Saturday, 28 March 2015

A Friendship

Having mentioned T. E. Lawrence in my previous blog, I felt I had not done justice to his role in the life and literary development of Siegfried Sassoon, so I thought I might use this blog to make some amends for that.

Robin Lindsay (a nephew of Helen Waddell) told me that Lawrence was one of the subjects that came up in conversation when he visited Siegfried at Heytesbury in the early 1960s to give him the famous recording of one of Helen’s broadcasts.  This was because of the recent release of David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, which Sassoon must have been to the cinema to view.  He commented that the screen portrayal was “nothing like” the Lawrence he had known.  This is perhaps unsurprising: the slight, plain-looking man who was one of Siegfried's most valued friends from 1918 until his death in 1935 was not movie material - as was proven when the Korda brothers rejected Sassoon's proposals for the script of a film about him.  

Sassoon cannot be said to have cultivated Lawrence's friendship, at least not in the early days.  The latter owed much of his international fame to the efforts of an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, who arrived in Palestine during the First World War looking for a sensational story.  On his return to the USA in 1919, he began lecturing on the subject, with the assistance of a film show which no doubt explains the popularity he immediately enjoyed.  The film, entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, made Lawrence internationally famous, to the extent that the shy colonel sought to hide from the limelight by joining the RAF under the assumed name of John Hume Ross, later becoming T E Shaw and joining the Royal Tank Corps.  (When Sassoon visited Lawrence at home in 1924, Lawrence showed him a book he had been given by George Bernard Shaw, inscribed "To Private Shaw from Public Shaw".)

Thus, when Sassoon and Lawrence met for the first time towards the end of 1918, it was as near-equals. They were introduced, at Lawrence's instigation, by Edward Marsh.  Lawrence outranked Sassoon (who was two years older), but Sassoon knew something of Lawrence's wartime activities, and they hit it off straight away.  When Lawrence got around to publishing his own account of his time with the Arabs, under the title Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in 1922, Sassoon was one of the first people to be allowed to read it.  He was obliged to reassure Lawrence of the book's worth, referring to it as a "bloody masterpiece", in a letter which ended, "It is a GREAT BOOK, blast you!" 

Many have speculated on Lawrence's sexuality.  Like Sassoon, he felt an attraction to his fellow-servicemen, but this is far from conclusive.  I have never heard or seen any evidence that even suggests that he might have had a romantic or physical relationship with Siegfried.  It is, however, fairly well attested that Lawrence had masochistic tendencies, and we can only hazard a guess as to the psychological trigger for these.  Much seems to have remained private between the two friends; it seems to me highly likely that Sassoon either did not know or did not care what Lawrence did in his own time.

In due course, Lawrence came to share Sassoon's friendship with Thomas Hardy, who was equally fond of both men, just as Florence Hardy was attracted to both.  Lawrence had settled at Clouds Hill, near Wareham in Dorset, in the mid-1920s, half an hour's motorcycle ride from the Hardys.  In 1934, Siegfried Sassoon moved into Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, around 45 miles away, but there is no truth in the often-heard claim that Lawrence was returning home from Heytesbury when he was involved in the accident that ended his life in May 1935.  

After colliding with a cyclist in a country road near his cottage, Lawrence lay in a coma for six days. His head injuries (in those days before crash helmets became common) were so serious that it was clear he could not recover; King George V sent his personal physician just to make sure there was nothing that could be done.  The news was devastating for Sassoon, but it led to a life-changing experience.  The day after Lawrence's death, he felt he had received a sign from his dead friend, a sign that convinced him of the existence of an after-life, and this would indirectly lead to his embracing Christianity, in the form of Roman Catholicism, two decades later.  

Sassoon's poem on the subject was submitted to The Times, but rejected by none other than Edward Marsh.  Perhaps he felt that Siegfried was still suffering from the shock of Lawrence's death and that the experience about which he wrote was "all in the mind".  It rather makes me think of the initial reaction to Sassoon's early war poems and the horror expressed by most of his friends when he put himself in the firing-line with his "Soldier's Declaration".  How little vision they had.

To learn more about the friendship between Lawrence and Sassoon, you could do worse than to read Dennis Silk's monograph on the subject, printed in 2010 by Reading Room Press - if you can get hold of it.  If not, help is at hand, as the lecture Dennis gave, on which the booklet is based, was recorded by the IWM and can be found here: 

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