memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and a slimmed-down recasting of the tale, Revolt in the Desert. He used the time and leisure of his All Souls Fellowship to write the book three times- once, from scratch after he lost the manuscript changing trains- to get it right. The book became the basis for the 1962 David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, which launched the career of Irish actor Peter O’Toole. Of the actor’s dazzlingly good Technicolor looks, Noel Coward quipped, if O’Toole’d been any prettier, the movie would have had to be renamed Florence of Arabia.

Lawrence is memorialized by a bust in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

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