Solitude Diary 17

Painting: Blood, Gold and Oil by Jan Woolf 2017, 122cm x 92cm
I painted this as a stage prop for my play The Man with the Gold, which has had three rehearsed readings, (directed by Philip Wilson and David Erdos)  since my time as writer in residence on a modern conflict archaeology dig in Jordan in 2013.  The play, now titled Blood, Gold and Oil, gets its run next year, the centenary of the Cairo conference which divided up the Middle East for Western interests.  I bring history into the present, through the stage set of a centenary exhibition about the Bedouin Revolt against Ottoman Turks in WW1, their subsequent betrayal in the post war carve up of the Middle East, and its impact on the present. Ghosts who are summoned as various exhibits are handled. Two of them are TE Lawrence: the movie star version and the more unprepossessing member of the lower ranks of the RAF, in which he’d enlisted to escape his fame.
I had fun doing the painting, Warhol inspired, clean edged shadow features in the colours of sand and oil.  Gold paint for the headdress and buttons – the splash of blood, inspired by one of Ralph Steadman’s techniques – a flicked, charged brush. 
Now, why Thomas Lawrence?  You might equally ask why Thomas Cromwell? Or Hilary Mantel.  She may answer differently, but my interest was stoked by the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw as a sixteen-year-old in 1966.  One flash of Peter O’Toole’s eyes in that lean beautiful face, and I was gone.  The solitary misfit, the suffering soul finding his purpose with the Bedouin.  And the film is a masterpiece.   Being bored at school, I decided to read the real TE Lawrence.   I was over this by the time I was 19 and pursuing other interests.   But you never unknow what you know, and when given the chance to join the dig in Jordan, I decided this could be the subject matter for my next play.  But that early infatuation gave the scribblings an extra intensity. The process of delayering in archaeology is like Freud’s delayering of the mind – and that was my hook – the scraping back of Lawrence’s various personae to get to the truth of the man; WW1 khaki officer’s uniform, Bedouin clothes, RAF uniform.   Its watch this space now, but I would like to indulge an extract from a piece I wrote for a Pentameters reading last February 14th for the Short Shorts Valentines special,  ‘Early Crushes.’  They range from racehorses, Yuri Gagarin (watch this space – ha ha) to Serge Gainsborough, via TE Lawrence. 

 ‘Aurens’….. he was known to the Bedouin fighters of the Arab Revolt – a side show of World War One – as he was known to me, dropping his name in the playground of Oxted County School.  While my 16-year-old pals were talking about the next village dance, the new rage white lipstick or whether Jagger was more sexy than McCartney, I was going on about the assault on Aqaba, the unification of desert tribes, or how ‘Aurens was given his dagger by Prince Feisal’.  For I’d seen the movie, Lawrence of Arabia and, to spice up the school diet of needlework and cookery, started to read the books, ordering them from the library – Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Mint, his letters to just about every literary and political bigwig of the 1920s and ’30s  (E.M Forster, Hardy, Lawrence DH, et al).  At home, I listened to the music he listened to (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Delius) finding old vinyl at jumble sales and buying cheap ones with my paper round money.  The man pretty well educated me – after a fashion. Mum thought me a fanatic.  Dad – an intense, good looking, suffering chap – yes – like Pater O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia  (I will keep that typo ho ho) thought me bonkers.  Yet I was loved, and an infatuation with a dead man posed less problems than a live boyfriend might have done.

To me he was T.E, as he had been to Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor.  Had I been around then he would have taken me to those famous dinner parties, where I would have put them all to rights about the Soviet Union. Them chucking me out early of course, and Him gallantly driving me home on his Brough motorbike, to stop for mint tea somewhere. No sex.  We were above all that.   Like him – I was a loner – with friends.  I didn’t lose any of them over my obsession though, as I liked a good laugh (as did TE) and they did get my point about the beauty of O’Toole.   Mr MacManus  – my history teacher, on hearing that I’d read all TEL related matter – including the biographies – and had written a long essay about him in at home, in a fug of infatuation  (Aurens Bey – Fact or Fiction) – asked to read it.  Good God he said. If you write an introduction linking it to the commonwealth, I’ll put in it for the Beaverbrook Essay Prize. So I did, and I was the first ever Secondary Modern kid to win it.  I still have that loopy handwritten essay at home.  I showed it to my son when he was 16.  ‘Hey – Mum, you wrote all that when you were a kid when you didn’t have to?’ 

‘But I did – have to.’

 I was given £5 prize money and told to visit the headmaster, who’d never before known I’d existed. 

 Mr Withers was a elderly man with the curious qualities of a pear drop; sweet and acid at the same time, and who disappeared around the corners of corridors like a fading ink blot – the edge of his black academic gown leaving a smudge of black on the retina.  He called me in to his study and told that that no other pupil had done anything like this. Subliminally channelling Mandy Rice Davies, I said, ‘well they wouldn’t, would they sir?’  For Lawrence was mine. He found that cheeky, but then his school had mopped up the 11 plus failures.  Although my primary school expected me to pass with flying colours, being an imaginative sort, the flying colours were all in my head.  And being bad at maths, I failed.  Didn’t care.  In fact, being an 11 + failure gave me freedom to dream my way through school and be a bit of a subversive.  Like Lawrence.

I discovered London Theatre – alone of course – and went to see Alec Guinness in 40 Years On, by Alan Bennett.  Lawrence got a look in there too – Bennett describing him as Tee Hee Lawrence.  I was annoyed, but not that annoyed. Perhaps the crush was wearing off?  I was seventeen and maybe real blokes were worth looking at. But that’s another story.  (extract)


Jan Woolf

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One Response to Solitude Diary 17

    1. I grew up with the Lowell Thomas/David Lean/Peter O’Toole version of Lawrence. So later on my travels up and down The Red Sea I was surprised to discover that most people thought he was a shit. I’ve read up on him a bit since then. John Mack’s A Prince of our Disorder and H. V. F. Winstone’s The Illicit Adventure were the most interesting.

      Comment by Tim on 13 July, 2020 at 9:10 am

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