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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Empire of Sand


The hero of this story is short. Five foot five is a generous estimate and some believe him to be a good four inches shy of that. His head is too large for his body, possibly because a childhood accident – a broken leg he ignored for several days – stunted his growth. He has what dentists call a Class Three Occlusion. He has a strange laugh, especially when nervous, an effeminate high-pitched giggle. He is often scruffy and shambolic.

Then there is his personality. Some find him charming and erudite, but just as many think him an insufferable bore. If he doesn’t approve of you he can be taciturn or plain rude. He most certainly is a liar, who doctors the truth to serve own purposes. His sexual orientation is murky, but he pays a burly man to visit him and ‘punish’ him, with a severe beating, for a series of imaginary misdeeds. He both courts fame and is repelled by it.

So, the hero of this novel is a short, oddly proportioned lying bastard. Welcome to Lawrence of Arabia.

Except, of course he wasn’t. Lawrence of Arabia didn’t exist. He was invented by Lowell Thomas, an American journalist and showman who produced an enormously popular stage show, with a lecture, slides and moving pictures which turned an often squalid guerrilla war into a romance about a desert warrior. Once a day, twice on Saturdays and Wednesdays, the White King Of Arabia led the noble Bedu in a fierce campaign to free their lands from Turkish shackles. No mention of British gold driving the enterprise, the inter-tribal feuds, the sickening massacres on both sides, the political double-dealing or the pivotal role played by General Allenby. It was about as authentic as Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik, which came out in 1921, while Thomas was still doing the rounds.

Nor was he Thomas Edward Lawrence; his father, an Anglo-Irish squire, had run off with the family governess and had five illegitimate sons, of which ‘Ned’, as they called him, was the second. The father’s name was really Chapman; the Lawrence family, like Lawrence of Arabia, was a construct. Luckily I have one thing on my side when it comes to forging my central character from this mish-mash. He comes riding out of the rippling desert mirage and as the features solidify from the super-heated air we can see it is Peter O’Toole, star of the movie version of Lawrence of Arabia. He is a good foot taller than Lawrence, blonder, too, with a chiselled face and piercing blue eyes. Now, HE looks like a hero.

And indeed, the Irishman has superseded the real man in the public imagination. No wonder Noel Coward said that if O’Toole had been any prettier they would have had to call the movie Florence of Arabia. So, like a palimpsest, the genuine hero is erased and a new one of far finer features painted over him.I don’t have to tell the reader anything about this man; if need be, O’Toole will supply the face and the voice.

But why write another book about Lawrence at all? For all its faults, David Lean’s epic captures the essence of the Lawrence story, at least as outlined by the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lowly, bumbling mapmaker/archeologist plucked out of Cairo office and manages to win the trust of the Arabs. Aids in the Arab uprising against the Turks (designed to weaken the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally) on the understanding that the tribes will be rewarded with independent homelands. Embittered by war and betrayed by the British and French governments, who have no intention of giving Arabia to the Arabs, he returns to England a disappointed man. He tries to reverse ill-advised political carve-up of the Middle East at the Paris Peac conference of 1919 and two years later in Cairo. He fails. (And we are still living with the consequences of that.)

Suffering from post-traumatic stress, he seeks anonymity in the army and RAF at a lowly rank, but is hounded by the press and the Lawrence of Arabia monster he helped create, assuming the show would garner support for the Arab cause, rather than simply making him a celebrity. After a few happy years working on the Schneider Trophy seaplanes that would, eventually, give birth to the Spitfire and helping design the fast RAF rescue boats that would save downed pilot’s lives, Lawrence eventually dies in a somewhat mysterious motorcycle crash (think Princess Di) in Dorset, aged just forty six.

Robert Ryan, in his book Empire of Sand. never intended to go over this story again, at least not the central section that made him famous, the revolt in the desert. Although research in recent years had thrown up interesting inconsistency in his accounts, such as the fact his infamous buggery by the Bey at Dera’a may have been a total fabrication and that Lawrence was far from the only Allied officer fighting with the Arabs; he wasn’t even the first one to blow up Turkish trains on the Hejaz railway. Nor was he the first into Damascus; New Zealand troops beat him to it by a day. The Arab liberation was a carefully staged fiction, much like de Gaulle’s liberation of Paris, almost a quarter of a century later.

Fascinating though they were, none of the new discoveries really changed the arc of the story or altered the fact that Lawrence did remarkable things. It took a special kind of man, one not hamstrung by British conventions or attitudes, to deal with and win the respect of volatile figures such as Emir Feisel (Alec Guiness in the movie, too old for the part) and the fiercesome ‘outlaw’ Auda Abu Tayeh (Anthony Quinn). Although Damascus was the culmination of the campaign, Lawrence’s greatest feat was probably taking the port of Aqaba from the rear, a strike in which Auda was instrumental but the Englishman certainly planned. (Deduct two points if you instantly thought that wasn’t all he took from the rear in the desert; there is no real evidence that he was actively homosexual).

But all that is up on the screen. Empire of SandI doesn't novelise the movie, in other words. Rather, it is a prequel, set before the Arab Revolt, which began in June, 1916. It begins with Wilhelm Wassmuss.

Wassmuss was a blond and blue-eyed German, with a penchant for self-promotion and a predeliction for wearing native garb out in the desert. He loved the tribespeople of the Middle East, encouraged them in revolt, telling a few fibs along the way, and, after the war, did his best to help them. He set up farms and irrigation systems in the bleakest of parched lands and lost everything on the scheme. He died, forgotten and pfennigless in 1931. When his biography came out in 1935, it was called Wassmuss: The German Lawrence.

So, TEL had an alter ego among the enemy. In 1915, Wassmuss was galvanising the tribes of Persia to rise up against the British, who needed to control the Gulf because of the oil coming out of Basra’s refineries which kept the Royal Navy steaming (you can join the dots to today there). Wily Wassmuss told the tribes that the Kaiser had converted to Islam and made the hajj to Mecca, thus ensuring their loyalty to Berlin, not the infidel British. He became such a thorn in Basra’s side that huge rewards were offered for his capture. The whole story has strong echoes of John Buchan’ prescient Greenmantle, which came out the same year.

Where was Lawrence while this was going on? According to the film, he was a bumbling fool in Cairo. Well, he was certainly eccentric, but no idiot ingenue. In fact, according to investigations by Philip Knightley and Colin Simpson of The Sunday Times in the late sixties, he was running spies, interrogating Turkish prisoners and gathering intelligence. He worked eighteen hour days at it, scorning the social circus that was wartime Cairo (polo or racing at Ghezira, tea at Groppi’s, cocktails at Shepheard’s, dinner at the Continental). Lawrence would have at least have heard of Wassmuss and the other German agents trying to destabilise the British Empire.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Lawrence was asked his opinion about the Kaiser’s man in Persia. Lawrence was certainly sent ‘On Special Duty’ – clandestine missions for the Intelligence services - at least twice before the Arab revolt. In 1916 he was despatched by the fledgling Arab Bureau to Mesopotamia (Iraq), ostensibly to bribe a Turkish commander with a million pounds to release the ten thousand British soldiers he had surrounded at Kut (north of Basra on the Tigris). The Turk refused. The British surrendered and most of the men, but not the officers, died of disease and malnutrition on a hideous forced march.

But there was an earlier, sketchier mission, which had Lawrence travelling to Athens to ‘improve liaison’. What, I thought, if that was a cover? After all, Kut had a dual purpose. As well as trying his hand at bribery and corruption, Lawrence was instructed to meet with Arab nationalists in Basra to sound them out about a possible Arab Revolt. What if Athens was another piece of chicanery? What if it was a cloak for Lawrence to track down and neutralise the increasingly dangerous Wassmuss?

This is what Empire of Sand became, a fictional version of an encounter between two genuine historical figures. It’s Heat. In Persia. I meant the Pacino/De Niro movie, not the climatic conditions. It has an equivalent scene to the pivotal meeting of the principals in a diner, where both men come face to face just once. Cop and thief. They respect and maybe like each other, but know they are on opposite sides and if they have to kill, it won’t be personal.

After having read Empire of Sand, I’m done with Lawrence. He’s your hero now. If you want him.