Sunday, December 04, 2005

T E Lawrence - Seven Pillars of Wisdom

This famous title “ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language”, or it is according to the quote from no less a reviewer than Sir Winston Churchill, on the back cover.

I picked it up in one of those rambling second hand bookshops, somewhere near Charing Cross road. Picked it up really, because it’s one of those titles that everyone mentions and few had read. Picked it up, because current events in the Middle East are in part determined by the region’s history and the role of colonial powers like Britain (and in this case Turkey).

So I thought this would be an illuminating read, and give an insight into an important period for the Arabic people and the culture of the tribes that Lawrence worked with. Unfortunately, far from being the book that Churchill promises us, it is little more than a boys’ own adventure story. With Lawrence (carefully using his self-deprecating style) placing himself at the centre of an epic story of pitched battles, camel treks, food shortages, gallant Arabs and a ruthless, but comically inept enemy.

There are many problems with this (not least that it goes on for 600 pages), but Lawrence lies a lot. He lies to his Arab allays about Britain’s future plans after they have kicked out the Turkish invaders. He lies to his superior officers to get his own way and I suspect he stretches the truth to his readers.

So the only real insights from this book are those given to the mindset of your average British Colonial officer. His attitude– neatly summed up near the start of the book – when he says “the lousy rags and festering skins which we knew as Arabs”. His cod philosophising – which is little more than embarrassing, and (perhaps most interesting), his (unusual for the time) acceptance of the homosexuality of many Arabs.

But I don’t want to knock this book any further. I shall leave the last word on the whole matter to Lawrence himself:

“..the falsity of the Arab position had cured me of crude ambition: while it left me my craving for good repute among men….. Here were the Arabs believing me, Allenby and Clayton [his officers] trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder if all established reputations were founded, like mine, on fraud”


knight said...

What prompted the liar to such despairing honesty?

Anonymous said...

I didn't have sex with that camel. ;-)

Anonymous said...

You've dashed my image of Churchill, but that's all right. I will recover. Between this and "The Man Who Would Be King" it seems the colonized are about as inscrutable as any of the most reclusive Oriental societies.