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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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Clearly, in the original, Lawrence does not use the words quoted by Asher in the way that Asher wishes his readers to believe. Lawrence is not giving Graves general guidance about how to lie successfully; he is talking about a specific issue where there is something that he feels he must conceal from the general public.
   We now know from enemy records that the northern raid definitely took place (something that, in his original work, Mousa did not accept). We also know that Lawrence had a major personal factor to hide: the fact that his journey north had been deliberately suicidal. Lawrence had every right to conceal this, and to fob Graves off, for the purposes of his popular biography, in whatever way he could. Verdict: this evidence is irrelevant, and used here badly out of context. It does not advance Asher's case at all.

35/1/1-3

7. "Working with the Arabs during the war, he would admit that he did not tell the whole truth either to them or to his British masters, but designed a version of reality which suited himself." 

TEL says this, I think, on more than one occasion in Seven Pillars. The point is that he was in a quite extraordinary position, vis-à-vis both the British HQ and the Arabs. Clearly, he could not tell Feisal the whole truth - for example, about Allenby's periods of weakness. That would have destroyed Arab confidence in the British, and quite possibly triggered the collapse of the Arab campaign. Likewise, he had to prevent the British from losing faith in the Arabs. To say that Lawrence "designed a version of reality which suited himself" is to set aside the delicacy of Lawrence's position. In such situations professional diplomats habitually conceal the truth. Lawrence had a reasoned view about what might be achieved, given the means and the opportunity. That achievement was in the interests of both the British and the Arabs. With consummate skill, he had managed to gain the confidence not only of the British, which was to be expected, but also of the Arabs. For that reason he was an extremely useful liaison officer to all parties. To give each side's secrets to the other would have destroyed that position of trust, rendering him useless. Hogarth, at least, would have understood that. The 'moral' position that Asher is, by implication, taking here may appear to be virtuous, but it is as impractical as high-minded demands for 'open agreements openly arrived at' in international diplomacy. Verdict: whatever you choose to call this, it is not evidence of self-aggrandising dishonesty on Lawrence's part. It is therefore irrelevant to Asher's case.

35/1/4-5 8. "He would write that he himself often could not tell where the 'leg-pulling; began or ended" 

Asher gives no source, but this is from the final paragraph of the 'Myself' chapter in Seven Pillars (Chapter C111). It is not a celebration of wholesale dishonesty, but a comment on the 'little wanton problems of conduct' that Lawrence found himself inflicting on others in conversation, to observe their reaction. Lawrence calls it pettiness, and condemns himself roundly, concluding: 'Indeed, the truth was I did not like the "myself" I could hear and see.' Verdict: the context shows that this is irrelevant to the case Asher is making. Question: Why does Asher give no source reference? Next page




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