Remembering Lawrence of Arabia

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The world’s greatest motorcyclist died 80 years ago this month. He wasn’t a racer; he was, in the words of Winston Churchill, “One of the greatest beings alive in our time. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again… His name shall live in English letters, it will live in the annals of war, it will live in the traditions of the RAF and in the legends of Arabia.”

Riding motorcycles wasn’t what Thomas Edward Lawrence did to achieve greatness; he fought a war and wrote books. His contribution to Britain’s cause in the First World War was immense: he led an Arab revolt against the Germans’ Ottoman allies, which earned him the appellation Lawrence of Arabia. His literary masterpiece The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom was described by Churchill as one of “the greatest books ever written in the English language”.

If I dared suggest Lawrence was the first celebrity motorcyclist, I believe he would (and quite rightly) come back from the dead and slit my throat. However, there’s no doubting his fame, nor his enthusiasm for two wheels.

Lawrence adored motorcycling and was addicted to speed. During the post-war years he built a close relationship with Brough Superior motorcycles and their creator, George Brough. In all, he owned seven of these mighty machines, named George I to George VII. He had an eighth on order when he crashed and lost his life in May 1935.

Some people said that Lawrence had it coming. He rode very fast over long distances to visit a circle of friends that went all the way from the establishment to bohemia and back again. Churchill idolised him but he felt more at ease in the company of fellow writers such as Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw, who stumped up the money for George VII when Lawrence was running on empty.

Lawrence wrote much and beautifully about the joy of riding a motorcycle at speed. Indeed he’s never been beaten at this. After reading his words I wonder why I bother writing this column, or anything else.

“I’d feel the earth herself moulding under me. It was me piling up this hill, hollowing this valley, stretching out this level place: almost the earth came alive, heaving and tossing on each side like a sea. That’s a thing the slowcoach will never feel. It is a reward of Speed. I could write for hours on the lustfulness of moving swiftly.”

Lawrence’s choice of Brough Superior was a good one – they were the superbikes of their day. The company’s top of the range SS100 was tailor-made to individual customer specifications at the Brough works in Nottingham and powered by a 905cc overhead valve V-twin engine, built by JAP in north London. Each SS100 was officially timed at 100mph at Brooklands before delivery to its lucky owner. The bike featured a monster wheelbase of six feet six inches (around two feet longer than a modern superbike] which gave Lawrence the tenacious high-speed road-holding he required. In the late 1930s a Brough held the motorcycle land-speed record at 169.79mph.

Lawrence adored his Broughs. “A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness.”

There was, however, a problem with Lawrence’s love of speed. He found more than sheer joy in fighting his way down a 1920s country road at one hundred miles an hour. He also found release from reality, like an alcoholic finds release through drinking heavily.

After the war, when the British people adopted him as a national hero, he enlisted in the ranks of the RAF under an assumed name to escape the fame that stalked him wherever he went. It’s probably also safe to suggest that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In other words, he had a lot from which to run away.

“When my mood gets too hot and I find myself wandering beyond control I pull out my motorbike and hurl it top-speed through these unfit roads for hour after hour. My nerves are jaded and gone near dead, so that nothing less than hours of voluntary danger will prick them into life: and the ‘life’ they reach then is a melancholy joy at risking something worth exactly 2/9d a day.”

In fact the drudgery of lowly military life seemed to suit Lawrence. He wanted to let his mind be quiet for a while, so he needed the boredom and obscurity as much as he needed the speed. During his time in the RAF he fettled aeroplanes and worked on the development of high-speed powerboats. He hoped that these new areas of knowledge would complete his journey “from ink to oil”.

By all accounts he was a superb rider, able to control a motorcycle at speed in very difficult circumstances. However, following his death, Shaw was moved to admit that his gift of George VII “was like handing a pistol to a would-be suicide”.

Lawrence crashed two months after leaving the RAF in the summer of 1935. He fell after swerving to miss two boys riding bicycles on a country road in Dorset and suffered fatal head injuries. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, as was perfectly normal at that time, and died several days later, without regaining consciousness.

Lawrence’s book The Mint, covering his years in the RAF, contains his most famous piece of writing about riding, The Road, which tells the story of his race with an RAF Bristol Fighter plane. It is required reading for anyone who loves to feed their emotions from the rush of speed.