Max Markham is the author of Indigo Bird – An Erotic Novel. For more information on the author and his work, please visit Max Markham’s Section on this website.
I have mentioned Lawrence of Arabia in passing in this blog because he was a boyhood hero of Robert Nairac GC. This emerges clearly in Luke Jennings’ memoir Blood Knots, when the eighteen year old Nairac asks the younger Jennings about his favourite books. Nairac’s regard for Lawrence stood the test of time. He evidently spoke of Lawrence while he was on his last, fatal undercover assignment in Northern Ireland in 1977; one of his former colleagues recalls hearing another soldier saying “he thinks he’s Lawrence of bloody Arabia!” There were similarities. There was also a tenuous Irish connection in both cases: Lawrence’s father, Sir Thomas Robert Chapman, Baronet, of Westmeath, had been part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy though he had little or no native Irish blood. T E Lawrence, his second son, never set foot in Ireland but was conscious of his Irish heritage. One of his unrealised literary projects was a biography of the executed Irish revolutionary, Sir Roger Casement, in whom he developed a serious interest. Casement was fairly clearly gay, although some of his defenders are still in denial over this.
A man’s heroes, real or fictional, can provide indicators of his own character. An adult who continues to admire Biggles or Bulldog Drummond may in some important respects be still an adolescent at heart. An outspoken admiration for dictators like Hitler or Stalin suggests an anti-democratic mindset. Admiration for Oscar Wilde, Ronald Firbank, or Sir Roger Casement, may indicate sympathy for gayness; if not simply gayness, in the admirer.
What were T E Lawrence’s notable characteristics? He was a type of soldier that was more common in the Second, than the First, World War. A convenient term might be “the all-purpose irregular regular”. Lawrence, a historian by training, was a guerrilla soldier; an expert explosives officer; allegedly a master of disguises and languages; reportedly very brave. He did not fit in easily with the regular military establishment and did not pursue a conventional military career after the Great War had ended. Had he lived to experience the Second World War, he would have seen other men, who often looked to him for inspiration, conducting similar types of campaign. They included his second cousin Orde Wingate the Chindit commander; Lt-Col Billy McLean; Patrick Leigh Fermor; “Mad Mike” Calvert and the Stirling brothers.
Another characteristic of Lawrence was his tendency towards “romantic autobiography”; or, as his great friend Charlotte Shaw (Mrs Bernard Shaw) once put it: he was “an INFERNAL liar!” Bernard Shaw however protested that he was not a liar; Lawrence was an actor. This may be sophistry; there is a fine line between lying and acting a role. Unfortunately Lawrence became so good at lying or acting that he himself had difficulty in disentangling the fact from the fiction in his own life: his autobiographical writings and remarks are often unreliable. However Lawrence had reasons for becoming a liar or an actor. He was sensitive about his illegitimacy (as were others of his family); when he became famous, he put out misleading personal information, including in Who’s Who. This suggested inter alia that he was descended from Sir Henry Lawrence, the British statesman and soldier in India, who died defending Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, and/or his brother Sir John Lawrence (the first Baron Lawrence), who became Viceroy of India. This was not the case, although these Lawrences were also of Irish origin. T E Lawrence’s father, Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, had assumed the surname Lawrence in order to keep secret the fact that he and T E’s mother, “Mrs Lawrence”, were not married. The need for deception was maintained by an unspoken threat from disapproving relations of Sir Thomas Chapman. These included his deserted wife; influential cousins, such as Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938 and later Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the British Government; and Sir Reginald Wingate, the British General and administrator in Egypt and the Sudan. They regarded the illegitimate Lawrence family as a disgrace.
This was not entirely reasonable. The five Lawrence sons were clearly very accomplished. The eldest, Bob, became a medical missionary in China. T E Lawrence, “Ned”, was the second son. The next two brothers, Frank and Will, both promising young men, died in the Great War. The youngest, Arnold, became a distinguished academic. During World War II he appears to have engaged in secret intelligence work. He was the only Lawrence brother to marry and father a child. I met him a few times. He was the brother who most closely resembled T E Lawrence, facially and in mannerisms. These included the famous disconcerting giggle and the mischievous teasing.
Another reason for the elaborate and misleading facade was that T E Lawrence was gay. Pages have been covered with ink by his detractors and defenders on this issue. However, as a gay man, I have no doubt of it. The signs are there, but they are not prominent. Lawrence died in 1935. In Lawrence’s lifetime gay sex between men; even between two consenting adults in private, was a criminal offence and remained so until 1968. It was also grounds for disgrace and dismissal from the armed services, in which Lawrence spent the greater part of his adult life. This was the case until 2000. In addition, his family’s feelings had to be considered. In response to this Lawrence, who had no interest in marriage, constructed another facade: the celibate ascetic. He put it about that he was sexless, or had no interest in sex. He also claimed never to drink alcohol. Neither was really true. What is not clear is when Lawrence accepted that he was gay or how often he indulged in gay sex. He almost certainly never had sex with a woman, although Luke Jennings in Blood Knots suggests a possible candidate. Lawrence’s opportunities for gay sex in his youth were limited: his unmarried parents were devout evangelical Christians. He and his brothers lived mainly at home during their school and university years. However there were potential opportunities afforded by cadet force camps; cycling holidays abroad and in the UK; later on archaeological digs in the Near East; and occasional encounters with the gay intelligentsia who frequented Oxford. One of these was the author “Baron Corvo”; another was the artist Henry Scott Tuke. But at this distance in time we cannot know whether anything ever occurred.
Lawrence’s mental development parallels my own and that of other gay men. There was the recognition of the truth in early adolescence, followed by denial, in which he may, like me, have told himself “it’s only a phase”. This was succeeded by growing resentment against his controlling parents; basically his mother, who would not let him be himself and which led to some kind of showdown with them and a nervous breakdown. As a result of this a bungalow was built in Lawrence’s father’s Oxford back garden, into which “Ned” moved – not the eldest son – and where he enjoyed greater privacy. His movements were no longer monitored. There are also unconfirmed rumours (originating with Lawrence himself) that Lawrence may earlier have run away and tried to join the army in the ranks, to be “bought out” when his true age and lack of parental permission came to light. Again, the attempted flight to a comfortingly all-male environment has parallels with my own experience. Desmond Stewart, one of Lawrence’s best biographers, believed that Lawrence, while he had had a sentimental relationship with Dahoum, a young Syrian Arab, before the First World War, was finally initiated into both gay sex and sado-masochistic practices one orgiastic evening by the handsome Sharif Ali, one of the cousins of his friend Prince Faisal. This was later transformed into Lawrence’s beating and rape by evil Turks at Deraa in Syria, which is one of the most shocking passages in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It also ensured that The Seven Pillars of Wisdom both enjoyed a succes de scandale but was also unpublishable in his lifetime in the UK and in unexpurgated form. A private subscription edition appeared in 1926. Revolt in the Desert, an abridged and expurgated edition, was published in 1927. The first full public edition of The Seven Pillars appeared in 1935, after Lawrence’s death. The Deraa incident never happened as described: it did happen, but in Arabia; it was inflicted by a friend and ally, not an enemy; and Lawrence enjoyed it. He might have felt guilt or remorse afterwards, but he now knew beyond doubt what he wanted and needed. At some point in this process came the “rebirth” experience, when the gay man “dies” or casts off the false persona that others – usually his family – have imposed on him, and comes back to life again as himself. The experience can be exhilarating, traumatic or both. Now it is usually followed by “coming out”. In Lawrence’s time this was not possible, nor something that he could have shared with many people. He does however seem to have been frank with the Bernard Shaws, who respected his confidence while he lived.
After the Arabian campaign had ended, Lawrence attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1918-19; saw that most of the benefits that had been promised to the Arabs had not been delivered; wrote The Seven Pillars of Wisdom; briefly served in the administration of the Trans-Jordan Mandate; later served in the ranks of the Army and the RAF. After 1918 he used more than one alias, one of which was John Hume Ross; another was T E Shaw. Eventually he adopted the latter name by deed poll. Nothing was ever said, but it seems that he wanted to make himself a surrogate son to Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, who were childless, and to replace his real parents (father now dead; mother alienated and in China) with the Shaws.
For the rest of his active life, until retirement, Lawrence served in the ranks of the Army and the RAF. In the latter, he gathered the material for his book The Mint, which was published twenty years after his death, in 1955. This delay was at the request of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard. It contains some searing, and arguably homoerotic, descriptions of rough life in the ranks. During this time he employed handsome, muscular young men to beat him; sometimes at his spartan cottage, Clouds Hill, in Dorset. They were often soldiers or airmen. Clouds Hill is conveniently near Bovington Army Camp. A few years after Lawrence’s death Robin Maugham, the future second Viscount Maugham, was undergoing training at Bovington. He was befriended by a sergeant who confided over a drink that he had both beaten and penetrated Lawrence. He became visibly excited when recounting this story. Maugham had difficulty in getting away. At the time he dismissed the story as “bullshit”. Later, however, he came upon information that appeared to confirm the sergeant’s story.
Lawrence retired in February 1935 with literary and political projects in hand. Once more the problem arose from the Government’s point of view: what to do with a maverick hero? What controversial things would Lawrence do now? His planned autobiography of Sir Roger Casement could prove very embarrassing indeed, if it rehabilitated the executed hero of the Easter Rising; whose execution had been facilitated by the leaking of his private diaries. These revealed numerous homosexual encounters. If E M Forster is to be believed, Lawrence was also becoming more indiscreet in his pursuit of pleasure, at home and in London. More than one visitor to Clouds Hill records the presence of handsome, muscular soldiers or airmen visiting Lawrence; sometimes sunbathing naked in the orchard. He had acquired a “bodyguard”, the son of a neighbour, whose job it was to see off reporters and other intruders but who was also ruggedly handsome and muscular. Young Mr Knowles was apparently deeply attached to Lawrence, whom he knew as “Mr Shaw”. Worse still, Lawrence had been approached by Henry Williamson, the author, to discuss involvement in the British Union of Fascists. Lawrence was interested.
On 13 May 1935 Lawrence was involved in a motor-cycle crash whose details are far from clear and may never be fully elucidated. He lingered for a few days but died without regaining consciousness. The circumstances surrounding his death are very mysterious. It probably was not an accident. I will explain why I think this in a later post.
For more information on the subject see:
The Indigo Bird
An Erotic Novel by Max Markham
James Graveney, a young Major in a respectable regiment, is outwardly conventional. In private James is bisexual, with a strong urge for his own sex. Gay sex, however, is illegal in the Army, so he is discreet about this.
James’ world is turned upside-down when he meets Lieutenant Richard Finch. Richard is intelligent, charismatic and exceptionally handsome. He doesn’t mess around. He gets what he wants, and is completely unscrupulous about how he gets it. Richard will stop at nothing to achieve this, including Machiavellian deception and a cunning and brutal murder. James starts responding to Richard, cautiously at first, then gets swept along on the great love affair of his life.
The Indigo Bird is a rollercoaster of surprises set against backdrops varying from the jungles of Belize to London, the English countryside, and Ireland, and the scene is set for more shocks and adventures. [Read more...]