An Autobiography: Chapter 61

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Chapter 57: Shooting Lawrence of Arabia – along with a Self-portrait in yellow and a hat.

Fine Art is freedom: Freedom from constraint and freedom to express whatever. (But it all unravels as soon as anyone stops to think about the concept of ‘freedom’ and the nature of persons and their forms of sanity. Sanity implies some sort of reality principle and that means facing up to the constraints of the real world.)

Anyway, as soon as I turned to consider self-portraits and the Fine Art ‘freedom’ of making a self-portrait I searched around for examples of my visual appearance. I came across a photo of me taken just before I hitchhiked from Wadi Rum in Jordan down to the seaside town of Aqaba. I had spent 24 hours in the desert and I was wearing a great hat and an even better scarf. The subject lent itself to a bold screen print. (The original appeal of going to Wadi Rum was because it was supposed to be beautiful in an unique way. So I left the wonderful tranquility of the wild life reserve of Dana in Jordan, stayed 3 days in Petra, and then I caught a south-bound bus and found a person who arranged trips into the great expanse of Wadi Rum.)

Here is my account of the twilight hours of that desert trip.

‘The sun was setting. I felt as if I was setting with it. The bright disk of the sun rested for a moment on top of the distant cliffs. It looked like a huge satellite dish that had finally overdosed on TV channels.

I sat down on a small rock. Presently I questioned the wisdom of sitting down, insouciantly, on a rock in the desert. Maybe there were scorpions fallen from the stars that had made their homes right there, underneath that rock, in the desert. Maybe the very rock I was sitting on was a palace, a shopping mall, or a holiday resort for scorpions.

I stood up and pushed the rock over. No, there were no scorpions. The rock looked 100% uninhabited. This, I knew, was an illusion. God knows how many trillions of tiny beings were going about their business on the lifeless surfaces of that rock.

I sat down again on the rock and watched the sky turning roxy-red and purple-velvet. I sighed – just for a moment. It was a special sigh: It was all very simple: I was sitting on a rock, on a sand dune, in the middle of the place where they had made the film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I was taking in the mood of Wadi Rum. [A Wadi is a river valley; I don’t know what a Rum is.] And, I was here on that rock, on that dune, after the million ups and downs that hitchhiking in Jordan had visited upon me. This was Journey’s End; the End of the Line. A tune came into my head – it was The Travelling Wilburys – along with the chorus, ‘End of the line, end of the line’.

And then the outer space of the world disappeared from the horizon; I was lost in my own dreaminess; a few thoughts and bits of thoughts came and went: Iron filings; the cover design of a Penguin modern classic; the melody from a Neil Young song; remnants of a conversation with a colleague; the same colleague looming towards me in the half-light of his study; railway tracks; memories of the early morning dew and foot prints in the dew, and footprints in the sand; a 2b Pencil; a photograph of my mother … Susan Sontag, sensibilities, Dylan’s ‘All along the watchtower’ … my mother playing Rachmaninov, my father reading the Sunday Times …

Of course, the hardness of the rock upon which I was sitting began to return me to the other world, the world out there. But before it could do so from under its own steam, a small boy appeared. He sat down bedside me. I had met the small boy earlier in the day. He was the son of my Bedouin guide. The boy was aged about 5. The small boy was armed with a toy Kalashnikov. It was quite a realistic Kalashnikov even though it was made from heavy-duty grey plastic. In truth, I didn’t really want to have to think about Kalashnikovs at that particular moment. BUT the small boy obviously did want to think about Kalashnikovs. He looked at me happily and started to demonstrate the properties of his particular Kalashnikov. It rasped out a kind of machine-gun sound and, as it blasted away, a series of lights arranged along its muzzle started flashing. The lights were red – cardinal red – the red that cardinals wear in the Vatican.

I wasn’t exactly annoyed but I wasn’t overly pleased either. It had suddenly become much harder to take in the last light of the desert sunset and to absorb whatever it is that people absorb in Wadi Rum. The boy then circled around me still smiling happily; he chattered away to me. I didn’t understand what he was saying. But, I did get a strong sense that I was supposed to join in with his game. ‘Um,’ I thought. ‘This isn’t looking so good now. I wonder if he is going to go away.’

I waited.

The boy did not go away.

In fact, the more I gazed across the plain to the distant cliffs where the sun had quietly overdosed and collapsed a few minutes earlier, the more the boy seemed to attach himself to me. He nestled up against me. It looked as if he and I had become friends. So, I picked up the Kalashnikov and began taking aim at imaginary enemies lodged in the nearby cliff and rock faces. The boy was overjoyed. He seized the weapon from me and rattled off a few minutes worth of machine-gun fire.

‘God, almighty,’ I thought: ‘I mean, I’ve had a pretty so-so time in Jordan and this was supposed to be a moment of stock-taking, of meditation, of figuring things out, of seeing a sight. But it’s all gone belly-up, shot to shreds by a small boy and his wretched toy gun. I mean: Who on earth gives a small boy an imitation Kalashnikov? For heaven’s sake …’

I looked at the boy who was imploring me to continue with his game, enjoining me to fill out his fantasy. He offered me the toy gun. Once again, I shot at a range of imaginary figures. This time, though, they had started to take on more recognisable form. Some were in military uniform, others in the khakis of a murderous militia.


And with each rat a tat tat the lights on the gun blazed away. Then the boy took his turn.

Suddenly, I burst out laughing. I laughed and laughed and the more I laughed the more I wanted to laugh. In the end I was howling with laughter. The perfect irony of it all had struck me with maniacal force. The boy, though, had become most disquieted. He was looking completely mystified. Undeterred, I grabbed the Kalashnikov and charged off towards the nearest cliff. I hurled myself to the ground and shot just about every possible person I imagined had ever come near to Wadi Rum. ‘You can f**k all that stuff about finding peace and tranquillity and the spiritual silence of the desert. No. Stuff that,’ I thought. By now, I was blasting every living thing to smithereens. It was heaven. And the best bit of all was that I even got to shoot Lawrence of Arabia.

Now that Lawrence of Arabia was well and truly dead I paused. Then it dawned on me: I had shot a national hero. I was in disgrace. I trudged back to where the small boy was standing. Overhead the stars were grinning. I handed him his Kalashnikov.

Inside the huge Bedouin tent a wood fire was burning.

Yesterday, 6th February 2020 I turned the memory of myself in Wadi Rum into a really stylish screen print. A self-portrait in yellow with a hat. (That’s the one – up there.)

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