T. E. As Critic and Friend
MY acquaintance with T. E. came about when I wrote to him in the spring of 1926, as Assistant Editor of the Spectator,, asking him to review some books on the Middle East. I addressed the letter to Colonel Lawrence, at All Souls, Oxford. He replied in a characteristically cryptic way: ‘I have n’t written anything since I enlisted, and hope most sincerely that I won’t, so long as I remain in the R. A. F. . . . T. E. S.’; and enclosed my original letter, so that I should be under no misapprehension as to the identity of the writer.
After further letters (all of which ho answered to Miss Yeats-Brown, insisting, in spite of my protests, that Literary Editors were always feminine) he agreed to write for the Spectator occasionally, on any subject except Arabia.
This was the beginning of a correspondence which lasted for four years. ‘Reviewing comes hard to me,’ he wrote. ‘ I can’t do it without trying my best: and if I’ve ever in my past written decently it was under dire command of some mastering need to put on paper a case, or a relation, or an explanation, of something I cared about. I don’t see that happening with literature and so I don’t expect you to like what I write. My last two employers cast me away very firmly, after a trial. I am expecting you to do the same.’ In the next few sentences (interesting, it seems to me, because they display so clearly the strange conflicts in his character) he discussed how his pseudonym of Colin Dale should be gradually revealed to the public. ‘I’d suggest the first five or six things worth publishing be restrained to their initials. If the miracle continues after that (surely either your forbearance or my endeavor will break down) we might climb so far as Colin D., keeping the full truth about the D. till it was certain that the fellow could write and had a character. In my heart of hearts I know he has n’t. People have been led away by his retinue of extraneous accidents.’
But of course T. E. was a brilliant reviewer. He could not have failed to be so. It was no extraneous accident that gave him a command of English as virile as that of the Elizabethans. He was a master of language by virtue of his energy, industry, and adventurous will. One of the first essays he sent to the Spectator was on D. H. Lawrence; a firm of publishers wrote to me at once to ask who the reviewer was, and suggesting that he should edit a volume for them. When, later, he reviewed Mr. H. G. Wells’s collected short stories, I sent the article to the author, who was also curious as to the identity of the critic who had made what he described as the most interesting estimate of his work that he had ever read. However, in spite of laudation on all sides, T. E. continued in his self-depreciation: ‘Your financial department is in a muddle,’ he wrote. ‘In my previous reviewing attempts I’ve generally been left with the book as my reward. Sometimes they have paid as highly as a guinea a thousand. But four guineas is fantastic. Will you chasten them gently? ... If the next effort, is n’t better than this we’ll have to pack it up. No need to look for excuses. I’m quite aware (always have been) that I can’t write: and my judgments have n’t got that philosophic basis of belief in something incredible which enables such as Middleton Murry to go on writing when they’ve nothing in God’s earth to write about.’
One Wednesday afternoon I was correcting proofs in my flat at Adelphi Terrace House, when I heard a knock. A slight figure in a blue suit stood at my door, and apologized for disturbing me. It was T. E., just back from India.
I made him some China tea (he had a palate for delicate flavors, which he rarely indulged) and was plying him with questions, when Richard, the office boy of the Spectator, arrived with some galleys. Richard was a smart boy, and I remembered that out of his small wages he had bought the recently published Revolt in the Desert, so I told him who the visitor was. ‘Is it true you ride your motor cycle at a hundred miles an hour, sir?’ he promptly asked. T. E. was delighted. He loved to talk about machines, and told Richard some wonderful stories about tanks and aeroplanes. That day he was happy, and in reminiscent vein: the printers waited long for their proofs.
On another occasion, when another person was in my flat, T. E. sat very quiet; there was a riddling smile on his lips, and a cruel look in the eyes; he was always the soul of courtesy, but he had no ‘small talk,’ and an immense capacity for silence. Presently he seemed to fade away like the Cheshire cat; he was no longer there; instead of T. E., a small, polite man, inclined to wring his hands, sat stiffly on the edge of my sofa.
Twice I met him by pure chance in London, and spent several hours walking about the streets. He told me that he loved London; his comments ranged from cathedrals to the unemployed, and from strategy to speedboats. He did not care to talk philosophy (with me) and he seemed to have taken a dislike to India and to the speculations of the Brahmins. Now that I come to think of it, this was a remarkable and revealing aversion: he may have feared the introspection and ruthless selfanalysis demanded by Yoga. I know that he believed that he knew himself. But does any man, unaided by some well-tried system of mental discipline, ever reach the shrine of the Self? I do not think so. I believe that T. E., with his iron will and brilliant mind, if he could have come under the influence of Christian mysticism or the Vedanta philosophy, would have found peace, and a clearer purpose in life. However, this is only my opinion. I might apply to myself the words of Saadi: ‘If the hat does not see the sun, the splendor of that luminary is not diminished.’
Alone, he did not give me the impression of being particularly reserved, but I was always conscious of a kind of latent psychic superiority over me and mankind in general: in fact, of his greatness. That, of course, was not an altogether comfortable feeling. However, he did his best to put me at my ease, and once he succeeded. It was the Easter of 1930, when I had brought down to him — he was then stationed at Cattewater, near Plymouth — the proofs of Bengal Lancer.
He read the book in three hours, lying on the bracken of Dartmoor. He said: ‘It’s queer, elusive stuff. Tomorrow I’ll read it again. I always read a book I like twice. I admire your writing, but not your philosophy.’
His comments were practical, as well as kind and clever; he estimated the probable sales very correctly; he amended an Arabic phrase; he made suggestions as to spelling, punctuation, balance. Afterwards we talked of his campaigns (a rare privilege that), and of his future. ‘I’m in perfect health now, but I think I ’ll crack up suddenly one day.’ In saying this, I do not think he was prophesying his fate: he was thinking, rather, of the strains to which his body had been subjected, not only during the war, but afterwards. (While writing the Seven Pillars he was frequently half-starved. In the Air Force he often slept only three hours, so that he could find quiet in which to read and write.) We spoke of a young airwoman much in the public eye. ‘I wonder,’ he mused, ‘whether she’ll make such a mess of her life as I’ve made of mine.’ That sounds an unhappy remark, but it was said jokingly. T. E. had no morbid self-pity or visible hysteria. He was the gayest, most stimulating companion imaginable. When I said good-night at the door of his barrack room, which he shared with fifteen other men, I knew I had spent one of the most delightful days of my life.
He had a power of giving happiness such as I have never known another man to possess. Giving happiness is a feminine quality. T. E. was entirely masculine in outlook and appearance, but with all his strength and courage he had also a woman’s sensitiveness. His mind, so critical of himself, so charitable to others, was diamond-clear and cut in many bright facets. He possessed a radiant physical awareness (though he declared that he never noticed anything) and a cool, delicious, Irish wit; yet in the background, leashed but very much alive, a devil lurked. I had seen it early on this same day.
He had promised to meet me in a R. A. F. launch at the Drake Steps at Plymouth. After waiting an hour, I drove round to Cattewater, since he had not arrived. There I saw him, and his appearance was alarming. Although he was bare to the buff, except for a bathing slip, he looked a king among men, a scowling king. Behind him came two shrinking aircraftsmen, fully clothed, much taller than he, but obviously frightened. He carried a small object like a baby in his arms. The sun gleamed in his furious eyes, on his wet red hair, on his small brown body; as he strode up to me the very air seemed charged with his wrath.
I was thoroughly uncomfortable. Had I mistaken the rendezvous? Was he angry with me? My alarm grew to terror. It sounds ridiculous, but I felt paralyzed. His temper seemed like lightning, full of the possibilities of destruction.
But when he spoke, his expression changed. He apologized for having kept me waiting. Something had gone wrong with the launch’s engine. The thing he carried was a dynamo. For two hours he had been working — a good part of the time under water — to locate a fault in the ignition system.
He went to dress. I lit a cigarette with a slightly shaky hand. Viewed with the eye of recollection, my emotions seem hysterical, but I have described the exact effect of his presence on me at that moment, and I believe that I saw then the power in T. E. that brought his Arabs to Damascus.
In 1930 he gave me the Seven Pillars to read, and the manuscript of The Mint.
The former is obscure in parts, occasionally dull, occasionally overelaborated, yet it is a masterpiece: a twisted masterpiece which will endure because it is symbolical of the grandeur and misery of the days in which he lived, and because through it and in it glows an unconquerable able spirit.
Of The Mint he wrote: ‘You will realize, when you read it, that it is only notes, of a very scrappy character, never intended for publication, or to be seen by anyone in its present form. Reading it is pretty grim work.’ I agreed, and answered that it seemed to me a thousand pities he did not expurgate some of the (to me) unnecessarily dirty talk. Had he done so, had he worked at creative writing with the same finesse, flexibility, and enthusiasm that he devoted later to the development of speedboats, he would have given other masterpieces to the world. As it is, The Mint contains some of his best as well as some of his most mannered and tortured writing.
He was a man set apart for unusual tasks. Literature could not capture his whole imagination. He gave me the impression that he was a stranger to himself, that he disliked his sturdy, compact frame; indeed, that he hated it with a consuming, subconscious, perhaps prenatal hatred. Some such complex was the weak link in his mental armor. He was not human enough, though so kind and gentle in personal relationships, to take his place in the smooth and settled worlds of archeology, scholarship, or state employment. He needed some great, grim background for the full exercise of his talents; not finding such a setting in peacetime England, he sought refuge in the monasticism of barrack life.
Had the Air Force been able to use his knowledge and descriptive skill in the service of what he called ‘man’s last and greatest adventure,’ I believe he would have given all his powers to the task. In that event, conscious that he was playing a big part in the world’s work, he might still be alive to-day. He once told me that he wished that there were a decent book on the Air Force. ‘At present there’s only War Birds, which is good but emphatically not decent. Also,’ he added, ‘Sassoon’s unaffected little Third Route, which I put higher than its simplicity appears to claim,’ T. E. could have written a great book on flying. He told me that he would have liked to keep the log of the Australia Flight. What a story that would have been! What opportunities were neglected in keeping him (happily, humbly, a little wistfully) tapping at a typewriter, or steering a motor launch!
Others know more than I of his work on speedboats, but I remember how he made me laugh at Southampton, telling me of the ideas of the Navy with regard to power-driven craft. In the days of Queen Victoria, he said, steam launches often broke down, so it was decreed that a pair of oars should be kept in them. Even in 1932 the absence of this accessory occasioned adverse comment from the nautical experts who sat in judgment upon the seaplane tenders in which T. E. was interested. A memorandum to the Admiralty, which he drafted, ran as follows: ‘Objections noted. Oars will be provided according to recommendation. It is submitted that this principle should be extended also to wheeled vehicles: harness might prove invaluable in the event of a sudden breakdown.’ Such letters do not endear the writer to Authority, but they produce results.
Already he has passed into legend. Already his spirit ranges beyond his grave at Moreton, inspiring the youth of England. We who knew him, however slightly, are guardians of a sacred fire. He had terrific, indeed terrible energies pent in his small body. They flared up at a great moment in his country’s history, and, although they are now extinguished, something greater than the physical T. E. remains: a tradition to light future ages.