Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E.Lawrence (Cape, 1935)  T.E.Lawrence remains an enigmatic and controversial figure. Lawrence’s most famous work is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule during the First World War, and I recently found myself reading it once again. I have been clearing out thousands of unsold books, the residue of a quarter of a century of bookselling. Among them is a copy of the Seven Pillars as heavy and large as an old family bible. In my opinion it is the only edition to read – though there are others, and even an abridged version, entitled Revolt in the Desert. A part of the appeal of this book, perhaps the major part, must lie in its differences from what I have experienced, living in a temperate landscape and under a western, liberal-democratic ideology. Arabia was a foreign country too, to borrow an aphorism, and they did things differently there. This book goes a long way towards explaining how, and why, or at least giving one thoughtful and observant outsider’s view on that. Stick with the massive 1935 edition, the first unabridged text to be prepared for general publication. It is not an uncommon book. There was a time (and it still may be the case) when it was harder to find a second-hand bookshop without a copy of this edition for sale than one with it, and harder to find a book auction catalogue without one recorded! The copy I’m reading from has its caramel brown cloth binding stained with a soft white mould, but the crossed sabres, and the text between them, still glitter with gilding, which is a form of gold. The paper is thick, and slightly glossy. The foredges are rough cut. Holding the pages to the light though, we see no chain marks, suggesting that it has been factory, rather than hand made. The maps fold out, are in fact what booksellers call ‘thrown out’, with a sheet of plain paper between them and the binding, so you can have the map on display while you read on beyond it in the text. Reading from such a book, because of its size, because of its weight, is an awkward business, and not to be taken lightly. The tome must be laid upon a table, or better still, a lectern, or you must bear the weight of it upon your lap, and be reminded that you are not dealing here with some lightweight piece of indulgent fluff. I had not intended to read it again. There are unpleasantnesses in it that are worth knowing about, but unnecessary to re-visit for their own sakes, yet. Yet, it is a book of great beauty. I want to say, immense beauty: the beauty of the desert, and of Lawrence’s appreciation of it; the beauty of his feasts (ever since reading it my desire has been to serve a whole roast sheep, on a bed of rice, in a tin bath – how could we eat it any other way, without recognising our own unimportance?); the beauty of his portrayal of the semitic peoples among which he lived and fought; the beauty, when all is said and done, of his prose. It is a reasonably long work, stretching to some 350,000 words over many ‘books’ each of several short chapters. It is a work to take a few chapters at a time, perhaps even one at a time, despite their brevity, for they are dense with his understanding and his observation. Each sentence is to be weighed and considered, to be mulled over and reflected upon. One could argue that the trend of modern politics, the so-called war on terror and the Arab spring, make this a timely read, and that may be so, but Seven Pillars of Wisdom needs no such impetus to prompt a reading. The desert, I suspect, has not changed in the eighty years since Lawrence wrote it, though its skylines may have, nor will it have, I guess, eighty years hence, and what Lawrence has to say about it, and about its profound effects upon the thoughts, and behaviours of those who venture out upon it, will be as powerful and as resonant then as it is now, and has always been. Here’s Lawrence arriving in Jidda at the beginning of ch.VIII: ‘We had the accustomed calm run to Jidda, in the delightful Red Sea climate, never too hot while the ship was moving. By day we lay in shadow; and for great part of the glorious nights we would tramp up and down the wet decks under the stars in the steaming breath of the southern wind. But when at last we anchored in the outer harbour, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless. It was midday; and the noon sun in the East, like moonlight, put to sleep the colours. There were only lights and shadows, the white houses and black gaps of streets: in front, the pallid lustre of the haze shimmering upon the inner harbour: behind, the dazzle of league after league of featureless sand, running up to an edge of low hills, faintly suggested in the far away mist of heat.’ If you have seen the movie version with Peter O’Toole and his sparkling blue eyes and flaring nostrils, don’t be put off – that epic draws on Lawrence’s account, but as if with the sound turned down and the colour switched off. The visual is a pale echo of the written story, and in the written story Lawrence is not the hero. Neither, for that matter, are the countless Arabs, leaders and fighters, along with their European collaborators, who are mentioned by name. The true hero of the book is the desert in all its ethereal beauty, and it was for this, certainly, that I was prepared to endure again the ugliness of the human story with which the author presents us. Lawrence’s description of the desert, of its dawns and dusks, its jebels and wadis, its arid landscapes of sand and stone, and its star filled skies, as much as the way the nomadic tribesmen have adapted their ways of life to its necessities, is the presence that draws me back to this haunting memoir.

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