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)
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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war