Edinburgh International Book Festival
21st August 2015
Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.
It’s puzzling how to review an event that isn’t a performance. A poet will read poetry, a raconteur will tell stories, but what marks a successful event for the writer of a non-fiction work, in this case a biography? Well, as the overall aim is, I suppose, to sell the book, a successful event of this nature must reveal enough to whet the potential reader’s appetite, but hide enough so that it’s still worthwhile buying the book. The book in question is Anthony Sattin’s Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man, and the subject is T E Lawrence before he became ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
Well, if the queue for this event, which went round three sides of the square, was anything to go by, the Legend is a draw. This was borne out by the show of hands when the audience was asked how many of them had Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom, had read it to the end, or had seen David Lean’s film with Peter O’Toole (almost everybody raised a hand for that). Chairing the event, writer and critic Stuart Kelley played a role that was part interviewer and part erudite chat-show host. Anthony Sattin himself needed little prompting to talk about his subject, being obviously enthusiastic and totally immersed in it, and therefore if I am to compare his delivery to any kind of ‘performance’ I would have to say that it was near-faultless.
As for the reveal/hide conundrum, that turned out to be a doddle, because, as the audience’s questions during the final twenty minutes showed, their main interest was in the later Lawrence anyway! However, thanks to Stuart Kelley’s steering and Anthony Sattin’s own focus, some intriguing aspects of Lawrence’s earlier life and character were revealed. That he was the illegitimate son of Irish Baronet Sir Thomas Chapman is well enough known; that he worried about the stigma attached to illegitimacy is perhaps a little less known. Of Lawrence’s sexuality, Anthony Sattin is sure that he was, to all intents and purposes, asexual, even having a disgust for erotic contact of any kind; therefore of Lawrence’s relationship with his young Arab protégé Ahmed Dahoum, Sattin says “… there are no ‘dirty sheets’…” But he liked beauty nonetheless, from which we are to gather that any attraction he felt towards another person would have been aesthetic and not erotic.
Ultimately Lawrence thought of himself as a failure. He was only every happy for a few short years before the war, when he was able to travel, to study history, and to dig for archaeological artifacts. Of his work at Carchemish, Lawrence wrote a chatty, enthusiastic letter to Vyvyan Richards, saying it was ‘a place where one can eat lotus every day’. Anthony Sattin reminded us that six months later war broke out, and Lawrence destroyed a book he had written – confusingly also called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – probably because he expected he might die, and he didn’t want his mother to read that he had been happy. “Whenever she knew something about him,” said Sattin, “she spoilt it.”
By the end of the event I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about the diminutive, fearless, contemplative, self-deprecating man behind the legend. If you like to read biography, and if Anthony Sattin’s book reflects the enthusiasm and the knowledge that he displayed during this event, then Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man is probably for you. It’s on my Christmas stocking list.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson