Updated June 2012
T. E. Lawrence to Robert Graves
I have been - by lack of thought - guilty of a great fault in taste, and I am so sorry about it. Please believe it was neither conscious nor subconscious. When I told you that I might be short of money at Clouds Hill I had completely forgotten - as for years I have forgotten it - how, long ago, I was able to help you when you were in difficulties. I was stupidly thinking aloud. Long ago I found out what income I needed for retirement and set it aside, invested. The rest - what I had and what I made - I spent on friends and books and pictures and motor-bikes and joys of sorts. Five years ago I found I needed more, to spend on improving my cottage; so I did that Odyssey translation, and put in bath and heater of my own choosing and designing, always secure in the knowledge that the income was safe and intact... and then down goes the rate of interest and the income shrinks. It is enough to make a saint swear, for had I foreseen it, I would have reserved more. Now when I wanted to be at ease (I have a deep sense that my life, in the real sense, my Life is over) I have to make about £700 more.
It is very good of you of offer to share the job with me... but needless. I can easily make that. Easier still I could make ten times that; it's the stopping short that is skilful. I blame not circumstances but my own bad calculating. I pride myself on being knowing and did not foresee the Treasury-induced spell of cheap money. Another eight or nine years and the rates will bound up. Meanwhile my peace must be mixed with effort. Damn. Claudius, I think, has put you safe now for a while. Your next book will be bought on the merits of your last, always supposing it is not poetry! That is a comfortable state... but less comfortable than mine, for I am safe now, and only need another slight effort to be comfortable for all time. You may not ever look to cease to work, wholly. If you hear that I have done something else, you will be able to put the motive to it. I shall be rounding off my capital. You will be a reserve only if ever I get meshed (like you at Boar's Hill) and unable to help myself; which will be bad management, with my notoriety to help me.
New page, new subject. I saw Alexander Korda last month. I had not taken seriously the rumours that he meant to make a film of me, but they were persistent, so at last I asked for a meeting and explained that I was inflexibly opposed to the whole notion. He was most decent and understanding - it surprised me in a film director - and has agreed to put it off till I die or welcome it. Is it age coming on, or what? But I loathe the notion of being celluloided. My rare visits to cinemas always deepen in me a sense of their superficial falsity... vulgarity, I would have said, only I like the vulgarity that means common man, and the badness of films seems to me like an edited and below-the-belt speciousness. Yet the new-theatres, as they call them (little cinemas here and there that present fact, photographed and current fact only), delight me. The camera seems wholly in place as journalism: but when it tries to re-create it boobs and sets my teeth on edge. So there won't be a film of me. Korda is like an oil-company which has drilled often and found two or three gushers, and has prudently invested some of its proceeds in buying options over more sites. Some he may develop and others not. Oil is a transient business.
Money explained, films considered. Let us now pass to the epitaph.
Yes, Hogarth did the morgue-men a first sketch of me in 1920, and they are right to overhaul their stocks. [One line omitted] I won't touch it myself, but if you do, don't give too much importance to what I did in Arabia during the war. I feel that the Middle Eastern settlement put through by Winston Churchill and Young and me in 1921 (which stands in every particular... if only the other Peace Treaties did!) should weigh more than fighting. And I feel too that this settlement should weigh less than my life since 1922, for the conquest of the last element, the air, seems to me the only major task of our generation; and I have convinced myself that progress to-day is made not by the single genius, but by the common effort. To me it is the multitude of rough transport drivers, filling all the roads of England every night, who make this the mechanical age. And it is the airmen, the mechanics, who are overcoming the air, not the Mollisons and Orlebars. The genius raids, but the common people occupy and possess. Wherefore I stayed in the ranks and served to the best of my ability, much influencing my fellow airmen towards a pride in themselves and their inarticulate duty. I tried to make them see - with some success.
That for eight years, and now for the last four I have been so curiously fortunate as to share in a little revolution we have made in boat design. People have thought we were at finality there, for since 1850 ships have merely got bigger. When I went into R.A.F. boats in 1929, every type was an Admiralty design. All were round-bottomed, derived from the first hollow tree, with only a fin, called a keel, to delay their rolling about and over. They progressed by pushing their own bulk of water aside. Now (1935) not one type of R.A.F. boat in production is naval... We have found, chosen, selected or derived our own sorts: they have (power for power) three times the speed of their predecessors, less weight, less cost, more room, more safety, more seaworthiness. As their speed increases, they rise out of the water and run over its face. They cannot roll, nor pitch, having no pendulum nor period, but a subtly modelled planning bottom and sharp edges.
Now I do not claim to have made these boats. They have grown out of joint experience, skill and imaginations of many men. But I can (secretly) feel that they owe to me their opportunity and their acceptance. The pundits met them with a fierce hostility: all the R.A.F. sailors, and all the Navy, said that they would break, sink, wear out, be unmanageable. To-day we are advising the War Office in refitting the coast defences entirely with boats of our model, and the Admiralty has specified them for the modernised battleships: while the Germans, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese Governments have adopted them! In inventing them we have had to make new engines, new auxiliaries, use new timbers, new metals, new materials. It has been five years of intense and co-ordinated progress. Nothing now hinders the application of our design to big ships - except the conservatism of man, of course. Patience. It cannot be stopped now.
All this boasting is not to glorify myself, but to explain; and here enters my last subject for this letter, your strictures upon the changes I have made in myself since the time we felt so much together at Oxford. You're quite right about the change. I was then trying to write; to be perhaps an artist (for the Seven Pillars had pretensions towards design, and was written with great pains as prose) or to be at least cerebral. My head was aiming to create intangible things. That's not well put: all creation is tangible. What I was trying to do, I suppose, was to carry a superstructure of ideas upon or above anything I made.
Well, I failed in that. By measuring myself against such people as yourself and Augustus John, I could feel that I was not made out of the same stuff. Artists excite and attract me; seduce me, from what I am. Almost I could be an artist, but there is a core that puts on the brake. If I knew what it was I could tell you, or become one of you. Only I can't.
So I changed direction, right, and went into the R.A.F. after straightening out that Eastern tangle with Winston, a duty that fell to me, I having been partly the cause of the tangle. How well the Middle East has done: it, more than any part of the world, has gained from that war.
However, as I said, I went into the R.A.F. to serve a mechanical purpose, not as leader but as a cog of the machine. The key-word, I think, is machine. I have been mechanical since, and a good mechanic, for my self-training to become an artist has greatly widened my field of view. I leave it to others to say whether I chose well or not: one of the benefits of being part of the machine is that one learns that one doesn't matter!
One thing more. You remember my writing to you when I first went into the R.A.F. that it was the nearest modern equivalent of going into a monastery in the Middle Ages. That was right in more than one sense. Being a mechanic cuts one off from all real communication with women. There are no women in the machines, in any machine. No woman, I believe, can understand a mechanic's happiness in serving his bits and pieces.
All this reads like a paragraph of D.H.L., my step-namesake. I do not think for a moment that I have got it right, but I hope from it your sense of character will show you the difference between your view of me and mine. Laura saw me too late, after I had changed direction. She is, was, absolutely right to avoid communication with me. There are no faults on either side, but common sense, the recognition of a difficulty too arduous to be worth the effort of surmounting, when there are so many other more rewarding activities within reach. Don't worry or regret desire me to change the face of nature. We are lucky to have proportion and toleration to pad our bones.
What a whale of a letter. Five minutes' talk would have been so much more fun!
|Source:||B:RG 180-84, extract in DG 851-4|
|Last revised:||15 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