Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Little blokes free

When I was about 13 a friend of my mother's called Maudie Starbuck said how much I looked like Lawrence of Arabia. At 13 I can't have been much shorter than the adult Lawrence was: 5'3". At the time all I knew about Lawrence was his First World War desert escapades as recorded in effusions like The Wonder Book of Daring Deeds and - I might be wrong here - that fantastic comic Eagle. Contemporaries like my grandfather thought of him as a very great and courageous hero, a true and honourable man of the worthiest ideals, the greatest Englishman of his generation. Some even went so far as to say that but for his untimely death, he might have led the country. Great Britain and the Empire under Lawrence's leadership would certainly have stopped Hitler in his evil tracks. There would have been no appeasement tommy rot, to use an expression of the time. And so on.

So I was greatly flattered in being compared to him, if only in appearance. Having no father I was ripe for male role models. If only Maudie Starbuck had said I resembled Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Bader, Denis Compton, Odysseus, Clovis Sangrail, Robin Hood, Ernest Shackleton, Richard Hannay, Roger Bannister, Edmund Hillary as well...but I took it no further. I certainly didn't parade about Rochester, the town in north Kent where we lived at the time, dressed in agal and shemagh, the Arab head-dress that Lawrence favoured.

In my twenties other role models, chiefly musical, came on duty to relieve the not unimpressive list above. I kept an affection for Lawrence, an admiration bolstered by reading the then standard biographies of Lawrence by Robert Graves and Basil Liddell Hart. The significance of Liddell Hart's title 'T.E.Lawrence' in inverted commas escaped me at the time.

Then the blow fell, sudden and ruthless. I read Richard Aldington's biography, in which he argued very cogently that Lawrence was not what he seemed. A few lines are worth quoting, not merely because of their hammer-blows but because they could equally well apply to any of the undersized men mentioned in this mini-series: Napoleon (as Dave points out), Nelson, Sarkozy. (Only Sir Norman Wisdom is exempt, so far.)

Behind his self-consciousness, the diffident Oxford manner ... [Lawrence] was a watchful adventurer of intense ambition, a mind of versatility and skill, an unscrupulous will-to-power, a wilfulness impatient of control, a self-assertiveness which was allied with contempt.

So, Lawrence was a liar and a fantasist, the only accessible witness to the feats that made up the Legend. A flawed scolar, idle and devious. Vain and conceited, a sucker-up to the great. A dilettante of dubious tastes. A misogynist. A man of elastic morality. The indictment was savage. Much to my disappointment I found myself identifying with him more for his failings than for his qualities. For some of Aldington's accusations I found myself in the dock alongside Lawrence: there too but for the grace of...

But there was much to forgive, and Aldington clearly had a problem with compassion. Lawrence's father ran two families, the Lawrences and the Chapmans, each unknown to the other. Lawrence inherited from his Calvinist mother the suppressed guilt she felt through her irregular association with Lawrence senior. In his Arabian days at least Lawrence was gay. Homosexual activity was at that time a criminal offence in Britain. He later showed strong flagellistic leanings, arranging for himself to be birched at regular intervals. He lived mostly alone. I think he found it as difficult to live with himself as with anyone else.

Would he have been any different if he hadn't been so short? Sometimes when in taller company I find myself standing unwittingly on tiptoe, for all my 5'5½". I wonder if Lawrence, Nelson, Sarkozy, Wisdom, Napoleon, etc., did/do the same?


Dave said...

I know my natural place, and so I slouch.

Dave said...

Historians estimate Alexander the Great's height between 5'6" to 5'7".

Perhaps he was called The Great not because of his achievements, but ironically, in the same way that we called the shortest member of our team 'Lofty'.

Christopher said...

Even so I used to slouch before they enclosed me in my present cast-iron lumbar support. Now slouching's impossible except while asleep. Or in the bath.

Sandy McSomebody-or-other who installed fireplaces when we lived in Scotland was known as Alexander the Grate. As he crouched down to his work it was difficult to calculate his height. Rog will tell you he had an assistant called Neil.

Vicus Scurra said...

We have/had a local tradesman called Napoleon Boilerparts.

I hope that this helps.

Christopher said...

Thank you, Vicus. We need all the help we can get, my friend Ada says.

mig said...

I quite like short men. There's less of them to cause trouble. And their laundry doesn't take as long to dry.
(unless they share TE's choice of garb I suppose)

Rog said...

Is that Charles Drake, Ballad Singer from Weybridge?

He was a towering comedic inspiration to me.

Christopher said...

mig: Very succinctly put. And we need less water/soap in the bath. And some of us need very little shampoo. And you can keep the special treats we deserve on the top shelf with impunity.

Rog, there is none like you, none. You stand alone.