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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to James Hanley


Plymouth

2.VII.31

Dear Hanley,

This has been a scramble, for the posts are slow, and I have therefore had it only yesterday and today: and by chance these have been hard days for us (much flying, and moorings to lay, and a good deal of heavy stuff to move) so that I am more asleep with tiredness than alive: yet it must go off tonight, to reach you before Sunday. They work us fairly hard, in the R.A.F. It is not like the peace-time army. We have enough to do, always, in fine weather.

Now about it. I'm not a reviewer, and my notions of a book take time, like muddy water, to settle down and clarify. It is hot writing, like all of yours. It goes rather higher and further, in Fr Hooley's long soliloquy: there is a real thought in that, and the torrent of idea flows well and brilliantly. This seems to me bigger than any other of your writing I have yet seen. But it is unfinished, and how plain and poor the Venus of Melos would seem, with her arms! Work that is not ended is so hard to judge: but you should take it as a good sign that I badly want to read more of it - all there is.

You must work very fast: yet your writing is all good, clear and fitting, and when necessary beautiful. Yet all your own. You have been delivered from the cliché: if the 'viols' on page 10 are real. I heard the Dolmetsch crowd once playing what they called viols, and thought them pretty foul. Also your cataracts puzzled me. There were three of them, quite close together, once as a verb, once as an adjective and once a noun. I fancy you overdid 'em. Otherwise your writing is just a transparent medium, through which what you want to say slips invisibly and silently into my mind. I like that: it seems to me the essence of style.

I don't find the development of Sheila Moynihan as yet fulfils your MS. note above the title. Priests - yes. Innocence - yes: grasping greedy - fathers, rather than mothers, so far. Poor Mrs. M. was baby-racked, and couldn't care, surely? 'Cold-ice-cold and hungry English mistresses' - not yet: not in the first 130 pages! Something cold wouldn't be out of place, after the hotness you have given us.

Your character-drawing is superb, here and in Boy and in the Last Voyage, and Drift, and in the story of the two soldiers worrying their prisoner. You can drew characters as and when you please, with an almost blistering vividness.

Now a couple of notes on your last letter. Conditions go to make Sex - yes: I suppose so. I don't know much about ships: once I spent a month on the lower deck of a Q. boat. There was plenty of flesh talked about and dreamed about, and to see, too: only what was seen wasn't what was dreamed about, I think. Anyway there wasn't much done about it. And I've lived in barracks, now, for nine years: preferring the plain man to the elaborated man. I find them forth-coming, honest, friendly and so comfortable. They do not pretend at all, and with them I have not to pretend. Sex, with them, is something you put on (and take off) with your walking-out dress: on Friday night, certainly: and if you are lucky Saturday afternoon, and most of Sunday. Work begins on Monday again, and is really important. I think that we are kinder to each other than your fellows: and less ignorant. Of course the R.A.F. is probably far milder than Liverpool or Glasgow. Service fellows don't fight, and enlist mainly for a refuge against the pain of making a living. So probably we do miss the 'larger life' you try to write about.

You need not bother about the Latin Quarter, or about schools and cliques. They will bother more about you: and if you don't pay attention they will fall to praising everything you do. Whereas praise is always a waste of time to hear, and harmful, in overdose. After years of it you look for it and credit it, and then are soiled. Take poor G.B.S. who must have been wonderful when he was your age, fifty years ago. Now he is pedestalled, and not so good as you are. Whereas 50 years hence you may be rotten.

Yeats, I think, suffered in his middle years from Lady Gregory and others: but his later poems have been wonderful. Of course he's a great poet, and alive. I think the second quality the better! 

I will not throw Boy away. I propose to read it more. It is good. I like it better than Sheila (while seeing that it is less) for subjective reasons, because I like men, and ships and Alexandria! 

I will try and find something not pimpish of me in Arab kit, for you. It was long ago, and a scabby episode in my life, I think. Politically the thing was so dirty that I grew to hate it all before it came out more-or-less honestly in the end. So when I see pictures of myself in Arab kit I get a little impatient - silly of me, for it was long ago, and did really happen.

Your sanity and general wholesomeness stick up out of your books a mile high: people with dirty patches in them skirt round and round them, alluding but never speaking right out. They are afraid of giving their spots away - and you can map them, just by outlining the blanks. Whereas God almighty, you leave nothing unsaid or undone, do you? I can't understand how you find brave men to publish you!

Yours

T.E. Shaw

Source: DG 727-729  
Checked: dn/  
Last revised: 6 February 2006  


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