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)
Ellie Foreman-Peck for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

The rise of Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s back-room boy

The former conservative blogger is mounting a bid for the Ukip leadership. But can he do enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him?

It is a mark of how close the UK Independence Party has moved to the heart of the British establishment that one of the three main candidates for its leadership has ascended from the so-called spadocracy.

Nigel Farage used to castigate David Cameron and Ed Miliband for having worked as special advisers and little else, but Raheem Kassam – said to be his preferred choice as his latest successor – was his aide for several years and sometimes styled himself as Farage’s “chief of staff”. His only other substantial jobs have been in the right-wing blogosphere.

Kassam has one big advantage going into the election on 28 November: the support of Ukip’s mega-donor, Arron Banks. He will stand against the party’s former deputy chairwoman Suzanne Evans – who is backed by its only MP, Douglas Carswell – and the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who has declared himself the “unity candidate”.

Kassam, 30, was born in Hillingdon, west London,
to Tanzanian parents of Gujarati descent. They are practising Muslims but their son says he has not followed the faith for a decade.

Like Evans, he came into politics through the Conservative Party, and sat on the board of its youth wing. Although his political colours have changed since then, his allegiance has always been to the far right: he once listed Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act and was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 US presidential race, as a hero.

Kassam worked for the Commentator, a right-wing blogging platform, but left on bad terms with Robin Shepherd, the site’s founder and editor. Subsequent articles on the Commentator attest to the acrimony. One brands Kassam “weird”, and the latest mention of him appears under the headline “Ukip leadership contender Raheem Kassam is a criminal, and we can prove it”.

His time there did, however, earn him the approval of the conservative polemicist James Delingpole. In 2014, Delingpole brought Kassam on board as managing editor when he set up the British outpost of Breitbart News, the right-wing website whose US executive chairman Steve Bannon became Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August. Breitbart sees itself as the house journal of the “alt right”, hardline on immigration and invested in denying climate change. Recent articles from its London bureau have carried headlines such as “British peer: polygamy ‘commonplace’ within Muslim communities in Britain” and “Green politico: it’s time to learn Arabic and stop worrying about migration”.

Given his hardline views (he addressed the first UK rally of the far-right group Pegida), it is not surprising that Kassam felt more at home in Farage’s Ukip than David Cameron’s modernising Conservatives. In 2014 he officially switched from blue to purple, joining Farage’s office later that year.

There, he was soon at the centre of the tensions between the Ukip leader and Carswell, who had defected from the Tories to Ukip that year. From the start, Carswell and Farage were at odds over strategy, with the former concerned that his leader’s anti-immigration rhetoric would imperil the EU referendum result.

Carswell tried to oust Farage after the 2015 election, in which Ukip polled 3.9 million votes but won just one Commons seat. Then as now, Carswell’s preferred candidate was Suzanne Evans. She is not only a close ally, but an employee in his parliamentary office.

Such is Evans’s proximity to Carswell that Farage and his allies will do their utmost to prevent her from becoming leader. Although Farage now has his eye on a lucrative new career as a pundit on Donald Trump’s long-rumoured television network, the knowledge that Ukip had fallen into the hands of his old enemy would sour his retirement.

Farage, like Arron Banks, had settled on a preferred replacement: Steven Woolfe, formerly a Ukip MEP and now sitting as an independent. But Woolfe’s candidacy was beset by problems from the outset – culminating in a brawl that ended with him in hospital. On recovering, he announced not only the end of his leadership bid, but also his association with Ukip, which he now regards as “ungovernable”.

That left Kassam as the most plausible anti-Evans candidate. But can he do it? Kassam has two obstacles in his path. The first is his own record of combative public pronouncements – he has asked if Angela Eagle has “special needs”, called for Nicola Sturgeon to have her mouth taped shut so she couldn’t speak, and added “and her legs, so she can’t reproduce”. The second is his name, coupled with his skin colour and Gujarati heritage.

As a conservative blogger, Kassam will be familiar with the rumour, peddled by Breitbart and others on the alt right, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. So his campaign website is liberally dotted with photos of him sipping a pint (he lists Whitstable Bay as his preferred poison). Will that be enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him? 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage