Last week’s Slate has a lovely obituary by Christopher Hitchens for Patrick Leigh Fermor, author, soldier, and adventurer. (As I noted in an earlier post, Leigh Fermor, who wrote some world-class travel books, died on June 10.) Hitchens takes the opportunity to extol other literary types who fought in the Second World War, and ends with this:
Now the bugle has sounded for the last and perhaps the most Byronic of this astonishing generation. When I met him some years ago, Leigh Fermor (a slight and elegant figure who didn’t look as if he could squash a roach; he was perfectly played by Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight, the movie of the Kreipe operation) was still able to drink anybody senseless, still capable of hiking the wildest parts of Greece, and still producing the most limpidly written accounts of his solitary, scholarly expeditions. (He had also just finished, for a bet, translating P.G. Wodehouse’s story The Great Sermon Handicap into classical Greek.) That other great classicist and rebel soldier T.E. Lawrence, pressed into the service of an imperial war, betrayed the Arabs he had been helping and ended his life as a twisted and cynical recluse. In the middle of a war that was total, Patrick Leigh Fermor fought a clean fight and kept faith with those whose cause he had adopted. To his last breath, he remained curious and open-minded to an almost innocent degree and was a conveyor of optimism and humor to his younger admirers. For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one.
I think that Hitchens’s assessment of Lawrence is uncharitable, for his “betrayal” of Arab independence seems to me by no means deliberate. Lawrence may have been a mixed bag, but he’s still a hero of mine: a scholar and an archaeologist who fought—physically—for what he believed, an adventurer, and a superb writer (I’d recommend Seven Pillars of Wisdom). How many academics wish they could have been Lawrence, charging Aqaba on his camel in Lawrence of Arabia (one of the best movies in my pantheon)?
When I had a week in Dorset a few years ago, I took a trip to Clouds Hill, the small cottage where Lawrence lived out the last years of his life (he was, as many of you know, killed in a motorcycle crash near that cottage in 1935 at the age of 46). Clouds Hill is a very simple house, lacking a bathroom (everyone just did their business outside) or guest facilities. Lawrence had two sleeping bags embroidered in Latin “Meum”—”mine” and “Tuum”—”yours”, for the guests. They’re still there, for the two-story cottage is almost precisely as Lawrence left it. I wasn’t allowed to photograph the interior, but this site has pictures of how it looked when Lawrence lived there.
The windows are on the other side.
Over the door is this Greek inscription, “ou phrontis,” which I believe means “without care” (or, in Aussiespeak, “no worries, mate”):
I couldn’t resist taking one photo of Lawrence’s own bathtub, complete with his shaving bowl and the board on which he read:
After the visit I wanted to see the site where he had his fatal crash, for it was supposedly on a rise that obscured his view of two bicycles ahead (the crash occurred when he swerved to avoid the bikes). The rise is no longer there, but after considerable searching I found a marker:
Eerily, only a short time before I found the site, a car had crashed right next to it:
I can haz adventure, too, plz?
Lawrence loved motorcycles and preferred the Brough Superior, one of which he was riding when he died. Here he is in photos from the Brough Family website. If you’re a Lawrenceophile, you’ll know that to flee the spotlight, he enlisted in the R.A.F. under the name T. E. Shaw, and he was an enlisted man when he died.
Here’s how most of us know him:
Update: Reader Graham pointed out to me that Lawrence is also buried nearby, and that his grave has a “sentinel cat.” I found one photo of both grave and cat, but suspect that the “patrolling his grave” part comes from the number of humans who cluster around that particular grave, attracting any cat who craves a good petting: