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Opinion The fatal Englishman

As her play Blood Gold and Oil premieres this week, JAN WOOLF reflects on the political and personal energies behind the play.

FREUD compared psychoanalysis with archaeology — the delayering of the psyche with the removal of topsoil to get to the buried stuff. Grounding truth, archaeologists call it.

Extend that to digging for political truth. 

The Arab revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman empire — at the time allied with Germany — had the Sykes-Picot agreement for the post-war division of the Middle East lurking in the shadows of duplicitous diplomacy.  

Bedouin Arabs had died in the cause of promised independence, after British archaeologist and liaison officer Thomas Edward Lawrence, who, with Emir Faisal had united disparate clans into a single fighting force. 

But Lawrence had become disillusioned with the British political machine that played him. 

He was, however, to become famous as Lawrence of Arabia; a double-edged sword of shame and vanity.  

Newsreels from US journalist Lowell Thomas “With Lawrence in Arabia” were shown to the US public to persuade their people to back the war effort.  

“Effort,” says Lawrence in my play, “such a mealy mouthed word, all that blood, death, agony, reduced to effort.”  

Lowell Thomas’s newsreels also referenced Rudolph Valentino, an actor who jumped through ladies’ bedroom widows. Lawrence never did, his sexuality compromised by fear of touch. 

Nor was he covered in mud, like the many thousands in the hell of the French trenches, and so was more attractive to Americans who eventually sent men to die.  

After the treaty of Versailles, where, despite his best efforts, Lawrence used his fame to oil his diplomacy (as it were), the Middle East was divided — “blue zones for the French, red for the British.”  

Muslim countries getting “infidel” rulers when “Bedouin put nation above a caliphate.”

But they got another caliphate — of bankers.  

Throughout all this Lawrence — a decent man — suffered terribly, eventually seeking escape, and another all-male environment, in the RAF where he wrote The Mint, his poetic reflection on the harsh realities of barracks life.

Blood Gold and Oil isn’t a history play, although it draws on history that’s still playing itself out.  

Set in the present, as an exhibition, TE Lawrence and Guerrilla Warfare, is being set up in a war, actors handle real artefacts dug out of the Jordan desert from an archaeological dig where I was writer in residence in 2013.  

Scraping away in Ottoman tent rings, finding the detritus of men living together in brief repose; bits of playing card, cigarette packets, an oil lamp.  

A Turkish redoubt; soldier’s tunic buttons, heart-breaking to handle as these were from men and Mehmetchicks (little Mehmets, Turkish Tommies) who died in action. And a spent Ottoman hand grenade — or was it?   

A British base camp yielded a spark plug from a Rolls-Royce, squashed tin lid of Moreton’s processed meat, shards of Gordon’s Gin and Eno’s bottles. Look at all those possessive apostrophes: the brandnames of the British empire.  

Then the site of a Hejaz railway explosion. Shattered metal, bullets, and more buttons! 

“Not much Aye-rab stuff then?” inquires my fictional museum technician.   

Comparison is made with the industrialised, money-making warfare of standing armies and guerilla warfare. Seven Pillars of Wisdom was read by the Vietcong, Taliban and the US army high command as a war manual. 

“Some book club.”

Play-writing requires a lot of digging too, into characters, their motives and conflicts, as well into the self. So I dug into my teenage infatuation with Lawrence of Arabia after seeing David Lean’s masterpiece. 

Soon TE, as his friends called him (and surely I would have been one of them) supplanted Peter O’Toole’s angst and lovely blue eyes with his brilliant writing and wit. He knew the dream world and so, like most adolescents, did I.   

But why would a 16-year old read all those biographies? Why scour old bookshops for anything referenced by TEL in his letters? Soon I was reading Shaw, Virginia Woolf (no relation) EM Forster, Hardy, et al.

I was rummaging in Surrey jumble sales for old 78s of Bach, Beethoven, Delius and so on. I’d make solo trips to Oxford and Dorset to “go where he went.”  

As an 11-plus failure I went to a secondary modern school. The boys did woodwork and metalwork, the girls cookery and needlework. It was great. Nothing was expected of me and I had fun. But as a lively minded product of the welfare state I was peckish for a more serious education.  

This is often the subconscious motivation of the crush. It’s not real but a liminal state, the threshold of new experience.  

Soon I’d absorbed enough about the man to write a long essay “Aurens Bey, Fact or Fiction.” “Aurens Bey” was the way the Arabs addressed him.

I handed it to my history teacher and he entered it for the Beaverbrook Bennett Essay prize. It won and I got a fiver; that was eight weeks’ paper round money.

I dug that out too, a few years ago, and showed my son who said: “You wrote all that when you didn’t have to?” thus getting at the root of my creative passion.  

I want to mention in dispatches Christopher Caudwell’s Studies of a Dying Culture. His essay, TE Lawrence, a Study in Heroism, claimed that, like Freud, Lawrence looked to the ancient world, and that the only real hero of WWI was Lenin, “who looked forward,” according to TEL’s ghost, “into a world I was too intellectually freighted to imagine.”

Lawrence was the kind of mythical figure who became too hot to handle. He was a scholar, poet, writer and wit who attracted projections from many corners and his likely assassination in 1935 may have been caused by establishment worry about where his loyalties lay after WWI.

And so to the deliberate deployment of lies and illusion, much as “weapons of mass destruction” were “deployed” to justify the attack on Iraq for the oil fields in 2003.  

Blood Gold and Oil makes the links with then and now; the blood of war, box office gold and the black stuff. 

And it’s also about the body, and the experience of male rape that is the dark heart of Seven Pillars: “For after violation comes the release of the creatures that inhabit the crooked corners of the mind.”

Blood Gold and Oil runs until April 30, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London. Box office: (020) 8340-3488 upstairsatthegatehouse.com.

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