Tuesday, 15 April 2008

ou phrontis

I dropped into Clouds Hill the other day. Those of you with eclectic memories may recall that Clouds Hill was the cottage owned by Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known from the David Lean film as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was nothing like the tall, handsome and debonair Peter O'Toole. Quite the opposite in fact. He was only five foot three, rather plain looking and awkward in his mannerisms.

Lawrence was of course also ideally suited to be a member of the Diogenes Club and club records would, I am sure, show that he was a past president back in 1935 just before his untimely death - that is if the records could be found, which sadly they cannot since they have been lost along with much of the club’s better known memorabilia. I may say more about the club museum and its artefacts at a later date but to get back to T. E. Lawrence and Clouds Hill, there is only one solid evidence of connection with the club and that is the recollections of old Manton who once said that he met Lawrence when he was a young lad and couldn’t abide the fellow - thought him a tremendous show-off.

However, despite Manton’s doubtful memory and the lack of Diogenes Club records there are three things that convince me that Lawrence was a Diogenist to his very core.

The first thing is Clouds Hill itself. It is rather a rum kind of place. Not much in the way of windows as you can see from the picture and inside there is no kitchen nor lavatory nor any kind of hot or cold water. Certainly a place for the bohemian lifestyle. A man who had lived among the Bedu for almost two years had no need for modern conveniences. This is the way Diogenes would have been today – living out of tins and trotting up the hill with his spade to do his business. Here is ample evidence of the Diogenistic lifestyle and it is as close as you can get to living in a barrel as will pass for present day accommodation today.

The second thing that indicates Lawrence was a true Diogenes Club member was the rather secret work for which his special talents had made him particularly suitable. His relationship with Churchill, the talk of his being asked to head-up the secret service, the offer of a job as secretary to the Bank of England (I ask you!) his strange and untimely death and the mysterious black car that was sighted at the time. And then there were all manner of VIP visitors who came to see him at Clouds Hill including EM Forster, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy. How they coped in these ascetic surroundings is another matter. But it all adds up to something more than a mere private in the army. Here are mysterious comings and goings for which the Diogenes Club members are rightly famous.

The third thing that convinces me that Lawrence was a member is the inscription I saw over his doorway. One day his neighbour called round to find Lawrence up on a ladder with hammer and chisel in hand carving the words “ou phrontis” into the concrete lintel. Lawrence was a Greek scholar as you probably knew and when he was asked what the Greek words meant he told a story which he said he had read in Herodotus. The story goes that a king had a daughter that he wanted to marry off so he invited all of the best and most suitable young men to a feast. Well one young man got a bit drunk and danced on the table and did a few handstands – which is not the kind of thing you do at polite parties remembering that Greeks wore short military skirts and didn’t bother much with undergarments. Well the king was suitably repulsed by this young show-off and shouted out that he had just lost his chances of marrying the royal daughter. To which the young man shouted back “ou phrontis!” which roughly translated means “I don’t give a damn!” It’s the sort of phrase that one can almost believe was invented by Diogenes himself and expressed his philosophy pretty exactly. Anyone who carves that over their door has got to be a true cynic in practice as well as in spirit.
Dr Phil

[For those interested, the club memorabilia has included such rare artefacts as a blue carbuncle – said to be the inspiration for a famous detective story; the hollowed out foot of a woolly mammoth – used as the club umbrella stand; a coded journal said to belong to Sir Isaac Newton – as yet indecipherable and supposed to contain new insights into the workings of the universe for which the world was not yet prepared and finally the hollowed out skull of an ancient philosopher, said to be Plato’s himself – now used as a bowl from which the club dog drinks.]

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