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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


Again, Asher's quotation is careless. Lawrence wrote: "I met a camel caravan swinging down the spice market'. Asher adds to this a clumsy and redundant "coming": 'I met a camel caravan coming swinging down the spice market'. He also omits two of Lawrence's commas in the second part of the extract, giving us: "and I stopped the line and bought the bells and walked back to the hotel".
   Beneath the two extracts, Asher delivers a self-righteous classroom homily: "The animals were either mules or camels, and at least one of the accounts is untrue: it is hardly likely that Lawrence could have forgotten in the space of a month what kind of animals they were. One might ask, 'What does it matter if they were mules or camels?' and this is precisely the point: whether they were mules or camels is supremely unimportant, and there is no conceivable motive for lying. One can only conclude that either Lawrence enjoyed misleading others, or he had a very uncommon conception of the truth." (p. 34) 
   In this last sentence, Asher employs a time-honoured rhetorical trick that is designed to pull wool over his readers' eyes. The trick is to set out a situation and then claim that there is only one possible deduction. In this way, alternative deductions are set aside without any consideration whatsoever. 
   Here, Asher claims that Lawrence had "no conceivable motive for lying", whereas there are in fact two interpretations which would put the change from "mules" to "camels" in a different light. These deserve proper consideration. 
   The first is this: Lawrence's letter to Flecker of 18 February was written from his hotel in Aleppo on the afternoon or evening of the day that he bought the bells. At that stage, he had not had the opportunity to make any enquiries about them. 
   By contrast, the two letters describing them as camel bells were written a month later, by which time many local people had seen and commented upon them.
   What if Lawrence had learned or concluded, during that month, that the bells were too big for a mule and were properly camel bells? That would leave him to make a pedantic explanation in his light-hearted letters to his family and Leeds. It would have been simpler to silently correct the mules to camels. This explanation seems quite probable. The bells were so big that they had to be slung under the belly of the mule (presumably from the saddle harness). They must have almost touched the ground. They are not only long but quite fat, as you can see from the c.1913 photograph of the front of the archaeologists' house at Carchemish that appears in Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography (the bells are seen hanging on a gantry to the right of the gateway). 
   Whatever these bells were designed for, it was surely not anything so small as a mule. Of course, they may not have been designed for an animal at all, but for some other purpose; but on the basis of size they seem much more appropriate to a camel than a mule. Locals looking at them would probably have reached that conclusion, whether or not they had actually seen such bells used on camels. Next page

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