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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

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The second account that Asher cites was written almost exactly a month later, in a letter to his family of 20 March 1912 (HL pp 196-8). Here, the incident is more a matter-of-fact -- little more than a space-filler: "You will like my camel bells: I met a camel caravan swinging down the spice market in Aleppo to the booming of two huge iron cylinders under the belly of the foremost: and I stopped the line, and bought the bells, and walked back to the hotel making a noise like a caravan from Baghdad Oah Oah, and the people parted in the narrow ways to give me passage. And now we call the workmen out of bed with them." (p. 198)
   One or two days earlier Lawrence had written a third account, not cited by Asher, which I will nevertheless include here. This is in a letter to E. T. Leeds dated 18 March 1912 but perhaps written on 19 March (Letters to E. T. Leeds pp. 39-41). Lawrence's letters to Leeds from Carchemish were intended to be entertaining, and were probably written not only for Leeds himself but also for the benefit of Ashomlean colleagues such as C. F. Bell who knew Lawrence, Hogarth, and Woolley. 
   Here, Lawrence is undoubtedly the raconteur: "We are living in tents, and a gale is just now blowing over us, making my peal of bells ring chimes continually: By the way, did I tell you of the bells? How in the spice-bazaar of Aleppo there came down, stepping solemnly, a long line of camels from Baghdad, marching to the booming of two huge iron bells slung under the belly of the foremost: such mighty bells, nearly two feet high, each with a little bell inside it. And I stopped the caravan, and bought the bells, and walked back to the hotel, making a noise like a caravan from Baghdad, 'Oah Oah', and the crowds in the narrow places divided to give me room. Well, now we have hung those bells on a sort of gallows outside the tent, and call the workmen for miles with them: and last night as they rang out in the wind, they woke Woolley, and kept him from sleep for five hours, rejoicing in their resonance and depth of tone." (p. 40) 
   Asher, as noted, only uses two of these letters. His Flecker source-reference is acceptable (although technically it should be to pp. 45-6, and not just p. 45). However, the letter has been severely edited in order to strip away every quality except the outline facts. Asher indicates only three of his five omissions, and has also carelessly changed "marched in triumph home" to "marched home triumphant". His un-noted omissions and changes are shown here in square brackets: "Today there came [in] through the [busiest vault in the] bazaar a long caravan of 100 mules of Baghdad, marching . . . to the boom of two huge iron bells swinging under the belly of the foremost . . . I went and bought the bells . . . And I marched home triumphant [in triumph home] making the sound of a caravan from Baghdad . . ." (Asher p. 34). 
   The source-reference for the second quote used by Asher is also, technically, incorrect: the letter is from Lawrence to his entire family, and not solely to his mother. Other writers have made the same error in references to Home Letters, but it is particularly regrettable in this biography which places so much weight on the importance of Sarah Lawrence in TEL's life. Next page




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