#Onthisday The ever restless D.H. Lawrence sets off for Ceylon

On this day in 1922, Lawrence set off for New Mexico via a massive detour. He would travel up the Suez at 5mph and imagine himself as a sea-bird, as all connections with land dissolved his sense of time. I, on the other hand, find myself sat in the same room, staring at the same screen, googling epic tattoo fails – all in the name of research…

On 26 February 1922 Lawrence sailed from Naples aboard the R.M.S Osterley heading towards Ceylon to meet a friend ‘who is taking Buddhism terribly seriously’. As Lawrence was wont to do, he had to convince himself he was doing the right thing in leaving the comfort of his home in Sicily. He does this in typically dismissive fashion in a letter to Norman Douglas on 4 March 1922: ‘Thank the Lord I am away from Taormina, that place would have been the death of me after a little while longer’.

His latest sojourn would see him travel at 5mph along the Suez where he would observe palm trees and Arabic men plodding by on camels. This tranquillity contrasted with Mount Sinai which he described in a letter to S.S. Koteliansky on 7 March as ‘like a vengeful dagger that was dipped in blood many years ago, so sharp and defined’.

Lawrence was acutely aware of his immediate environment and had the wonderful ability of being able to see the world from all perspectives. ‘Being at sea is so queer’ he wrote to Rosalind Baynes on 8 March ‘it sort of dissolves for the time being all the connections with the land, and one feels like a sea-bird must feel’.

Trincomalie Street, Kandy, Ceylon, c.1920 – Coop Ltd Postcard

When the land beckons him to Ceylon, everything appears to be fine in his temporary accommodation at Kandy. On the 24 March he sends his sister Emily a bit of hand-made lace and describes sitting high up on a verandah watching chipmunks and chameleons and lizards. But despite the lovely view, it is so hot he has to wear a sun helmet and white suit. ‘If one moves one sweats’. Lawrence is not very good at sitting still – he will later chastise the buddha for not getting up – and by the 28th March he has confessed to Anna Jenkins that ‘I don’t feel at all myself. Don’t think I care for the east’. By the 30th Robert Pratt Barlow is informed ‘I do think. still more now I am out here, that we make a mistake forsaking England and moving out into the periphery of life. After all, Taormina, Ceylon, Africa, America – as far as we go, they are only the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are: and we’re rather like Jonahs running away from the place we belong’.

Despite this temporary fondness for his country of birth, Lawrence never stopped running. Since his self-imposed exile of 1919 he would continue to big places up, get irritated by them, then move on. How short his life may have been and how little he would have written had he found lasting contentment anywhere.

The D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre, as well as my editorship of the Lawrence Society bulletin, has led me to reading Lawrence’s letters in chronological order so that I can map out what he was doing on each day exactly one century ago. If you would like to join me in this pursuit you need to pick up a copy of the Cambridge edition Volume IV (1921-24). As he dies in 1930, I only have eight years of this pleasure to go.

The contrast of our respective fates has not been lost on me. Lawrence is constantly on the move while I am constantly stationary. Whereas he is on the deck of a ship observing flying fish and black porpoises ‘that run about like frolicsome little black pigs’ I am googling phalluses for artefact three in the memory theatre and scrolling through Instagram wondering why one person got a Gregg’s tattoo on their bum during lockdown and another person had Lawrence’s poem Self Pity tattooed on their arm.

The D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre was launched in 2019 to coincide with Lawrence’s self-imposed exile. Currently, we are on a ‘digital pilgrimage’ but we hope to make a physical journey soon and retrace Lawrence’s steps. To submit an artefact to the memory theatre, see our project website.

Suez Canal 1922 – when it was ok to stand and stare…

The recent blocking of the Suez Canal caused a right tiz, bringing global trade to a grinding halt and $1 billion in compensation claims from angry exporters. But 101 years ago life was a bit slower. The above video visualises D.H. Lawrence’s plod along the Suez. Back when life was very different and it was ok to stand and stare.

It was created in collaboration with John McCarthy, a student at Nottingham Trent University who got in contact for some experience of video editing and mentoring. I really admire students who take the initiative and push for that extra experience (this is a voluntary placement and is not assessed). We will begin working on another film at the end of May.

We sat down and I outlined the tone and pace of the film and the need to keep things befitting to the historical period. This was definitely a film that required longer shots and stills rather than flitting between images. Then John had the creative freedom to select the images. We then met up and discussed the first draft which required a minor edit.

His motivation for getting involved with the project was the ‘creative freedom’ and to help with his future career. John said: ‘In the future I would like to be a film editor, I really enjoy editing as its where the project really comes to life. I see it as the last part of directing as you can decide on which shots to use, the pacing, and how the film will end up looking in a final cut. You can really decide how the film will look.’

The benefit of a placement for John is he gets mentoring and advice and a platform to showcase his work. The benefit for us is new content for the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It also forces me to come up with a new script and consider ways in which Lawrence’s work can shine a light on contemporary issues.

My hope with these placements is that students learn a bit about putting together a project and then have the confidence to go off and do something similar for themselves. Please find two minutes in your busy schedule to take a look or leave a comment on our YouTube channel. And if you do nothing else, make sure that you pause your 24/7 life for a few moments and enjoy life at 5mph as D.H. Lawrence did in 1922.

Extract of letter used in the film below:

“My Dear Rosalind, 

Here we are on the ship – ten days at sea. It is rather lovely – perfect weather all the time, ship steady as can be, enough wind now to keep it cool… 

I loved coming through the Suez Canal – 5 miles an hour – takes 18 hours – you see the desert, the sand hills, the low palm trees, arabs with camels working at the side. I like it so much….  

Being at sea is so queer – it sort of dissolves for the time being all the connections with the land, and one feels a bit like a sea-bird must feel. It is my opinion that once beyond the Red Sea one does not feel any more that tension and pressure one suffers from in England – in Europe altogether…  

It seems difficult in this world to get a new start – so much easier to make more ends.”

Further reading