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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7 things we learned from the Comic Relief Love, Actually sequel

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed.

After weeks of hype, the Love, Actually Comic Relief short sequel, Red Nose Day, Actually, finally aired tonight. It might not compare to Stephen’s version of events, but was exactly what you’d expect, really – the most memorable elements of each plotline recreated and recycled, with lots of jokes about the charity added in. So what did Red Nose Day, Actually actually teach us?

Andrew Lincoln’s character was always a creep

It was weird to show up outside Keira Knightley’s house in 2003, and it’s even weirder now, when you haven’t seen each other in almost a decade. Please stop.

It’s also really weird to bring your supermodel wife purely to show her off like a trophy. She doesn’t even know these people. She must be really confused. Let her go home, “Mark”.

Kate Moss is forever a great sport

Judging by the staggering number of appearances she makes at these things, Kate Moss has never said no to a charity appearance, even when she’s asked to do the most ridiculous and frankly insulting things, like pretend she would ever voluntarily have sex with “Mark”.

Self-service machines are a gift and a curse

In reality, Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrapping enthusiast would have lasted about one hour in Sainsbury’s before being replaced by a machine.

Colin Firth’s character is an utter embarrassment, pull yourself together man

You’re a writer, Colin. You make a living out of paying attention to language and words. You’ve been married to your Portuguese-speaking wife for almost fourteen years. You learned enough to make a terrible proposal all those years ago. Are you seriously telling me you haven’t learned enough to sustain a single conversation with your family? Do you hate them? Kind of seems that way, Colin.

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed

As Eleanor Margolis reminds us, a deleted storyline from the original Love, Actually was one in which “the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid).” Of course, even in deleted scenes, gay love stories can only end in death, especially in 2003. The same applies to 2017’s Red Nose Day actually. Many fans speculated that Bill Nighy’s character was in romantic love with his manager, Joe – so, reliably, Joe has met a tragic end by the time the sequel rolls around.  

Hugh Grant is a fantasy Prime Minister for 2017

Telling a predatory POTUS to fuck off despite the pressure to preserve good relations with the USA? Inspirational. No wonder he’s held on to office this long, despite only demonstrating skills of “swearing”, “possibly harassing junior staff members” and “somewhat rousing narration”.

If you get together in Christmas 2003, you will stay together forever. It’s just science.

Even if you’ve spent nearly fourteen years clinging onto public office. Even if you were a literal child when you met. Even if you hate your wife so much you refuse to learn her first language.

Now listen to the SRSLY Love, Actually special:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.