When I first saw Lawrence of Arabia, there was one particular scene that caught my attention. Lawrence (aka Peter O’Toole) was making a point about mind over matter. He lit a match, and he held his finger within the flame. He gazed at it, bright blue eyes intent, face unmoving. Then, quietly, he said something to this effect: “It’s not that I don’t feel the pain. It’s that I don’t allow myself to show it.”
This was interesting. It spoke of a man with striking powers of concentration, self-belief and self-discipline – an ascetic. A man following the beat of his own drum, not that of others.
In civilian life Lawrence had been an archaeologist, but in 1915 he was sent to the desert to negotiate with the Arabs as a representative of British Intelligence – of the Great Game, of Empire. But he held on to his own conviction that the Arabs should be allowed to rule themselves, and played an important part after the war, as an adviser to Winston Churchill, in bringing about self-government in Iraq and Jordan.
I knew little more about him than this. But a few weeks ago, I went to Clouds Hill, his retreat in
Dorset, and there I learnt a great deal more.
Clouds Hill is a tiny white-washed cottage in a clearing in the woods near Bovington, where there is and was a Tank Corps camp. After his wartime activities, his post-war political campaigning on behalf of the Arabs, and the completion of his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom,
was exhausted. He knew that he was dangerously close to the brink. He decided
to enlist in the army as an anonymous private, believing – rightly, as it
turned out – that the routine of life in the Tank Corps would free his mind to
do what he most wanted to do: to write. He rented Clouds Hill, then a
semi-derelict labourer’s cottage, a mile away from Bovington Camp. Lawrence
Built in 1808, the cottage was in desperate need of essential repairs. To fund this work,
sold the gold dagger which had been made for him in during the war. He slept and ate at the
camp, so he wasn’t bothered about a bedroom or a kitchen, or even at that stage
a bathroom. All he wanted was a room where he could write, read and listen to
music. (A bit like Emma Hardy, whose rooms in nearby Mecca Dorchester
I wrote about last month. I don’t think he would have known Emma, but he did become
good friends with Thomas Hardy and his second wife, .) Florence
|The upstairs room|
So he had a large window put in upstairs which would give him enough light to write by. He had very definite ideas about interior design, and was influenced by the ideas of William Morris: there was a certain harking back to mediaeval, monastic simplicity. Objects were designed to fulfil a function, not simply for the sake of their appearance. Clouds Hill had no paint or wallpaper; it was decorated with wooden shelves and panelling and undyed leather hangings. There was no gas or electric light; nothing but candles. Friends – including E M Forster, George Bernard Shaw and his wife, and friends from the ranks - would come and talk, and listen to the music he played on his state-of-the-art phonograph, and be offered tea and tinned snacks.
Later, when he started to make good money from his writing, he did more to the cottage – but it never became a conventionally appointed house. He didn’t want a kitchen, but he did get the downstairs damp-proofed and created a room with a large, leather-covered day-bed next to the small window, for reading in the daytime. At night, he used a chair with an integral table and sconces for candlesticks, in which he sat by the fire, surrounded by his collection of hundreds of books, many of them given to him by their writers. He also contrived a system for bringing and heating water to the bathroom he put in also on the ground floor – ‘Give me the luxuries,’ he declared, ‘and I will do without the essentials.’ (Such as an indoor toilet!) He also bought new varieties of rhododendron to plant on the wooded slopes around the cottage, and built a thatched cottage for his beloved Brough motor cycle.
Sadly, he met his death on the Brough. In 1935 he was all set to retire from the army and live full-time at Clouds Hill; but riding back from the camp one day he had to swerve to avoid two boys on bicycles, and he came off. He died a few days later, and is buried in the churchyard at nearby Moreton. (The church there has the most beautiful engraved windows, created by Laurence Whistler – not to be missed.)
A quiet but insightful guide told us more about
background. There was scandal around the circumstances of his birth: his parents were not married. His father, a wealthy landowner from Lawrence Ireland, had abandoned his first wife and family
and come to live in
with the woman he loved, Sarah Junner, who had been his daughters’ governess.
They had five sons. They moved several times, trying to avoid the scandal which
would arise from the discovery of their irregular status, finally ending up in England Oxford, where
gained First Class Honours in Modern History. Then, turning to Ancient History,
he spent several years in Lawrence Carchemish in Syria, digging with Leonard Woolley, before
being posted to
in 1915. Cairo
Two of his brothers were killed in the war, his father died just afterwards in the flu epidemic, and then his mother and another brother went to
as missionaries. So, the
guide pointed out, when China
was going through his difficult years in the twenties, he was alone except for
one remaining brother. With no family, no roots to return to, Clouds Hill
became his shelter and his home. Lawrence
It’s a green, peaceful, quiet place: a place, as Yeats puts it, ‘where peace comes dropping slow.’ A world away from the desert and the fates of nations, and an insight into a remarkable and unusual man.