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The Legend of Lawrence
The start of a new year always means the potential for adventure and discovery. No man has adventured further than TE Lawrence, whose intrepid spirit is celebrated here by Rob Ryan
It is the time of year when we look to the coming 12 months and begin to plan our trips away, perhaps conjuring up something that will challenge us and rise above the humdrum. But what if behind you lies the adventure of a lifetime, impossible to top? This has long been a problem facing those who find fame early in life. Take TE Lawrence, who, as well as being an explorer and archeologist, travelling in some of the world’s remotest regions, had led the Arab Revolt in 1916-18 against the Ottoman Empire. The image of this slight, blond man in flowing robes at the head of a daring camel-mounted guerilla army caught the imagination of the British public and he subsequently had unwelcome adulation thrust upon him. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was sickened by war, suspicious of his celebrity status, but, even in peacetime, still craved the excitement and adventure he had experienced in the desert. He found it in motorcycles.
TE Lawrence on his Brough Superior motorcycle chats to George Brough, the creator of the motorcycle widely considered the world’s first super bike
Post-war, he enrolled anonymously in the RAF, and in 1922 he purchased the first of no less than eight Brough Superiors he would own. He waxed eloquently about the thrill of riding such a machine:
“Another bend and I have the honour of one of England’s 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.”
Lawrence donned Arab garb during his World War I campaign because Bedouin robes were ‘cleaner and more decent in the desert’ than a khaki army uniform. However, for his rides in the UK his tunic of choice was a Belstaff ‘colonial coat’, a very modern-looking (the company has in fact produced an identical replica, the Roadmaster) jacket of triple-layered cotton, with patch pockets, belt and a stand collar. Belstaff has long been the choice for adventurers and travellers of all stripes and this jacket was intended for those making for hostile climes and in need of a versatile, wind- and waterproof garment. Lawrence was not leaving the country, but he was venturing into extreme conditions – he frequently topped 100 mph on his bikes and boasted about losing any chasing policemen on forest roads.
Peter O’Toole starred in David Lean’ Lawrence of Arabia, the story of TE Lawrence’s life. Image courtesy of Rex
He would have worn the coat to ride his beloved Brough SS100s, Georges II, which he bought in 1924 - the year Belstaff was founded - to George VII, the bike he died on 11 years later (George VIII was still being built when he crashed near his Clouds Hill cottage in Dorset).
Exactly what happened to cause that accident on a long, straight, if undulating, road on the morning of 13 May 1935, when Lawrence was just 46, has never been fully determined. But Lawrence died - six days after the crash - as a result of doing something he loved: riding a powerful motorcycle. ‘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.’ That ‘provocation to excess’ might well have proved his undoing that morning, but, 80 years later, the legend of the fearless, blue-eyed adventurer who conquered the desert lives on.
Words: Rob Ryan
Robert Ryan is a writer for The Times and Sunday Times and author of Empire of Sand, a novel about Lawrence before Arabia