Alexandria by Peter Stothard: A wander through places where the thoughts of the dead live on

The loose-knittedness of <em>Alexandria</em> encourages Jack Hornerism. For me, the richest plums in the pudding are the digressions on Stothard’s background.

Alexandria: the Last Nights of Cleopatra
Peter Stothard
Granta Books, 402pp, £25

Call them mortuary memoirs. Granta Books, Alexandria’s publisher, had a success in 2004 with The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray (unstated subtitle – Smoking Kills But Not for a Little While Yet). They’ve pulled it off again. There is a persistent aimlessness in which ideas circle round a nucleus. What nucleus? The one that Henry James called the “distinguished thing”. Death.

Alexandria is dedicated to Stothard’s lifelong (while it lasted) and recently deceased friend “Maurice”. Tantalising initials are as far towards any surname we get. Peter and Maurice were bosom pals at school, room-mates at Oxford. As classicists, they shared a fascination with Cleopatra. It was only at university that a girlfriend, “V”, pointed out to Peter that Maurice was gay. In his innocence, he had missed such Keatsian clues as when his pal presented an invitingly bare thigh with “A thing of beauty . . .” inscribed on it.

Maurice went on to be something big in the pet-food industry. Stothard was the most successful editor of the Times in modern times and is now editor of the TLS. Both Stothard and Maurice developed pancreatic cancer at the same time. Something in their school milk, they speculate. The cruel disease killed Maurice but spared Stothard.

Maurice’s death, in 2010, inspired a spasm of mourning recklessness. A winter trip in January 2011 to South Africa was buggered up by airline problems. Stothard took off instead, by himself, for Alexandria. There he lodged in a seedy, once grand hotel. There is a striking vignette of him, in Room 114, unshaven, regarding a wound left, one deduces, by the surgeon’s curing knife. He tours the city in the company of a couple of local Virgils who know their history well enough to take an Oxford viva in it. Egypt is shaking with the fore-tremors of the Arab spring.

Stothard has brought with him seven attempts – from early childhood onwards – to write a life of Cleopatra. He more or less does it. He is as interested in Cleopatra’s death as her life. He pooh-poohs all that asp and basket of figs nonsense. A businesswoman like her (Margaret Thatcher is alluded to) would surely find more efficient ways to die.

Death hovers darkly over the book. There is a ghastly description of being a leader writer at the Times as “CDH” (Charles Douglas-Home), in his mid-forties, dies slowly, gallantly and painfully of cancer, issuing his editorial instructions by “squawk box”, his voice blurred by morphine.

The loose-knittedness of Alexandria encourages Jack Hornerism. For me, the richest plums in the pudding are the digressions on Stothard’s background. It is similar to my own. He was Essex-born, “respectable” lower class, raised in a virtually bookless house, grammar-school and first-generation university- educated. I’m 12 years older and have been less successful in every one of our life parallelisms. I, too, however, am a “Person With Cancer” (prostate). And I like to think I recognise the mood in which this book was conceived. You feel a kind of morituri, with no one to salute. You’re in “remission” – which should, for many, be called “intermission”. As the man in the movie says, “I’ll be back.” Or perhaps not. The scythe may strike elsewhere on the body (or, most horribly, the mind). Or the person standing next to you.

Why Alexandria? Ostensibly to get that damned elusive Cleopatra book written. But the underlying reason, one suspects, was that the Egyptians, whose classic text is The Book of the Dead, laboured against biological fact to keep the dead alive – with their paraphernalia of mummies, pyramids, sarcophagi and sphinxes. And, above all, with libraries. Stothard muses at length about the Library of Alexandria. Its huge collection, he suggests, has framed our modern mind by cataloguing, listing and “rationalising” the preserved relics of the human mind. Libraries are places where the thoughts of the dead live on. There are 18 million books in the British Library, 99 per cent of them, I would hazard, by now dead authors. Wear black the next time you join the morning queue stretching back, nowadays, to the Euston Road.

One of my favourite allegories of cultural life is that of the artist Chris Ofili, who went to Zimbabwe to look at elephants. He never saw one but on his safari he came across mounds of elephant dung. He packed his suitcase with the stuff and flew back (“Anything to declare, sir?”) to England, where he created such works of art as Painting with Shit on it. Peter Stothard has brought back from his quixotic North African jaunt the materials of a very fine book indeed. No shit.

Alexandria, 1994. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gaia with an iPad? Thomas Friedman's ideas for the future of humanity are already old hat

Thank You for Being Late: an Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations restates the dominant doctrine of America's political centre – with some added name-dropping, of course.

“I want everyone to become an American,” Thomas Friedman, arguably his country’s most influential newspaper columnist, told the New Yorker in 2008, the year in which the collapse of Lehman Brothers nearly crashed the world financial system. The three-time Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist, whose paeans to US-led globalisation The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat became bestsellers in the Clinton-Bush era, has largely left the failures of the market unacknowledged over his three decades at America’s liberal paper of record. The 2008 recession gets only a passing reference in his new book, Thank You for Being Late, where the high priest of the global marketplace evangelises over the web’s role in transforming the modern world.

In Friedman’s eyes, computing has had a more profound impact on the human race than fire and electricity, which failed to connect us with “all the world’s knowledge or all the world’s people”. As we move from the Industrial Age to the digital economy, the “three largest forces on the planet” – technology, globalisation and climate change (which he terms “Moore’s Law”, “the Market” and “Mother Nature”) are accelerating at such a speed that their impact on our futures is almost unfathomable.

But Friedman – whose folksy demeanour caused his New Yorker profiler to compare him to “a chipper uncle in line at a barbecue” – hopes to put readers at ease and persuade us to adapt to changes that will make humanity “more efficient than we ever imagined we could be”. We meet an optimistic Gordon Moore, whose half-century-old law shows how computing power is destined to  increase exponentially, and Friedman assures us that, even at 86 years old, “all of his microprocessors were definitely still functioning with tremendous efficiency!”.

In Thank You for Being Late, part theoretical sweep, part hand-shaking travelogue, the author traverses the globe in search of the “smart” technology that is revolutionising our lives (“That garbage can could take an SAT exam!” he exclaims at one point). We are introduced to Watson, a supercomputer that is looking to “get certified to read and interpret X-rays”, and to a “connected cow”, strapped to pedometers and linked by radio signal to a farmer, which allows him to gauge when best to administer artificial insemination, “maximising” the farm’s output. Never missing an opportunity to shoehorn in a mention of his own connections, Friedman namedrops Bill Gates, Sergey Brin (who shows him a prototype of Google’s “self-driving vehicle”) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and at one point notes needlessly: “By coincidence, I had just interviewed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office about Iran a week earlier.”

His compendium of the digital present features all the usual suspects – Uber, Amazon, Airbnb – and compels us to imagine what life really was like in 2004 when ­“Facebook didn’t even exist yet”. Replete with buzzwords – selfie sticks, gig economy, sexting (the “tool du jour of edgy teenagers”, apparently) – the book is bold enough to borrow terms without crediting their authors (Niall Ferguson’s “killer apps”) and to coin its own, recasting the digital “cloud”, say, as the more impressive “Supernova”.

Friedman, who has stated his wish to rid environmentalism of its “liberal, tree-hugging, sissy, girlie-man” connotations, muses that since human beings have become almost godlike, we should harness technological innovation to address ecological crises. Think Gaia with an iPad. Now that mankind, empowered by “the Supernova”, is a force “of nature” and “on nature”, we have a duty to protect Mother Nature, who knows when she is experiencing stress or “getting a fever”. The author is aware of the planet’s limitations, as when he contemplates the extinction of rhinos, macaws and orang-utans and observes mournfully that “no 3-D printer will bring them back to life”.

Friedman’s travels take him to Greenland and West Africa, via India, Madagascar and Kurdistan, but he seems most ­comfortable when back home in America, where he seeks most of his insights from members of the elite – CEOs of computer firms, “legendary” venture capitalists – united in their belief that technology can save the world.

In Silicon Valley he gets inside the multinationals that humanity’s hopes are pinned on. There he finds his own, often italicised, banalities (“Guessing is officially over”, “naïveté is the new realism”) reflected back at him: IBM’s senior vice-president of cognitive solutions tells him the future “is much closer than you think” and the co-founder of LinkedIn talks of investing “in the start-up of you”. Email exchanges and Skype conversations are reproduced at length. He plucks lines from Joni Mitchell songs and recent hit films (Captain Phillips, The Martian). Discussing the temptation to stand still when the pace of change becomes overwhelming, he republishes the blogpost of an Olympic bronze-medal-winning kayaker.

Friedman’s wish to simplify arguments for his huge readership is driven by an overarching belief that democracy can only work when the people are able to make intelligent policy decisions, and not “fall prey to demagogues, ideological zealots or conspiracy buffs”. However, he is also willing to propose his own solutions, which he believes are “unlike anything on offer in America today”. Noting that the mainstream left/right parties are no longer fit for purpose, he wants to see a new force emerge to embrace international free-trade agreements, compassionate border control (“a very high wall with a very big gate”) and generous tax incentives for many of the big tech firms he interviewed for his book. He suggests calling it the “Making the Future Work for Everybody” party.

Friedman’s manifesto, far from breaking new ground, merely restates the dominant doctrine of America’s political centre. The author, a self-described “baby boomer”, shares his clique’s belief that the “titanic stubbornness” of empowered individuals drives humanity forward. Their companies should be left to themselves, paying little tax and gathering Big Data. Everyone should be given the opportunity to become an entrepreneur, a “citizen-worker”, financialising their everyday life and maximising their output. Those reluctant to do so will be left behind in the sweep of progress.

A dogmatic belief in the endurance of US power makes the author willing to cast an eye past his country’s frontiers, as “drones alone are a cure-nothing”. America, according to Friedman, acts as the last and best hope for those who find themselves living in the “World of Disorder”, his term for a long list of non-Western nations. So people in “places like Niger”, where people have “more kids as social security”, may also be offered the chance to achieve salvation.

Friedman’s epoch, the “Age of Accelerations”, coincides with the years following the financial crash: in his country, an age of retreat, when work became more precarious, economic safety nets more frayed, and society more inward-looking, culminating in the election of an illiberal nativist to the White House. Though he offers some familiar cures to America’s ills (“all that stuff you can’t download – the high five from a coach . . . the hug from a friend”), he warns that in this brave new world, we must adapt or die.

Declaring that “average is officially over”, Friedman wills his readers to wave goodbye to the days when you could just show up and do your job. This is dangerous territory for a twice-weekly op-ed journalist with a world-view unchanged over decades, who offers his readers orthodox prescriptions only. He must be praying that artificially intelligent supercomputers don’t take to column-writing any time soon. 

Thank You for Being Late: an Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L Friedman is published by Allen Lame (496pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage