While August 2 is not the birthday of T.E. Lawrence (that’s exactly two weeks from today), it is the birthday of the man whose most famous screen role was his portrayal of the British soldier, diplomat, adventurer, and writer. Peter O’Toole, who died in 2013, would have been 91 years old today. His portrayal, in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, has defined Lawrence for a generation of moviegoers.
Here’s a little more about the subject of that great film:
You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” — T.E. Lawrence, Letter, May 1935
A legendary spy and warrior, and perhaps one of the early twentieth-century’s “most interesting men” wrote these words a few short weeks after retiring from military service, just after he had refused a knighthood from the King, and only days before he died in a motorcycle accident.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (born August 16, 1888) was forty-six years old, a fact which brings home how absurdly young he was when he started his work for British intelligence (he was twenty-five, and only thirty when the First World War ended), and he’d retired to Clouds Hill, a small brick cottage in the heart of Dorset to tend his garden, the centerpiece of which was a massive, rambling rhododendron that had been gifted to him by the novelist Thomas Hardy and his wife.
Although he’s known as a recluse, and, in general, as a rather odd duck, his later Letters point to a sweet disposition, a desire to socialize, and an interesting range of acquaintance.
But after his discharge from the Royal Air Force, he was clearly at a loose end and didn’t quite know what to do with himself, writing in March: “I wander about London in a queer unrest, wondering if my mainspring will ever have a tension in it again. So, I’m not cheerful actually, but sad at losing my R.A.F. existence. It was good, and I felt useful.” And, in April, (to Mrs. Thomas Hardy), “I feel very indisposed to do anything more; and very tired.” And, to Nancy Astor, just ten days before he died, “There is something broken in the works, as I told you: my will, I think.”
He was fond of comparing himself to a falling Autumn leaf, drifting through the air and down to the ground, puzzled and bewildered as to what was happening to it, and he did so again:
I’m ‘out’ now, of the R.A.F. and sitting in my cottage rather puzzled to find out what has happened to me, is happening and will happen. At present the feeling is mere bewilderment. I imagine leaves must feel like this after they have fallen from their tree and until they die. Let’s hope that will not be my continuing state.
For good or for ill, it was not to be his “continuing state” for very long. Two weeks later, he was out joyriding on his beloved Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle (pictured below) in the Dorset countryside, and he swerved to avoid two boys walking along the road in the opposite direction. He pitched off his cycle onto his head, and suffered a devastating injury.
Lawrence was in a coma for six days before he died. One of his attending neurosurgeons was Hugh Cairns, who used the experience as the foundation for his research into the frequent head injuries and unnecessary deaths of motorcycle dispatch riders. The motorcycle crash helmet developed from his work, and soon became a commonplace accessory in both the military and civilian worlds.
Lawrence’s funeral, in the tiny hamlet of Moreton, was attended by Winston and Clementine Churchill, E.M Forster, Lady Astor, and several other luminaries who were close friends and correspondents. This obituary from The Guardian (which uses the name “T.E. Shaw,” one of Lawrence’s many pseudonyms) sheds some light on what type of man Lawrence was, and the esteem in which he was held by his friends (although for my own part, I can hardly get past the bit that tells me Lawrence was attended by the King’s physician, Sir Farquhar Buzzard. Monty Python, please call your office).
Thomas Edward Lawrence, August 16, 1888–May 19, 1935
I have to say that I have greatly enjoyed retirement, ever since it came around for me. I welcomed the unwinding of my own “mainspring,” as I was no longer on call 7x24x365, likely at any moment to be whisked away from what I was doing because of a suspected intrusion into the hospital computer system; a malfunctioning piece of equipment that was preventing life-saving patient care from occurring in a timely way; a doctor who was scratching his online, malware-laden, porn itch on my network in one of the on-call rooms, or posting patient-identifiable photos and other information on-line without permission (yes, it does happen); or some other mind-boggling technical or human calamity, perhaps with serious legal, financial, or career-limiting implications.
And I’ve never been too concerned with leaves that fall from the tree, either. I know they rot into mulch and are absorbed back into the ground (I’ve heard that there are people who actually rake them up, but I dismiss this as sheer fantasy), and I have faith that, next Spring, buds will form on the trees, and the cycle will begin anew.
I retired thirteen years ago, on June 10, 2010. I do remember my older friends telling me that when I retired, I’d find so much to do that I’d wonder how, in my previous life, I’d ever managed to find time to do my job. I’ve largely found that to be true, and much as I loved my job, and I did, I hardly missed it at all. I missed quite a few of my co-workers though, and am happy still to be in touch with some of them and to meet for lunch or a drink every now and then.
The best thing about retirement, though? My granddaughter! And, speaking of cycles beginning anew, she’s a knitter. It doesn’t get any better than that.