Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Mint (T.E. Lawrence On Happiness)


     I don't know why more people don't mention and write about The Mint, T.E. Lawrence's memoir of life in the RAF during the period 1922-27.

     As is well-known, following the conclusion of World War I and establishing his reputation and persona as "Lawrence of Arabia", and composing the war memoir The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, Colonel T.E. Lawrence enlisted in the newly created Royal Air Force in 1922 under the assumed name John Hume Ross.  His reasons for doing this are as complex as human nature. When his ruse was discovered in 1923, he was summarily demobilized, but eventually he was able to rejoin the RAF ranks in 1925 under his new legal name T.E. Shaw following a period of service in the Royal Tank Corps. As "Shaw", Lawrence served in a non-officer role as an RAF aircraftman, both in England and India, until he retired to his cottage in Dorset in 1935 at the end of his enlistment.

     The Mint comprises 69 short chapters grouped into into three sections -- The Raw Material, In The Mill, and Service -- and mainly covers the period 1922-25.  It contains some of the most acutely written passages I have ever read detailing with almost barometric precision a very sensitive, learned and intelligent person's reactions to the vicissitudes of daily social life and his disciplines for coping.  It is often mordantly amusing and never seems less than real, so much so that Lawrence made the decision to delay publication until 1955 in order to protect the reputations of his fellow soldiers by keeping their often salty language and the details of their private lives hidden and discreet.

     I find the following passage, from one of the book's later chapters, Fugitive, extremely moving.  It's not exactly typical of the other, more narrative, sections of The Mint, but I think a lot of people will understand and empathize with Lawrence's sentiments:

"My Cadet College notes shortened, grew occasional, stopped.  Months and months flowed silently away.  I think I had become happy.  'Why', complained E.M.F., 'as the years pass do I find that word harder and harder to write?'  Because when we write we are not happy; we only recollect it:  and a recollection on the exceeding subtlety of happiness has something of the infect, unlawful:  it being an overdraft on life.

If happiness was vested in ourselves, we could make it our habit, by selfishly shutting ourselves away:  though this complete peacefulness of the restricted circle is not to compare with the half-peace of a wider one: but happiness, while primarily dependent on our internal balance of desire and opportunity, lies also at the mercy of our external acquaintance.  One jar in all the circumambient -- and our day is out of tune.

We, in the service, if a good time comes, snatch at it:  knowing that blind chance has overlooked us sports of circumstance for the moment."

     Lawrence dedicated The Mint to his friend, the writer and editor, Edward Garnett, thus:


You dreamed I came one night with this book
crying, 'Here's a masterpiece. Burn it.'

                                                         Well -- as you please


  1. Lawrence, as Shaw, turns up on his motorcycle, and gets the last word, in Guy Davenport's marvelous, and marvelously odd, short story "August Blue." First he takes off all his clothes.

    Other characters include Jesus as a mischievous boy and Tukes the painter.

    Guy Davenport was introduced to Tukes's work by Harry Goldgar.

    E.M.F. would be E. M. Forster?

  2. As for E.M.F., that's right. Would like very much to find out about the rest. I've never read any of Guy Davenport's works except the Greek translations we've spoken about. He must have been an amazingly interesting man and I recall Harry G's conversations about him. It's funny: like The Mint, which I read when I was really young and couldn't possibly understand then, those conversations weren't lost on me, but are still just catching up with me (or vice versa) now. We've just returned from a very nice party, which for the first time this year put me in the Christmas mood. Something nice happened, something I imagined might, something I wanted to happen.

  3. Something nice happened,
    something I imagined might,
    something I wanted
    to happen.

  4. I have just read "THE MINT" twice
    back-to-back over a five day period.
    I think that it is magnificent book.
    I cannot quite understand why it
    has attained only a "minor status.
    It is truly a great book, and quite
    worthy of a great film.
    I think that Matt Damon
    would be perfect casting as T.E.L.
    Craig Mullen...Somerville, MA. USA.
    April 29, 2011.

    1. Craig -- Will Stewart. Long time. If you get this, email me at

  5. I'm very glad you liked The Mint and, I assume, this. Not crazy about the Matt Damon idea, but that's probably just me. Thanks so much for writing; I hope you visit again soon. Curtis

  6. Craig. I've rethought this and perhaps Matt Damon would be good casting. I go "on" and "off" Mr. Damon. He would sell tickets, certainly. There are other T.E. Lawrence-related posts scattered through ACravan, incidentally, the most recent being one called Deraa posted a couple of days ago. You might find them enjoyable and interesting. Greetings from the seashore -- Avalon, NJ. Curtis