As the extraordinary series of events has unfolded across the Arab world this spring, and rebellion and war stretch across the land and the airwaves, echoes of this conflict reverberate all the way to a tiny cottage in a quiet corner of the English countryside.
The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.(1)
As the extraordinary series of events has unfolded across the Arab world this spring, and rebellion and war stretch across the land and the airwaves, echoes of this conflict reverberate all the way to a tiny cottage in a quiet corner of the English countryside. Where T E Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he had become known, sought to escape from the intense scrutiny of celebrity.
And visiting Clouds Hill you see the purest expression of the mind of a single, remarkable individual. Entering the tiny hallway, eyes adjusting to the darkness, you are immediately aware of just how small the cottage is. But also of a ‘rightness’; that everything has been considered and is exactly as it needs to be.
Lawrence first visited the Middle East in the summer of 1909 whilst still a student at Jesus College, Oxford. He set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman Syria, during which he covered in the region of 1,000 miles (1600km). The research fed into his thesis on The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture, for which he gained a First in Modern History.
He returned to the Middle East in December 1911 to join the British Museum’s excavations at Carcamesh in Northern Syria, and was still there in 1914 at the outbreak of war when, in October, he was commissioned and posted to Cairo, joining the Intelligence Staff of the GOC (General Officer Commanding) Middle East.
Dreamer of the day
But Lawrence was no ordinary scholar turned soldier. He was the kind of person for whom knowledge that the earth was round only drew them more fixedly in pursuit of other horizons, other limits to test. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, perhaps the most immediately likable of that breed of Englishman prepared to go to almost any lengths to avoid a comfortable life as a stockbroker, put it this way:
Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised… If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use ?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg. (2)
From the Introduction, The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Written about the extreme cold and privations suffered on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13), and particularly the journey to Cape Crozier in 1911 to secure an un-hatched Emperor penguin egg – the ‘worst journey’ of the book’s title – Cherry-Garrard’s words (which, incidentally, date from about the same time as Lawrence’s first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom) have a strikingly similar note to those of Lawrence, the self-styled ‘dreamer of the day,’ the ‘dangerous man’ determined to devise a bad time all of his own:
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. (3)
Lawrence grasped the opportunity to test himself in the combined inferno of the desert and war:
Some of the evil in my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven….
Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them, and for strangers terrible: a death in life. … We no doubt enjoyed more the rare moments of peace and forgetfulness; but I remember more the agony, the terrors, and the mistakes.(4)
Selves conversing in the void
Lawrence was a central player in the kind of conflict that, in a Le Carre novel, might be described as a dirty little sideshow, in which betrayal is planned from the start. Appointed liaison Officer in the campaign, conceived by the Arab Bureau, of encouraging internal insurgency by the indigenous Arab tribes against their Turkish rulers, Lawrence fought with Arab irregulars under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the forces of the Ottoman Empire.
But in contrast to the Arab forces, who were fighting for independence and freedom from colonial rule, the British interest lay in tying up Turkish troops in minor conflicts across the Arab region. The contradiction between these two positions caused Lawrence intense anguish:
The Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. … It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war, these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured … that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims.(5)
In his adoption of Arab costume and the life of a Bedouin tribesman, Lawrence was widely regarded as having gone native in spectacular fashion. But, as the Commander, Allenby wrote, he kept to the British line:
“I gave him (Lawrence) a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign.”(6) but this duality threatened to fatally undermine his sense of identity:
In my case, the efforts for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only… Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments. (7)
This dislocation and fragmention of the self came to a climax in Deraa.
Deraa then, as now, was a key strategic town on the road to Damsacus. On a spying mission in the town Lawrence was apprehended and taken to the Turkish Governor. On rebuffing the Governor’s sexual advances, Lawrence was subjected to a brutal beating of such extremity that afterwards the Governor ‘rejected me in haste, as a thing too torn and bloody for his bed.’
Lawrence writes that they beat him until he was ‘completely broken’, and experienced ‘a gradual cracking apart of my whole being by some too-great force whose waves rolled up my spine till they were pent within my brain, to clash terribly together’ until, ‘at last when I was completely broken they seemed satisfied.’ The chapter concludes with the words: ‘in Deraa that night the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.’ (8)
Details surrounding this incident are left frustratingly vague in his account in Seven Pillars of Wisdom; it is at Cloud’s Hill that the conversation between the two selves of which Lawrence speaks is given concrete expression.
In the desert Lawrence lived a life stripped to the essentials. At Clouds Hill we see this applied as an aesthetic. No paint, plaster or wallpaper; no kitchen or lavatory. Just the essentials as interpreted by a single, highly individual mind: panelling, bookshelves, bare wood and undyed leather. Somewhere to rest; somewhere to read; somewhere to listen to music. Clouds hill is an opportunity to see Lawrence. Unmediated.
‘I like Lawrence, though he is of course odd and alarming.’(9)
Returning to England after the campaign Lawrence attracted huge attention – thanks in no small part to the sensationalised reportage of American war correspondent Lowell Thomas, who was quick to spot the journalistic potential of Lawrence in full Arab dress, and went on to tour an ‘illustrated travelogue’ of Lawrence’s exploits in the desert for many years after the war.
But whilst press and public mobbed him and competed to proclaim him a hero, Lawrence threw himself into trying to make good on his commitment to gain a fair settlement of the Arab claims, and to writing his account of the war.
Attached to the Foreign Office, he attended the Paris Peace Conference as part of Faisal’s delegation, and the Cairo Conference in 1922, at which he worked as advisor to Winston Churchill and successfully argued for self-government in Iraq and Jordan – which he considered one of his greatest achievements. That summer of 1922 he also completed the ‘Oxford text’ of Seven Pillars, printed in a small edition on a press in Oxford. This was the second draft of the book; he had lost most of the first draft whilst changing trains at Reading Station.
This concentrated period of work brought him to the verge of a nervous breakdown, and he did what many have done before and since – he headed for the country where he attempted to recover his shattered sense of identity and recreate himself as a man of letters.
After an abortive attempt to enlist in the RAF under the pseudonym of J H Ross, Lawrence enlisted in the Tank Corps at Bovington in Dorset, using the name T E Shaw. And in order to find a quiet place away from the base to work on a subscribers edition of Seven Pillars, he rented Clouds Hill, an unoccupied labourers’ cottage in a severe state of dilapidation, about a mile from the base.
These fragments I have shored against my ruin (10)
Raising funds by selling the gold dagger made for him in Mecca, Lawrence carried out essential structural repairs to keep the cottage intact, and installed a roof light to create a room upstairs for writing, listening to music and receiving visitors – an early incarnation of what is now the music room:
.. the cottage is alone in a dip in the moor, very quiet, very lonely, very bare . . . Furnished with a bed, a bicycle, three chairs, 100 books, a gramophone of parts, a table. … No food, except what a grocer and the camp shops and canteens provide. Milk. Wood fuel for the picking up. I don’t sleep here, but come out at 4.30 p.m. till 9 p.m. nearly every evening, and dream, or write or read by the fire, or play Beethoven or Mozart to myself on the box. (11)
In the summer of 1925 he succeeded in re-joining the RAF, which put Clouds Hill largely out of reach. Nevertheless he decided to buy the cottage, and in his absence it was looked after first by Private Palmer, and then Sergeant Knowles, both from Bovington. At Lawrence’s instruction, Knowles put the cottage in some form of shape for letting. He wrote to Palmer in March 1927 that ‘Knowles … is now engaged in converting Clouds Hill to a Christian way of living, with a view to letting it. Alas! However, or if ever, things change, and I’m able to get back and free… I’ll enlist your help, and we will go down some weekend with axes, and re-paganise the place.’
This is how the visitor finds Clouds Hill today. Every detail precisely considered, and often designed, by Lawrence, from the inscription, in Greek, in the stone pediment over the front door – ‘Don’t worry’ – to the three glass bell jars upstairs in the ‘pantry’, lined with foil against the damp.
He removed the kitchen Knowles had installed downstairs and converted it into the book room, with the walls lined against the damp and bookshelves built to exact dimensions for his book collection. A bed covered in hide for reading, and a sleeping bag (one for him and one for a guest) for sleeping. To this he added an armchair chair and fender, constructed to his design and to suit his small frame, for warmth by the fire in winter. Finally, via ingenious plumbing, he added a bath – though no lavatory.
He added to the existing rhododendrons on the hill with different varieties to produce different shapes and colours, but rejected any idea of a garden or plants, giving away plants that his mother put in – ‘Clouds Hill is no place for tame flowers.’
‘Give me the luxuries and I will do without the essentials’
Clouds Hill combines the bareness and simplicity of the Bedouin tribesman with the fruits of Classical European civilisation – music, books and art. All furnishings are stripped back to essentials. Nothing is superfluous.
‘I have lavished money these last . . . months upon the cottage, adding a water-supply, a bath, a boiler, bookshelves, a bathing pool (a tiny one, but splashable into): all the luxuries of the earth. Also I have thrown out of it the bed, the cooking range: and ignored the lack of drains. Give me the luxuries and I will do without the essentials.’ (12)
Much of the money for renovating the cottage had come from sales of an abridged version of Seven Pillars, titled Revolt in the Desert, and a translation of Homer’s Odyssey for an American publisher. Lawrence wrote to Edward Garnett ‘In the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.’
Nonetheless, the restless man of action was not entirely banished. He continued racing his beloved Brougham motorcycle through the country lanes to and from Bovington and visiting friends, for example the group of writers and artists at Chaldon Herring (East Chaldon) of Theo and Llewelyn Powys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and others. Riding over on the Brougham he would time himself, each visit trying to beat his previous record.
Just days after the last addition to the cottage – the port hole in the guest room upstairs – Lawrence was killed in an accident riding his motorcycle between Clouds Hill and Bovington.
His funeral drew major figures in the political and military establishment, including Winston Churchill, to the nearby village of Moreton. If you are visiting Clouds Hill do make time to visit Moreton Church, just a short drive (or longish walk) away. There is also an excellent tea rooms in the village.
The church was hit by a (possibly jettisoned) bomb in 1940, demolishing all the stained glass. Following a fundraising effort new glazing was installed in the 1950s, featuring etched panels by Lawrence Whistler. It is astonishing.
Lawrence lies in the graveyard close by.
(1) T E Lawrence, from the Introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom (written whilst attending the Paris Peace Conference 1919)
(2) From the Introduction, The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard
(3) T E Lawrence, from the Introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom
(4) from Chapter 1, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
(5) from the Introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom
(6) General Sir Edmund Allenby, Commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force
(7) from Chapter 1, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
(8) Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter LXXX
(9) E.M. Forster to Alice Clara Forster 23.3.1924, M. Lago and P.N. Furbank, eds., Selected Letters of E.M. Forster, Vol. 2 (London, Collins, 1985) p. 50.
(10) T S Eliot, What The Thunder Said, The Waste Land
(11) Letter to A.E. Chambers 24.8.1924.
(12) Letter to T.B. Marson 21.12.1933.