T. E. Lawrence to John Buchan
I have to report progress: the first seven years of my engagement in the service are nearly ended. So I have applied to be allowed to extend for five years more: or rather, to convert into active years the five that I would normally have passed in the reserve. Trenchard agreed to this, as one of his last acts. So I am 'booked' till 1935. I wanted you to know that I'm making the best use I can of the gift you led Mr. Baldwin into giving me in 1925. Will you tell him, if ever you see him at leisure, that I'm still thanking him, whenever I think of it? The R.A.F. still suits me all over, as a home: quaint, that is, for it's probably not everyone's prescription. However, there it is. I feel Trenchard's going, almost as a personal loss. There was a breadth and honesty, and devotion, about him that made one accept his headship as according to the course of nature. I do not think that any other man in the three kingdoms has had his job - and privilege - of making, from the first man upward, a whole new arm. His work has been very good. The R.A.F. hasn't yet found the way out between the rocks of discipline and individual technical intelligence - but it goes forward, and is very hopeful. Its salvation lies in its own heads, to work out internally. It is something new, in services: and I find it fascinating to watch its infant years. Some of it I put on paper, as notes on a recruit's life in the (quite misdirected and harmful) Depot at Uxbridge: about 1922 that was. Trenchard read it lately, when I made a gift of the manuscript (not to be published, of course) to Edward Garnett: and he wasn't pleased about it. But of course it is ancient history. If ever you are at a loose end for reading matter, and feel strong enough for a crabbed manuscript, then borrow it off E.G. (you probably know him: critic, and midwife of many good writers) and have a smile at the adventures of a jelly-fish among sergeant-majors. The poor fish laid 80,000 words in his tribulation!
On the whole, though, you had probably better not. For the last weeks I have been reading, inch by inch, your Montrose: keeping it in the Wireless Cabin, which lies between our barracks and our offices, and from which I have to collect 'in' signals several times a day. I used to take ten minutes off each time, for Montrose, which came as a revelation to me.
I had not suspected, from my desultory reading of the Civil War, that such a man then existed. The style of his last words on the gallows! and those profound memoranda on political science. I've tried to think back for other military commanders who could write like that, and I'm bothered if I can think of one: Xenophon was only a Walter Long kind of a sportsman, beside him, and J. Caesar too abstract. Your man stands out, head and shoulders.
He has been unlucky in waiting three hundred years for a real biographer: but he must be warmly happy, now, if anything of his personality can still feel. You unwrap him so skilfully, without ever getting, yourself, in our way. The long careful setting of the scene - first-rate history, incidentally, and tingling with life, as if you'd seen it - and on top of that the swift and beautifully-balanced course of action. Oh, it's a very fine thing.
I'm glad you allow common-sense to interpret the documents. A fetish of the last-school-but-one was to believe every document. As one who has had the making of original historical records I know how weak and partial and fallible they are. Fortunately you have been a man of affairs, and so are not to be taken in, like a scholar pure.
There is great labour behind the book, which yet reads easily, for your digestion has been able to cope with all the stony facts. Your small characters (often only a word long) brighten the whole thing. Incidentally, you have been honest to see the fineness of Cromwell, under the homespun. Argyll is unforgettable: Huntly, too: and Hurry. Alasdair less so. He didn't Colkitto enough to live in my reading. I wonder why? Didn't you want him to clash with Montrose, in prowess? Also you left out Rupert - I mean, you mention him, well enough, but you do not make him walk and talk, whereas you bring to life Elizabeth and the Palatine circle. I suppose you were concentrating your high lights. Charles, the king, is finely drawn, as a shadow on the wall of his contemporaries. I suppose you know the fineness of your writing? The way you line in the execution of the King is marvellous. Montrose would have envied you those two or three sentences, and the full-stop and paragraph, after them. [18 lines omitted]
As I read, I have a habit of keeping a sheet of paper in my page, and if the book is worth it, writing down the goods and bads which strike me. Montrose's sheet was very full, of bits which had given me pleasure: but it's no use my handing these on to their maker.
How strangely like the dying verses of Montrose are to Raleigh's 'Blood shall be my body's balmer' (I quote from memory, but I expect you know the poem).
Too long, this letter. But I couldn't help telling you of the rare pleasure your book has given me. Its dignity, its exceeding gracefulness, its care for exactness, and the punctilio of your manners, fit its subject and period like a glove. You've put a very great man on a pedestal. I like it streets better than anything else of yours.
T E Shaw.
|Last revised:||20 January 2006|
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset