On Saturday, to treat myself after Total Film’ s latest godawful deadline, I pootled along to the Imperial War Museum to check out their current Lawrence of Arabia exhibition. I’ve been interested in TE Lawrence since I was a teenager, reading book after book on the enigmatic man once described as the “uncrowned King of Arabia” (a title he no doubt thought was embarrassing, flippant and inaccurate, but that’s the media for you). I’ve never considered myself an expert – and, with my rotten memory, I’m always forgetting important facts and figures – but it wasn’t until I was in the exhibition that I realised that yes, actually, I must be one after all. I knew his entire life story already, barely had to read any of the cards highlighting each segment of his story and was able to pick up on important facts the exhibition had missed.
Although, seeing as most of those omitted facts focused on his private life, there’s a chance the exhibition missed them deliberately. They probably didn’t want to mention Lawrence’s alleged homosexuality, his masochism or his misogyny; the fact that his rape at the hands of a Turk general in the town of Dera’a might not have happened or that, in later years, he paid a man called Bruce to thrash him regularly. Not that any of this makes Lawrence less of an icon – if anything, it makes him more interesting – but when a man has so many sides to his personality it seems odd to present him in only one dimension in such a huge exhibition.
And it really was huge. I’m still reeling from the shock of seeing Lawrence’s desert clothes; the third draft of his incredible book, Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (the first draft was stolen from him at Reading Station as he changed trains; he burnt the second); copies of Pillars that belonged to George V and Winston Churchill; a shopping list for his Arabian army, written out in Lawrence’s tiny, precise script, which proved that they drank a helluva lot of coffee; an enormous, jagged camel saddle made of thick wood that makes you wince for those poor ships of the desert… and the item that really sent a shiver down my spine: the bike Lawrence was riding when he died in 1935. Completely restored, it’s a shiny and beautiful monster. You can understand why he loved it, but the instrument of his death on display amidst so much of his life… well, it was a bit creepy. There were oak leaves scattered nearby, taken from the tree planted by the scene of the accident in Lawrence’s memory. A nice touch.
I came away from the exhibition feeling overwhelmed and have since signed up for a one-day TE Lawrence symposium on 11 March: lectures, discussions, talks… sounds wonderful. I’ll be intrigued to see who attends. Will there be reams of students or hordes of fusty old men? I was the youngest person in the room at the exhibition (which is saying something, if you bear in mind that I’m 34), although the comments book I signed afterwards had entries from visitors as far afield as Kyoto, Venice and Iraq. Lawrence might have been gone for 70 years but he’s still drawing in the crowds.
After the exhibition I met up with Old Man Withers, aka Simon Withers, SFX‘s Production Editor, who I haven’t seen in around a year. We had a really nice chat and wandered around London for a while, avoiding a noisy demonstration in Trafalgar Square against “Islamaphobia” (though they had a point) and partaking of my very first caramel latte. Mmmm. Bet they never had them in Lawrence’s day…