Sunday, September 30, 2007


TE Lawrence in the traditional dress of the Arab tribes he studied and fought with
This short essay/reminiscence from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) is one of my favorite pieces of motorcycle writing. It's from his book 'The Mint', published posthumously in 1955. 'The Mint' is a collection of notes and essays penned by Lawrence while serving in the Royal Air Force (1923-35), and edited by his brother, Professor A.W. Lawrence, who inherited T.E.L.'s estate (and who had to sell the American rights to 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' to pay inheritance taxes in England on Lawrence's death in 1935, aged 46).

Lawrence gained his 'of Arabia' during the First World War, where his adoption of Arab dress, language, and custom gained him the respect of King Faisal, and convinced British brass to give T.E.L. a free hand to conduct commando raids on Turkish positions, using Arab tribesmen as his soldiers. After his rampant successes during the War (and promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel), he returned to England and sought the anonymity of enlisted military service to escape his fame, which partly resulted from cooperation with journalist Lowell Thomas during the Arab Campaign (Thomas sent frequent, romantic/heroic stories about Lawrence to the English press, and made him a hero). 'The Mint' chronicles those years spent in the RAF.
TE Lawrence with a camel and an Enfield rifle
Lawrence published two original books during his lifetime; 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' (1926) and 'Revolt in the Desert' (1927), which was an abridged version of 'Seven Pillars'. Interestingly, Lawrence refused payment for his writing, feeling that he had already been paid by the government for his service in the military, on which the books were based. 'Revolt' was a best-seller, and profits went to a fund for children of RAF officers killed in action. If you're interested in reading his work, I'd suggest 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'; Lawrence had a natural gift for writing, and his dear friend George Bernard Shaw helped him edit the the book. It's a classic.

Of course, Lawrence writes here about his experience riding his Brough Superior S.S.100 model.
TE Lawrence with his first Brough Superior SS100, 'Boanerges', of which he writes in 'The Road'
The Road:
"The extravagance in which my surplus emotion expressed itself lay on the road. So long as roads were tarred blue and straight; not hedged; and empty and dry, so long I was rich.

Nightly I’d run up from the hangar, upon the last stroke of work, spurring my tired feet to be nimble. The very movement refreshed them, after the day-long restraint of service. In five minutes my bed would be down, ready for the night: in four more I was in breeches and puttees, pulling on my gauntlets as I walked over to my bike, which lived in a garage-hut, opposite. Its tyres never wanted air, its engine had a habit of starting at second kick: a good habit, for only by frantic plunges upon the starting pedal could my puny weight force the engine over the seven atmospheres of its compression.

Boanerges’ first glad roar at being alive again nightly jarred the huts of Cadet College into life. ‘There he goes, the noisy bugger,’ someone would say enviously in every flight. It is part of an airman’s profession to be knowing with engines: and a thoroughbred engine is our undying satisfaction. The camp wore the virtue of my Brough like a flower in its cap. Tonight Tug and Dusty came to the step of our hut to see me off. ‘Running down to Smoke, perhaps?’ jeered Dusty; hitting at my regular game of London and back for tea on fine Wednesday afternoons.
George Brough - on crutches after an accident - and TE Lawrence in 1930
Boa is a top-gear machine, as sweet in that as most single-cylinders in middle. I chug lordlily past the guard-room and through the speed limit at no more than sixteen. Round the bend, past the farm, and the way straightens. Now for it. The engine’s final development is fifty-two horse-power. A miracle that all this docile strength waits behind one tiny lever for the pleasure of my hand.

Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England’ straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boanerges is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop flying across the dip, and up-down up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.
The Bristol F2B fighter
Once we so fled across the evening light, with the yellow sun on my left, when a huge shadow roared just overhead. A Bristol Fighter, from Whitewash Villas, our neighbour aerodrome, was banking sharply round. I checked speed an instant to wave: and the slip-stream of my impetus snapped my arm and elbow astern, like a raised flail. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln. I sat hard in the saddle, folded back my ears and went away after him, like a dog after a hare. Quickly we drew abreast, as the impulse of his dive to my level exhausted itself.

The next mile of road was rough. I braced my feet into the rests, thrust with my arms, and clenched my knees on the tank till its rubber grips goggled under my thighs. Over the first pot-hole Boanerges screamed in surprise, its mud-guard bottoming with a yawp upon the tyre. Through the plunges of the next ten seconds I clung on, wedging my gloved hand in the throttle lever so that no bump should close it and spoil our speed. Then the bicycle wrenched sideways into three long ruts: it swayed dizzily, wagging its tail for thirty awful yards. Out came the clutch, the engine raced freely: Boa checked and straightened his head with a shake, as a Brough should.

The bad ground was passed and on the new road our flight became birdlike. My head was blown out with air so that my ears had failed and we seemed to whirl soundlessly between the sun-gilt stubble fields. I dared, on a rise, to slow imperceptibly and glance sideways into the sky. There the Bif was, two hundred yards and more back. Play with the fellow? Why not? I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to overtake. Slowed ten more: sat up. Over he rattled. His passenger, a helmeted and goggled grin, hung out of the cock-pit to pass me the ‘Up yer’ Raf randy greeting.
TE Lawrence in his incognito years within the Tank Corps.  Not his unusual one-piece linen suit.  The watch he's wearing is an Omega aviator-chronograph, which now supposedly sits in the Omega museum, Biel, Switzerland.
They were hoping I was a flash in the pan, giving them best. Open went my throttle again. Boa crept level, fifty feet below: held them: sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country. An approaching car pulled nearly into its ditch at the sight of our race. The Bif was zooming among the trees and telegraph poles, with my scurrying spot only eighty yards ahead. I gained though, gained steadily: was perhaps five miles an hour the faster. Down went my left hand to give the engine two extra dollops of oil, for fear that something was running hot: but an overhead Jap twin, super-tuned like this one, would carry on to the moon and back, unfaltering.

We drew near the settlement. A long mile before the first houses I closed down and coasted to the cross-roads by the hospital. Bif caught up, banked, climbed and turned for home, waving to me as long as he was in sight. Fourteen miles from camp, we are, here: and fifteen minutes since I left Tug and Dusty at the hut door.

I let in the clutch again, and eased Boanerges down the hill along the tram-lines through the dirty streets and up-hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous God: and man’s very best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness, in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.

Remigius, earthy old Remigius, looks with more charity on and Boanerges. I stabled the steel magnificence of strength and speed at his west door and went in: to find the organist practising something slow and rhythmical, like a multiplication table in notes on the organ. The fretted, unsatisfying and unsatisfied lace-work of choir screen and spandrels drank in the main sound. Its surplus spilled thoughtfully into my ears.
Lawrence on his 1926 Brough Superior SS100
By then my belly had forgotten its lunch, my eyes smarted and streamed. Out again, to sluice my head under the White Hart’s yard-pump. A cup of real chocolate and a muffin at the teashop: and Boa and I took the Newark road for the last hour of daylight. He ambles at forty-five and when roaring his utmost, surpasses the hundred. A skittish motor-bike 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. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.

At Nottingham I added sausages from my wholesaler to the bacon which I’d bought at Lincoln: bacon so nicely sliced that each rasher meant a penny. The solid pannier-bags behind the saddle took all this and at my next stop a (farm) took also a felt-hammocked box of fifteen eggs. Home by Sleaford, our squalid, purse-proud, local village. Its butcher had six penn’orth of dripping ready for me. For months have I been making my evening round a marketing, twice a week, riding a hundred miles for the joy of it and picking up the best food cheapest, over half the country side."


Mick P said...

Excellent TEL round-up. I can hardly believe that this post hasn't already attracted a comment. I, too, love 'The Road'. It's one of the finest evocations of riding a motorcycle that I've yet to read.

Keep up the great work on this blog. It really is of extraordinarily high quality.

JohnH said...

Is this race the scene depicted at the start of the David Lean film. Great writing and can't wait for my next sausage bacon and egg breakfast.

Anonymous said...

I've never read a better description of riding. Thanks so much for your excellent, excellent blog. If you were a magazine I'd subscribe in a second. If you were a TV show, I'd buy cable just to watch it. Top Gear is only a lesser planet in your solar system!

"The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it..."

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the excellent and informative content of your blog. Please continue and keep up the excellence.

Trish said...

Paul, as a fellow blogger I appreciate the hard work you put into your blog here. I also recognize a fellow blogger who writes about a passion of theirs. I adore local history like you adore vintage motorcycles, thus I write about my hometown and surrounding area like a breath. That said, another passion is TEL and the rich life he led and all its aspects. Thank you so much for sharing this from THE MINT, a favorite book of mine by him. I always thought when I read this passage, this man truly understood what it was all about...and no wonder he died the way he did! But I think he died the way he wanted, and they way he always lived - on his terms...

Carl Calvert said...

Paul, well done.
T E L has drawn me to Oxford,academe, the desert, and motorcycles. My first BMW (an r60/6) I rode down the road on which he was killed. A friend's father fettled TEL's Brough whist he was a Marchwood (near my home). Many words have been spoken and written about him. To me, he is an inspiration and a warning.

Scrofula said...

Back in the summer of '65, (recently returned to where I was hatched)- I was hanging out at the Johnson's Motorcycle Club, and a guy rode in on a Brough Superior! (I had read about these machines, from the Letters of T.E. Lawrence- never thought I would ever see one- and actually on the road...
The rider pulled up to the row of parked bikes, and took off his helmet. And of course- I walked over to have a closer look at it, (and had a chat with the rider). We talked about the history of these fine machines, and I mentioned:
"You are probably aware- that T.E. Lawrence owned a few of these?"
He laughed- pulled a folded paper out of his pocket- and handed it to me. It was a mimeographed copy of the front page of a Coventry newspaper. The headline, said 'LAWRENCE DEAD'. There was a column on the right hand side of that paper, and a photograph of the motorcycle, (laying on it's left side, on the back of a small truck- being taken from away from the accident scene.
The rider pointed to that photo, and asked if I could see the license plate on the rear fender? (Yes.) Now- take a look at the plate on the back of my bike!"
I was astonished- they were the same!?! (Licence plates in 'Blimey' stay with the vehicle.)
I said: "Holy crap- you got Lawrence's bike! Where did you find this?"
He replied: "My family has lived in the same home in Coventry- for three generations. We had a bomb shelter in the back yard, since WW1.My parents asked me to clean the junk out of it, so they could have the shelter removed, and get the yard re-landscaped. I found two of these bikes in there. One, had major engine failure- the other had been crashed. So- I was able to put one together, out of the two- and here it is. I found out-afterwards- that Lawrence was a friend of my grand parents."
I said: "Wow- given this machine's history, it must be worth a fortune?"
He replied: "I have already been offered a thousand quid for it- but I will never part with it!"
That motorcycle- was auctioned off st Sotheby's- many years ago- but it took me ten years to find out where it went- The Royal War Museum in London bought it. (I sent them an email- a few years ago- but they never got back to me. Anybody out there have any updates on this?
I have another question- this one is for Alan Cathcart: Did you once visit a bikeshop- called KC Cycles- in Ottawa, Ontario- where I was pulling wrenches, in 1972?
You can reach me-at

The Vintagent said...

There was a time it was possible to attach an unused reg number to any machine - I know a fellow who used TEL's reg on another Brough. Caveat Emptor! The machine on display at the War Museum wasn't theirs; it still belongs to a private party, who occasionally entertains people by asking 2M pounds for it. Someday the market will catch up with his ambition...

Anonymous said...

A lovely story. I've long held an interest in Lawence and will be further researching the route described with a view to following it on my own 1000cc V twin in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Oliver Sacks mentioned "The Road" in his autobiography, which I'm now reading. Found it on your site. I was the Editor of Rider Magazine 82-88, and rode all over the US, Canada, Europe and Japan. Lawrence's essay reminded me of those good old days. Mahalo for posting.

The Vintagent said...

Funny, I'm just writing up a review of Sacks' book; finished it last week. Great photos of the man, great stories of riding from a tremendous human being.