THE LEGACY OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Article first published in the New Statesman by Rachel Cooke on 25 January 2010.
I might as well come clean: I have something bordering on an obsession with Rory Stewart. Who is he, and where did he come from? Technically, I know the answers to these questions. He comes from Crieff, in Perthshire, and he went to Eton and Oxford, after which he joined the Foreign Office, eventually winding up as deputy governor of an Iraqi province. He is known for having walked across Afghanistan – he wrote a book about this called The Places in Between – and for having been a tutor to Princes William and Harry. Now he is the Conservative candidate for Penrith and, being both sane and prone to outbreaks of truthfulness, is possibly a ticking time bomb so far as David Cameron is concerned, Old Etonian or not.
But still, my questions stand. Who is he, and where did he come from? I suppose what I mean is: how can such a man exist in a world like ours? He is from another age, so unworldly, and yet so wildly successful at everything to which he turns his hand; so brave and adventurous, yet always so smartly dressed and polite (his hair is Hobbity, I’ll grant you; but for one who likes to travel he is singularly lacking in tattoos and piercings). In his documentary series The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia (Saturdays, BBC2, 7pm/8pm) he wears, at all times, even when striding over the Negev, a buttoned overcoat – it has a red melton collar lining, which he likes to display, cockerel-style – and those expensive-looking leather boots that only the truly posh seem to own (they must inherit them). I took all this in and, not for the first time, I marvelled.
Anyway, what of his film? Well, surprise, surprise: he’s good at TV presenting, too. In front of the camera, preternaturally calm, he makes Simon Schama look like a twitching lunatic. Plus, he has the kind of eyes – wondrous marbles – that convey his own surprise and interest to the viewer, and make it contagious. I’m not sure he has much to say about T E Lawrence that is new, exactly. It is fascinating to discover that US army majors are encouraged to read Lawrence, and even to watch clips of Peter O’Toole pretending to be him, but we all know how appalled he would be by the management of our present adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All the same, I found the whole thing captivating. Lawrence was a boyhood hero of Stewart’s, so there was real power in his retracing his steps: in Syria, he stroked the stone walls of the Crac des Chevaliers, the Crusader fort that Lawrence described as the “greatest castle in the world”, as if they might be hot to the touch, and, when he came to, he noted that it took 75 years to build the place. Contrast that with the razor wire and prefabs that now litter Afghanistan.
The film was beautiful and romantic. Stewart camped with Bedouins, and that was all flickering firelight, greasy lamb and tar-like coffee. Then, in the morning, as the sun rose, we saw him emerge from his tent wrapped, not in some picturesque ethnic throw, but in a cheap nylon blanket. This was the moment when I knew his bad night’s sleep had been for real. For his next trick, he rode a camel, at a firm trot, a wide smile on his face. Thus, the gap between our troops and the people whose countries they seek to “save” gaped ever wider even as you watched. I can’t wait for more adventures next week. Meanwhile, William Hague should meet up with Stewart and pick his brain, deftly and thoroughly, in the manner of a Bedouin setting about his mutton.