Book review: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda

Few people can have lived the epic life of Lawrence of Arabia, the dynamic Englishman whose daring exploits and romantic looks made him an iconic hero.

Michael Korda’s gripping and in-depth biography of this extraordinary character presents the solitary figure behind the legend – a surprisingly modest scholar who once declared himself to be ‘more a legion than a man’.

History has him marked down as a mysterious adventurer with sun-burnished, blond good looks, wearing white flowing robes and seated on a camel in the heat of the desert.

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It’s a picture that Korda does little to erase in his authoritative and comprehensive re-assessment which fills a staggering 700 pages.

One of five illegitimate sons of a British aristocrat who ran away with his daughters’ governess, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Wales in 1888 and excelled in his archaeology studies at Oxford.

In 1916, Lawrence, who was only five feet five inches tall, was sent as an army intelligence officer to Cairo where a superior at HQ summed up the general opinion of him when he asked: ‘Who is this extraordinary pipsqueak?’

Noted for his intelligence, attention to detail and capacity for hard work, Lawrence was also dismissed as a poseur and show-off who didn’t belong in the army at all.

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A non-smoker, teetotaller and closet vegetarian, he was described by one of his companions as ‘an odd gnome, half cad – with a touch of genius’.

One year later, Lawrence vanished into the desert and re-emerged as one of the most remarkable and controversial figures of the First World War.

A born leader, utterly fearless and seemingly impervious to pain, fatigue and danger, he united the Arab tribes to defeat the Turks and eventually captured Damascus.

Here Korda takes us beyond the well-documented heroics to find the flesh-and-blood man – gifted writer, translator, mapmaker, diplomat, brilliant soldier, guerrilla warfare expert, creator of nations and first media celebrity.

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Korda claims that many of the problems that confront us in the Middle East today were foreseen by Lawrence and that insurgency, the great man’s speciality, is now the main weapon of many of the West’s adversaries.

Lawrence, who tried constantly to escape his own fame, died at the age of 46 just two months after leaving the army following an accident on his beloved motorcycle near his home in Dorset.

‘His name will live in history,’ King George V wrote on hearing the news and over 75 years later, the legendary status shows no sign of diminishing.

(JR Books, hardback, £25)