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Review commentary by Jeremy Wilson on Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher

(London, Viking, 1998)

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Chapter 3: Nothing Which Qualified Him to be an Ordinary Member of Society
Last year at school and first years at university, 1906-8


4. the quote that: "War Office people are very easily to be deceived" is similar evidence.

What Asher quotes here is also joke, this time at the expense of the War Office. Again, Asher changes its significance by quoting it out of context, claiming that it shows Lawrence "honing his skills as a bluffer":  "As a young intelligence offer he would report with delight that: 'The War Office people are very easily to be deceived into respect for special knowledge loudly declared.'" Asher gives no source reference at all, but the remark comes from a letter of 16 November 1914 to E.T. Leeds (Letters to E.T. Leeds, Andoversford, Whittington Press, 1988, p. 105). 
   Lawrence's letters to Leeds were among the most frivolous that he ever wrote. In this instance, he is explaining how, having been given a war job in the Geographical Section of the General Staff in London, he has found himself writing a military report on the Sinai Peninsula: "I'm writing a report from the military point of view of a country I don't know, and haven't visited yet. One of the minor terrors is, that later on I'm to get my own book, and guide myself over the country with it. It will be a lesson in humility, I hope. 
   "It's rather hard luck though, to have devilled my way all over Sinai, and then to have to write two books about it, gratis. And this second one is an awful sweat, for it has to be done against time, and the maps are not yet drawn. So I have to oversee them also, and try and correlate the two. It will not astonish you to hear that I found a grey hair on my pillow this morning. The W.O. people are very easily to be deceived into a respect for special knowledge loudly declared aren't they?" 
    In context, it is clear that the "loud declaration" of Lawrence's special knowledge is not a reference to something he had said himself, but the appraisal of Lawrence given to the War Office by D.G. Hogarth (Leeds's boss at the Ashmolean) who had persuaded GSGS to offer Lawrence a war job.
    A minor detail: Lawrence was not at that time working as an intelligence officer, in the popular sense of the term.
   Verdict. This "evidence" has is badly out of context, and in no way supports Asher's argument. Question for Mr. Asher: Why did you give no reference for the quote, preventing readers from checking its context for themselves?

p. 34 5. that in the light of the variant mule/camel-bell stories "One can only conclude that either Lawrence enjoyed misleading others, or he had a very uncommon conception of the truth." 

Here, Asher exposes a lie which he thinks is so serious that he refers to it repeatedly throughout the rest of his book. It becomes the cornerstone of his claim that Lawrence was habitually dishonest. 
   This is the occasion when Lawrence purchased two bells in Aleppo. His first account is in a letter to his friend James Elroy Flecker of 18.2.1912 (MB pp. 44-6). It is doubtless intentional that the tone of the letter reflects Flecker's own writings about the Middle East. "Aleppo is all compact of colour, and sense of line: you inhale Orient in lungloads, and glut your appetite with silks and dyed fantasies of clothes. Today there came in through the busiest vault in the bazaar a long caravan of 100 mules of Baghdad, marching in line rhythmically to the boom of two huge iron bells swinging under the belly of the foremost. Bells nearly two feet high, with wooden clappers, introducing 100 mule-loads of the woven shawls and wine-coloured carpets of Bokhara! Such wealth is intoxicating: and intoxicated I went and bought the bells. 'You hear them', said the mukari, 'a half-hour before the sight.' And I marched in triumph home, making the sound of a caravan from Baghdad: 'Oah, Oah', and the crowd parted in the ways before me. Why are you staying in Beyrout? Come up!' (pp. 45-6)
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