Изображение к книге Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia

The Uncrowned King of Arabia

Michael Asher

With colour photographs by Mariantonietta Peru

‘The story I have to tell is one of the most splendid ever given to a man for telling.’

T. E. Lawrence to Vyvyan Richards

‘Il faut souffrir pour кtre content.’

T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw


‘Asher probably gets nearer to the truth about him than any of his previous biographers… By the end of this conscientiously researched book, the more impressive for Asher’s knowledge of the Bedu tribes, one is left wondering whether he regrets the journey he has made to prove his childhood hero to be somewhat flawed’ Simon Courtauld, Spectator

‘This excellent biography is in part a pilgrimage, performed by an admirer with a felicitous blend of reverence and wry scepticism and a marvellous ability to convey a sense of place’ Lawrence James, Literary Review

‘Asher has written a book about his childhood hero that is thoughtful and balanced… Moreover he reaches a conclusion about Lawrence that encompasses all other biographies, one that takes the ground out from under the never-ending controversy about probably the best-known Englishman, after Winston Churchill, this century’ Phillip Knightley, Mail on Sunday

‘This may well emerge as the best biography currently available’ Contemporary Review

‘He writes well and has new things to say – not an easy thing in this desperately overcrowded field. His life of “the Uncrowned King of Arabia” has the balance that Aldington’s polemic so lamentably failed to provide’ Robert Irwin, London Review of Books

‘Asher himself, a former SAS man, is one of the greatest living desert explorers. Unlike other biographers, he gains his insights not only through the dust of libraries, but through the dazzling light of the dunes… what follows is… a careful exploration, stripping away myth (while avoiding crass revisionism), gazing into the complexity beneath a legend’ Catherine Lockerbie, Scotsman


Michael Asher has served in the Parachute Regiment and the SAS, and studied English at the University of Leeds. He has made expeditions in many countries, always preferring to travel on foot or with animal transport. He lived for three years with a Bedu tribe totally unaffected by the outside world and, with his wife, Arabist and photographer Mariantonietta Peru, made the first west-east crossing of the Sahara on foot with camels – a distance of 4,500 miles – without technology or back-up of any kind. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has won both the Ness Award of the Royal Geographical Society and the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for Exploration. In 1997 he and Mariantonietta Peru presented the documentary In Search of Lawrencefor Channel 4, which was watched by 2.4 million people. Michael Asher has travelled a total of 16,000 miles by camel and is the author of eight books. Of these, Penguin also publish Shoot to Kill: A Soldier’s Journey through Violence, Thesiger: A Biographyand The Last of the Bedu: In Search of the Myth.


The Valley of the Moon

On a hot morning in April I climbed a hillside in the Wadi Rum, in Jordan, pausing occasionally to savour the breath of the desert wind which was peeling off the canyons I could see below me, gnarled in ancient orange light. They might have been remnants of some great Martian city warped and buckled by time – indeed, the Bedu of Rum call it the Valley of the Moon and believe that it crashed to earth from the stars. I was looking for a place known as Lawrence’s Spring, where T. E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – had bathed during his sojourns in the wadi in 1917. In my knapsack I carried nothing but an enamel mug and a battered copy of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom –a book I had read and re-read over many years. Today, though, it felt as heavy as a millstone. I had just left the tent of some Bedu of the Howaytat – descendants of tribesmen who had actually ridden with Lawrence on his raids – and what they had had to say astonished me. ‘Lawrence wasn’t the leader of the Arab Revolt,’ one of them told me. ‘He was just an engineer who knew how to blow up the railway – a dynamite man – that’s all he was!’ T. E. Lawrence had been a childhood hero for me as for thousands of others, and the words of these Arabs struck an almost blasphemous note in my ears.

It took me only twenty minutes to find what I was looking for: the spring lay in a V-shaped cleft where water plunged down from the head of Rum mountain, thousands of feet above, gurgling into a rock cistern from which ribbles of silver liquid streamed out through shallow pools and luxuriant growths of mint and wild thyme. I filled the mug with water from the cistern and tasted it – it was sweet and deliciously cool. Then I sat down in the shade of the rock wall, opened Seven Pillarsat the pre-marked page, and began to read: ‘… a rushing noise came from my left,’ Lawrence had written, ‘by a jutting bastion of a cliff over whose crimson face trailed long, falling runners of green leaves… on the rock bulge above were clean-cut Nabataean inscriptions and a sunk panel … and Arab scratchings, some of which were witnesses of forgotten migrations, but my attention was only for the splashing of water in an opening under the shadow of an overlying rock.’ 1I glanced up to find the Nabataean inscriptions and Arab tribal marks, exactly where Lawrence had seen them almost eighty years before. I took in the rushing of the water, the green, fragrant streamers of the wild herbs, and was momentarily stunned by the immediacy of the description. It was as if Lawrence of Arabia, who died eighteen years before I was born, was actually there beside me: I could almost sense his presence, as if he were peering over my shoulder. Glancing back at the page, I had the irrational but powerful feeling that he was speaking directly to me – that he had somehow knownthat I would follow in his footsteps, and had written this especially for me to read at this very moment, on this very day.

I have often experienced such transcendent visions while travelling in the desert. The vastness, the silence, the emptiness, induces a timeless feeling that is almost palpable: I have picked up prehistoric hand-axes lying on the surface, knowing that my hand was the first to touch them since they were discarded by their makers 100,000 years ago. Somehow, in the desert, the human spirit can leap over even such a gap as this. I was certain that Lawrence felt it too, for Seven Pillarsis permeated by a sense of spiritual awe which is, for me, the essence of human experience in the desert. T. E. Lawrence has affected my life with particular power. Without Lawrence I would probably not have become an Arabic speaker and a camel-rider, would not have covered 16,000 miles by camel, nor made the first ever west-east crossing of the Sahara – a distance of 4,500 miles – nor lived with a traditional Bedu tribe for three years. Without Lawrence I would probably not have served in the Special Air Service Regiment, simply because without Lawrence there would probably never have been an S A S. The words of my Howaytat hosts still burned in my head, and as I sat there I wondered, as so many others had wondered before me, who Lawrence had really been. To his adulators, everything he said or wrote is held up as true, while his critics have gone to extraordinary lengths to prove the reverse. Surely, I thought, eighty years on, it must be possible to attain a more reasonable, more honest, and more balanced view.

For two years, I tracked Lawrence from library to library and thousands of miles across the deserts of the Middle East, some of it by camel and on foot. Occasionally, in unexpected places – in a shaded nook of the Ashmolean, in the gate-tower of Azraq castle, on the ridge at Mudowwara – I felt his presence and heard his voice once more. Sometimes – when I rode across Sinai, or climbed the Hafira pass – I felt he was simply a few steps ahead, laughing at me, and that if I hurried fast I could catch him up. My quest for Lawrence acquired the character of a pilgrimage, and I came to see that biography was itself a religious act, a form of ancestor-worship, a re-affirmation, a re-invention of the past. I searched and read and travelled, but the moment I thought I had Lawrence in my grasp, he eluded me, laughing, and appeared somewhere else. In the end, I realized that there was no ‘real’ Lawrence at all. There was only my own reflection in a glass: Lawrence and I were two facing mirrors reflecting each other to eternity. At last, in those far-off deserts, I finally knew that the observer is part of his subject: and I understood that there could be no definitive Lawrence, but only an infinite number of Lawrentian images, like crystals in the eyes of his beholders. What I discovered was myLawrence and mytruth, for ‘truth’ is of more than one kind: the kind which remains static, and the kind which bends and shifts according to the individual and the time.


Изображение к книге Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia

THE WANDERER 1888 – 1916

1. Apparent Queen Unveiled Her Peerless Light

Early Childhood 1888–96

In 1879, a beautiful young woman called Sarah Lawrence alighted from a ferry at Dublin to begin the great adventure of her life. She was to be governess to the children of a wealthy gentleman called Thomas Chapman, who owned a mansion and a vast estate near Delvin in County Westmeath. Though just eighteen, Sarah was a woman of extraordinary dominance and ability, who had already overcome social barriers which many would have found insurmountable. Born the illegitimate daughter of a Tyneside shipwright named John Lawrence, deserted by her father and orphaned at nine by her own alcoholic mother, she had been brought up by an Episcopal minister and his wife in the highlands of Scotland and the Isle of Skye. In the late Victorian era, when illegitimacy attracted dire social stigma, when the classes were almost as fixed in their orbits as the celestial bodies, she was determined to leap the gulf between deprived working-class orphan and respectable, middle-class housewife. If she could not become a queen or a lady of the manor, she could at least use her power to captivate the heart of a nobleman – and that is precisely what she did.

Thomas Chapman, her employer, had been educated at Eton and Cirencester, the grandson of a baronet and the scion of seven generations of colonial English landlords who had originally been granted land in Kerry under the patronage of Sir Walter Ralegh. He had all the benefits of a privileged birth – education, breeding, a vast estate, an opulent mansion, horses, carriages and servants, and the wealth and leisure with which to enjoy them. Yet he was not a happy man. His wife, Edith, was a shrew who regarded any form of pleasure as sinful – ‘the kind of woman’, a neighbour later observed, ‘who was terribly pious, who would go to church all hours of the day, and then if a wretched kitchen maid got herself into trouble, would cast her out without a character’. 1Edith’s belligerence – which found its most extreme expression in attempts to convert the local Roman Catholic peasants to Protestantism – had become so painful that Thomas could hardly endure her company. When Sarah first appeared on his horizon he was the father of four young daughters and found himself approaching middle age, trapped in marriage to a woman he had long ago ceased to love. Morose, ineffectual, much given to drink, he had abandoned even the pleasures of hunting, shooting and fishing with which most country gentlemen filled their days. Into his dark universe the beautiful Miss Lawrence shot like a comet. She captivated him. As gay and energetic as Edith was ethereal and sour, she was an indomitable organizer. She came to his mansion – South Hill – to take charge of his daughters, but very soon she had taken over the running of the entire household. Thomas was seen to revive visibly whenever she entered the room. Presently – inevitably perhaps – squire and governess fell in love.

It was no rare thing, of course, for a bored Victorian gentleman to dally with an attractive servant-girl. But in an era when the British aristocracy still preserved an almost supernatural reputation, the idea of a gentleman actually forsaking his caste for a liaison with a minion was almost unthinkable. Sarah was aware that she walked a tightrope. She had nothing to offer but herself, and any young girl less determined, or less charismatic, might easily have ended up an unmarried young mother with recourse only to the workhouse – or worse. Her hold over Thomas tightened by degrees, however. In 1885 she became pregnant and left the post of governess at his mansion, to reappear as his mistress in a house in Dublin. It was here, in December 1885, that their first son, Montague Robert – Bob – was born. For a while, Thomas led a double life, commuting between his wife and daughters at South Hill and his mistress and son in Dublin, but soon prudish tongues wagged. The Chapmans’ butler once spied Miss Lawrence in a Dublin store and overheard her giving her name as ‘Mrs Chapman’. Curious, he followed her to her lodgings, where he saw Thomas Chapman emerge. He rushed to Edith with the news, and she erupted with fury. Thomas was obliged to choose between his privileged but emotionally barren marriage with her, and an unconventional, materially pinched, but fulfilling relationship with Sarah. In choosing Sarah, he made the most courageous decision of his life. Some time in 1887, he left his mansion with its unkempt park of green meadows and Irish yews, forsook his inheritance and his culture for ever, and joined Sarah in Dublin. At her insistence, perhaps, he asked his wife for a divorce. Edith stubbornly refused, and in defiance they decided to elope to Britain, where, together, they could make a new start. They left Ireland by ferry on an evening towards the end of 1887. When they stepped ashore in North Wales the next day, they were no longer Thomas Chapman, landowner, and Sarah Lawrence, governess, but ‘Mr and Mrs Thomas Lawrence’ – identities they would continue to assume successfully for the rest of their lives.

They could scarcely have chosen a more repressive moment in the entire history of British morals in which to commit themselves to a common-law marriage. Since the end of the relatively liberal eighteenth century, society had been growing ever more puritanical under the influence of the Evangelical Revival – a movement to which, ironically enough, Sarah belonged. The year 1885 marked the climax of the so-called ‘Purity Campaign’ – a crusade against lax sexual morals which had harnessed powerful Victorian terrors of social chaos and the degeneration of the ‘Imperial race’. Sex had become the great taboo, and society was so fanatically leery of anything smacking of bodies or nudity that polite people went so far as to lap the legs of grand pianos in cloth so that they should not be seen ‘naked’. The moral code was rigid. Chastity was the ideal, the family was sacrosanct, and ‘the fallen woman’ who had been ‘seduced’ was deserving of utter contempt. The pervading omertаon all things sexual led to such incredible ignorance at all levels of society that even a learned Oxford physician could be heard to declare that ‘nine out of ten women are indifferent to sex or actively dislike it; the tenth, who enjoys it, will always be a harlot’. 2The dark complement to Victorian prudishness, however, was captured with superb imagination by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel The Strange Case of Dr Fekyll and Mr Hyde,published in 1886. At the height of the purity campaign, London was actually an international centre of prostitution, where there were more brothels than schools. Many of these bordellos were frequented by respectable ‘gentlemen’, who, by day, were pillars of the establishment. Despite the strict ban on pre-marital sex, many middle- and upper-class boys had their first sexual experience with a female servant living in the same house.