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T. E. Lawrence, Foreword to Arabia Felix, by Bertram Thomas

(London, Jonathan Cape, 1932, pp. xv-xviii)


Thomas shocked me when he asked for a foreword to his great journey-book, not because introductions put me off (he may as reasonably enjoy them, perhaps) but because he had recourse to me. It took some while to think out so strange a lapse.

You see, in my day there were real Arabian veterans. Upon each return from the East I would repair to Doughty, a looming giant, white with eighty years, headed and bearded like some renaissance Isaiah. Doughty seemed a past world, in himself; and after him I would visit Wilfrid Blunt. An Arab mare drew Blunt's visitors deep within a Sussex wood to his quarried house, stone-flagged and hung with Morris tapestries. There in a great chair he sat, prepared for me like a careless work of art in well-worn Arab robes, his chiselled face framed in silvered, curling hair. Doughty's voice was a caress, his nature sweetness. Blunt was a fire yet flickering over the ashes of old fury.

Such were my Master Arabians, men of forty, fifty years ago. Hogarth and Gertrude Bell, by twenty years of patient study, had won some reputation, too; and there were promising young officers, Shakespear and Leachman, with a political, Wyman Bury, beginning well. To aspire Arabian-wise, then, was no light, quick ambition.

They are all gone, those great ones. The two poets were full of years and in high honour. Naturally they died. The war burdened Hogarth and Gertrude Bell with political responsibilities. They gave themselves wholly, saw their work complete and then passed. The three younger men died of their duty, directly; and that is why Thomas must come down to me.

I suppose no new Sixth Former can help feeling how much his year falls short of the great fellows there when he joined the school. But can the sorry little crowd of us to-day be in the tradition, even ? I fear not. Of course the mere wishing to be an Arabian betrays the roots of a quirk; but our predecessors' was a larger day, in which the seeing Arabia was an end in itself. They just wrote a wander-book and the great peninsula made their prose significant. (Incidentally, the readable Arabian books are all in English, bar one; Jews, Swiss, Irishmen and Whatnots having conspired to help the Englishmen write them. There are some German books of too-sober learning and one Dutch.) Its deserts cleaned or enriched Doughty's pen and Palgrave's, Burckhardt's and Blunt's, helped Raunkiaer with his Kuweit, Burton and Wavell in their pilgrimages, and Bury amongst his sun-struck Yemeni hamlets.

Our feebler selves dare not be Arabians for Arabia’s sake - none of us save Rutter, I think, and how good, how classical, his book! The rest must frame excuses for travelling. One will fix latitudes, the silly things, another collect plants or insects (not to eat, but to bring home), a third make war, which is coals to Newcastle. We fritter our allegiances and loyalties

Inevitable, of course, that these impurities should come. As pools shrink they stench. Raleigh could hearten my ancestor - 'Cozen, we know but the hand's-breadth of our world' - but since him Arctic and Antarctic, the wastes of Asia and Africa, the forests of America have yielded their secrets. Last year I could have retorted - 'There is but a hand's-breadth we do not know' - thinking of that virgin Rub' al Khali, the last unwritten plot of earth big enough for a sizable man's turning in twice or thrice about, before he couches. However, only these few paragraphs of mine now stand between appetite and the tale of its conquest. To-day we know the whole earth. Would-be wandering youth will go unsatisfied till a winged generation lands on the next planet.

Few men are able to close an epoch. We cannot know the first man who walked the inviolate earth for newness' sake: but Thomas is the last; and he did his journey in the antique way, by pain of his camel's legs, single-handed, at his own time and cost. He might have flown an aeroplane, sat in a car or rolled over in a tank. Instead he has snatched, at the twenty-third hour, feet's last victory and set us free. Everything having been once done in the slowest fashion we can concentrate upon speed, amplifying the eye of the tortoise by the hare's and the bird's. All honour to Thomas. The Royal Geographical Society itself forgives, bemedals its supersessor... also he has an O.B.E.

I will not say how much I like this book, lest Jonathan C. dig out the odd sentence for his blurb. Thomas let me read the draft, and I then did my best to comment usefully; once remarking that the tale was good enough for his journey - no faint judgment, set against what I think the finest thing in Arabian exploration. As he tells it, the achievement may read easy, because he is a master of every desert art. Here once more is the compleat Arabian traveller enshrined. Not twice but twenty times his tiniest touches set me remembering that wide land which I liked so much, twenty years ago, and hoped never to feel again. Thence, I suppose, the reason of my writing him this useless foreword; that and my understanding of his risks. Only by favour of a propitious season could this very rare individual, after infinite care and tact in preparation, have gambled his life upon the crowning solidarity which the desert owes to Ibn Saud, and won through. Thomas is as fortunate as deserving.

T.E.S.

Source: Arabia Felix, 1932
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 14 January 2006




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