A vintage valise or a battered briefcase?
Even today, every op shop or garage sale, I look out for them. Battered vintage hand luggage. It’s been that way since I was a small girl. A persistent image - a dogged fixation.
One day I think, someone might… someone might find a bundle of papers and they might be… Of course the chance now is so remote its laughable, and yet…
It started on my mother's knee
It could have been a lesson in perseverance or about being careful, but I don’t think it was either, it was my mother’s admiration for everything Arabian - and for a contemporary hero of hers, T E Lawrence. He'd died in 1935 when my mother was twenty-two.
It wasn't that she knew him personally, but he was up there with other Arabists she admired, Sir Richard Burton, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger. Lawrence had a mastery of language, a fascination with archaeology and his account of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule in his epic Seven Pillars of Wisdom was full of thrill, pathos and daring. And he looked pretty damn amazing in his Arab garb!
Mum owned a copy of the first trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and I had to handle it carefully. It was thick and heavy to hold as my small fingers traced its marbled end-papers, smooth to the touch, and the indent of the title and twin scimitars stamped in gold on the cover.
Each time the book came out, so did the story
With each outing of the book came the story of Lawrence changing trains and leaving his briefcase with the original manuscript on Reading Railway Station. It was around Christmas 1919. He boarded his train and as it pulled out, he realised his loss. He telephoned as soon has he reached Oxford, not that far, but it was gone, someone had nicked it.
In the New Year, he sat down and for the next three months rewrote his manuscript from memory. He no longer had his notes and drafts, he'd destroyed them in his enthusiasm for finishing the manuscript the first time round.
Christmas time three years on...
Three years after Lawrence left his briefcase at Reading Train Station, on another winter's day, another case, also full of manuscripts, was stolen at another train station. This time it was Paris.
Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, excited that he wanted her to join him in Switzerland, gathered up all his papers and packed them in a small case. I can picture her dashing about their tiny apartment getting ready to set off for the railway station. With the valise safely under her train seat, she stepped off to get a newspaper and when she came back, it was gone.
Hemingway tried to put a brave face on it, but he'd never asked her to bring anything.
The papers on the desk, OK; but why the ones in the drawer and off the shelves? Surely not everything?
Poor Hemingway. Poor Hadley.
Yes everything, everything.
Similarities linked the two men
Hemingway and Lawrence were born a decade apart and both lived lives of adventure, made their names writing about war and influenced later generations. Lawrence was frustrated when Britain contradicted promises of independence made to the Arabs and in the prelude to the next war, Hemingway seethed that the Allies would not help Loyalist Spain in its fight against the fascists.
Hemingway read Lawrence and had him in mind as he set to his famous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, describing the Spanish landscape in much the same way as Lawrence described Jordan.
I wonder what the petty crooks who lifted those cases thought when they opened them? Irritation? Disappointment and annoyance? I expect they barely gave it a thought as they tossed the lot, or did they…
So now you know why I always look at battered briefcases! Either would do.
It's also in my mind when I have to start all over again because I've lost a document I'm working on or messed up an art project. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a big thick book to write twice. If he could do it, any of us can.