Most of us probably know T. E. Lawrence as “Lawrence of Arabia,” and picture him as Peter O’Toole in the great David Lean film of that name. Fewer of us have read his autobiographical accounts of his exploits in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Even fewer know that he died an untimely death in a motorcycle accident on a narrow English byway. Lawrence (or “Aurans” as the Arabs phonetically interpreted his name) loved motorcycles and owned seven of them, all Brough machines. This is perhaps not surprising, because Lawrence was a daredevil who loved speed. The bike he was riding when he died was a Brough Superior SS 100, an ultra-expensive, top-of-the line machine. He came upon a couple of kids on bikes as he crested a rise at high speed. He swerved to avoid them. Did he go flying over the handlebars? Yes. Was he wearing a helmet? No.
Michael Korda has written a new biography of Lawrence entitled Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. One of the basic concepts of the book is that Lawrence was a hero in the classical sense, and that he deliberately set out to become one. As he set out, still in his youth, he traveled long distances from home on adventures, and to set some distance between himself and his demanding mother. Somewhat later but still young, he toured France to see the country’s great array of ancient fortresses, castles and mansions. And in both instances he did so on bicycles. Lawrence was apparently enamored with fast bikes as a kid, and his father kept him updated with the latest models of racing bikes. Then as later he loved speed. I’m certain that the early love of bikes was transformed into his post-Arabian era love of even faster travel on motorcycles. Too bad that in his youthful bicycling he never learned to wear a helmet. That was not then the culture. Helmets were not macho. Yet he might have lived out his allotted three score and ten if they had been. Then again, true heroes of any age prioritize adventure over comfort and safety. But, like unheroic daredevils, they sometimes pay a big price for reckless passion.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.