I took about 400 photos in the last three days of my holiday, and they gave me a problem, because trying to process them plus do my post-holiday my washing and ironing, and the other chores, and fit in two elecrolysis sessions, and a pressing social life, has been quite a headache. My to-do list was a bit overwhelming for a while, but now I've time for blogging again.
While pitched at Coombe Bissett (near Salisbury) a couple of weeks ago the weather began to deteriorate, and on a dull day I set off to see a National Trust property that I've been meaning to visit for a long time. This was Clouds Hill, T E Lawrence's little pied-a-terre in the Dorset heathland. In other words, Lawrence of Arabia's Cottage.
Lawrence was well-educated, a gifted and cultured man, with a passion for pure experience. He was possibly conceited, but nevertheless able to mix it with all types of men, from the greats of literature to army generals, from ragged desert tribesmen to arab kings.
I long thought he might be gay, at least in the suppressed way that all gay people had to conduct themselves in the first decades of the 20th century. But nowadays I'm not so sure. It was so much a male-dominated world then, and it was very natural for a man to find himself living a life that had very few women in it. All professional contacts would be with men. Women were simply not allowed to have important roles. And I suppose that if you were shy about speaking with a woman, if you were not used to any women at all apart from your mother or sister, it was easy and comforting to keep exclusively to other men's company. But that wouldn't necessarily indicate that you were gay.
There were alternative suggestions that Lawrence was a masochist. While I think he enjoyed hardship, and I think he made a fetish of hard-living, I believe it was not in the Ernest Hemingway fashion, but in the bare-bones way of the desert. A mode of life cut down to the essentials only; without too many luxuries or comforts; austerity deliberately employed to clear the mind of fog, and to enjoy sensations in their purest distillation. Lawrence certainly loved the thrill of speed (he was killed in a motorcycle accident). He also loved the precision and perfection of academic discipline, of something supremely well-written, and sonorous, well-structured music.
A complex man, I thought. I was interested to see whether the cottage itself might offer further clues to his personality.
It was a very small dwelling. The Trust were at pains to point out that he never used it as a home. He lived in Bovington Camp, the army barracks a mile or two down the road. The cottage was his evening retreat. The place he could invite people to for tea and cake and cheese and serious conversation. Or to read till the light faded. Or to listen to music from a gramophone.
The seats were leather, in sombre colours, without throws or anything soft. The furniture was plain. It was telling that Lawrence regarded the bathroom as luxurious, with cork tiling on the walls, but I thought it looked like the kind of bathroom that monks would share. It was functional, unfussy, designed strictly for a man to get clean in. No woman would want to use it, and indeed throughout the cottage the woman's touch was entirely lacking. There was no toilet, Lawrence deeming one unnecessary. Real men could go outside with a spade. The atmosphere was uncompromising, hard, focussed, and I found it hard to imagine anyone relaxing there, or finding the place soothing, or even getting comfortable. There was a 'guest bedroom' which Lawrence had lined with aluminium sheeting in an attempt to make things warmer for the guest, who 'enjoyed' a ship's bunk bed at one end. It was weird. I couldn't imagine sleeping well in a metal-lined room!
I did not like the cottage much, and I don't think I would have liked Lawrence much either, despite his fine mind and his brave achievements on behalf of the Arab Revolt in the First World War. But then he might well have not wanted to talk to me. In an exhibition in the garage where he kept his beloved motorcycle, it was easier to recapture the myth. And to see perhaps that Lawrence was a man who struggled with disappointment, and with finding sufficient purpose in life. He was killed swerving to avoid two cyclists hidden in a dip on a straight stretch of road neaby. I had wondered whether he was tired of life, and rode fast to play with death. I'm still not sure. Here is a photo of him, taken shortly before he died. He was approaching fifty. He was famous but did not want fame. He was no longer young, his forces career had ended, he had nobody in his life, and he looks as if he had no hope or expectation left.
Above the entrance door to the cottage, he had, years before, written two Greek words in the cement:
Ou phrontis. I did Latin at school, not Greek, so I can't translate with any knowledge, but apparently these words mean 'I don't give a damn'.