When I was small my grandfather, who had been in the newly created Royal Air Force under Trenchard from about 1921, used to refer to the time when a stranger turned up at their barracks and they were told simply to treat him as a private, the lowest of the low, even though it was clear he was a man of considerable experience and education.
Private Ross ended up being exposed as T E Lawrence, creator of most the borders of the Middle East, and a figure who was already, even then, well on the way to being a legend in his own lifetime at Lawrence of Arabia. I was too young to quiz my granddad on what Ross had been like. The only thing I can recall him telling me now is that Lawrence struck him as aloof and standoffish.
Riffling through a bookshop in, of all places, Broadstairs last week, I came across The Mint (Penguin 1978), Lawrence’s own account of his time as this lowly, anonymous functionary who worked beside my grandfather. The big surprise is that the work is so foul mouthed. It isn’t hard to see how impossible it was to publish it in his lifetime. The profanities clog up each page, giving it an oddly contemporary feel.
The other point is just how little it really helps in explaining why such an accomplished linguist, strategist and diplomat should have sought this particular route of self-abnegation. Lawrence does explicitly refer to the repressed homosexuality of a lot of his colleagues in the barracks (something my grandfather, which his pre-enlightened views would have no doubt found horrifying). But on the whole he talks about a world of severe solitude at least enjoyed with some other bodies around you. His point made at the end of one chapter that carnality didn’t run easily beside the daily sight of others being dirty, being force marched, and generally being abused is a forceful one.
This is a grim world that he portrays – one of the outer circles of hell where all the inhabitants have some hidden horrors in their former lives they are running from – or at least think they are. It is a very much easier to read book than the interminable Seven Pillars of Wisdom which needs copious maps, name lists and chronologies to make much sense of, and never really lives up to the promise of its amazing title. in short, curt paragraphs, this brings a reader just a little closer to the enigma of this man who always seems to be fleeing something, even to the time he died going to fast on his motorbike in the mid 1930s in, of all places, Dorset.