’m going to describe the hero of
my new novel, Empire of Sand. It’s not
always a good idea to do this. Most authors would rather offer a few
brushstrokes and allow the reader to colour the rest in for themselves.
I don’t have any choice. Mine is real, you see, captured in
photographs and moving pictures. You are just a few keystrokes away
from pulling up an image of him, so let me save you the trouble.
like this: first off, he 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.
If I say Bruce Forsyth or Jimmy Hill, you’ll get the picture,
although his is less pronounced. He has a strange laugh, especially
when nervous, an effeminate high-pitched giggle. He is often scruffy
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.
hero of my novel is a short, oddly proportioned lying bastard. Welcome
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. (There had been originally but
it was edited down when it became clear it was Lawrence
audiences loved, not ‘Bull’ 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, my 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.
would I choose to write about Lawrence
at all? For all its faults (and TEL scholars will bore the bishti off
you detailing its historical hiccups), 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
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
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.)
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
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.
intention was never to go over this story, 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 train on the Hejaz
railway. Nor was he the first into Damascus;
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
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).
was the culmination of the campaign, Lawrence’s
greatest feat was probably taking the port
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).
that is up on the screen. I didn’t want to novelise the
movie, in other words. But I still wanted to write about him. I needed
a way in. I wasn’t sure the later years were able to sustain
the type of novel I had in mind, where TEL could still be heroic,
rather than a broken, haunted man. So was there scope for a prequel,
set before the Arab Revolt, which began in June, 1916? Then I found
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
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, I realised when I discovered the book, 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.
while his 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
would have at least have heard of Wassmuss and the other German agents
trying to destabilise the
not beyond the bounds of possibility that Lawrence
was asked his opinion about the Kaiser’s man in Persia.
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
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
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
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?
what Empire of Sand became, a fictional version of
an encounter between two genuine historical figures. When asked to
outline it to my publishers, I said: ‘It’s Heat. In
I meant the Pacino/De Niro movie, not the climatic conditions. I
planned 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.
end, it didn’t quite work out like that. You try finding a
to stage a meet. But it’s still a cat-and-mouse game between
the pair of them in Cairo
and the deserts and mountains
In order to make sure this earlier
version of Lawrence
connected the reader to Feisal’s desert commander (and, yes,
the movie) I book-ended the 1915 scenes with a prologue and epilogue
set during the Arab revolt.
idea was to show how at least some of TEL’s later precepts of
guerrilla warfare (still used today by insurgents the world over) were
influenced by the audacious Wassmuss. I also wanted to write the story
without delving too much into his sexuality. It seemed to me this was a
side issue, a very modern preoccupation, driven by Lawrence’s
enigmatic dedication to ‘S.A.’
at the beginning of Seven
Pillars. The TEL industry has been powered by those few lines for
years. It was time to let it lie. So he liked a little male BDSM? These
days that would hardly make a blog. I wanted to take the story back to
the man of action. Which means he gets to blow up a train, climb down a
well to diffuse a bomb and is forced to kill a wounded servant, all
actual events. I also wanted to show his love for machines: he adored
motorcycles, airplanes, guns of every description and Rolls Royce
armoured cars (he eventually traded in his camel for one of the latter).
what does my hero look like to me? Is this TEL the giggling little guy
with the big head or is it a young, impossibly handsome Peter
O’Toole yelling ‘No prisoners!’ while
waving a sword.
admit I edited out the giggle on a second draft. It was just too
annoying, especially after I watched Ralph Fiennes attempt it in A
Dangerous Man, a Lawrence of Arabia sequel. It might have been
accurate, but it was incredibly alienating and annoying. And although
there is a reference to his size early on in the novel (using his own
description of himself as a ‘pocket Hercules’
– he was very fit and strong with incredible stamina and a
high threshold for pain), for the most part I do the equivalent of
pleading the Fifth. I don’t describe him, only his actions,
because it might incriminate me, as during the writing, some days he
looked like the real Lawrence
and other times, in certain
lights, a dead ringer for O’Toole.
final draft I made a conscious effort to meld the two images into one,
giving me a consistent visualisation of the character. So what does he
look like? Well, as far as I am concerned if you pay your ten quid for
the book, he can look any way you damn well please. That’s
fine by me. I’m done with Lawrence.
He’s your hero now, if you want him.
Empire of Sand
is published April 2008 in hardback at £10 by Headline.
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