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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How a dramatized account of Mark Duggan's death found a prime-time audience

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario, but Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan was done with surprising care and nuance.

The BBC grows ever more lily-livered in the matter of current affairs. It would, you feel, rather devote an hour to yet another historian in a silly costume than to a piece of investigative journalism – the problem being that while the latter often has serious consequences, the wives of Henry VIII, being dead, cannot be libelled, and thus shows about them are consequence-free.

But what’s this? When I saw it, I had to rub my eyes. Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan, a 90-minute film at 8.30pm on BBC1 (5 December) about the shooting of the 29-year-old Londoner by the police in 2011? Who commissioned this extravaganza of inquiry, and by what strange magic did they secure for it such a whopping great slot in the pre-Christmas schedule? I would love to know. If you have the answers, do please drop me a postcard.

What made it even more amazing was that this documentary contained no hint of a scoop. It was revelatory, but its disclosures were achieved cumulatively, through the careful pulling together of every possible version of the events of that August day: wildly conflicting stories that its director, Jaimie D’Cruz, told through a combination of interviews and reconstructions.

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario; they often come over like The Sweeney gone wrong. But the dramatisations in Lawful Killing had a terrible veracity, being based almost entirely on transcripts of the real thing (inquest accounts, witnesses’ interviews, and so on). Every voice seemed to reveal something, however unwittingly. In these accounts, the attentive viewer heard uncertainty and exaggeration, ambivalence and self-aggrandisement, misunderstanding and back-covering – all those human things that make the so-called truth so elusive and so damnably difficult to pin to the page.

A lot of the supposed intelligence that caused the police to follow Duggan that day remains secret, and I can’t see this changing any time soon. For this reason, I am not qualified, even after seeing the film, to say whether or not he was holding a gun as he emerged from a minicab on that warm afternoon. (The inquest jury decided that Duggan threw a weapon on to a nearby patch of grass before he was – lawfully – shot by an armed officer, while the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which had access to the secret intelligence, decided he was killed while holding one.) However, other things do seem to me to be crystal clear, and chief among them is the strange, cowardly and stupidly inept behaviour of the police immediately after his death.

In those hours, rumours swirled. At Duggan’s mother’s house, the family gathered, expecting a knock on the door at any time. How, they wondered, can a person be dead when the police have not yet informed their closest relatives? But no one came. The next day, the extended clan went to Tottenham Police Station where, again, they waited, for several hours. “Someone will be with you shortly,” they were told. Still, no one came. It was, incidentally, as they finally made their way back home that Duggan’s sister Kay Harrison saw a burning car. It was the first sign of the nationwide riots that – speaking of consequences – ultimately resulted in the deaths of five people.

Meanwhile on Channel 4 is a show for people for whom the Netflix Gilmore Girls reboot isn’t sugary enough (I can’t imagine who they are, these addicts with rotting black stumps for teeth). I was secretly hopeful that This Is Us (Tuesdays, 9pm), which is made by NBC, would be a bit like Thirtysomething, the touchy-feely series about a bunch of baby-boomer friends that I watched obsessively as a sixth former.

But, no. This is the kind of show in which a guy finds his long-lost parent, only to discover that the noble, adorable daddy is – boo hoo – dying of cancer. Its principal characters, three siblings, don’t talk to each other, or to anyone else. Rather, they make speeches, most of which come in two basic formats: mushy and super-mushy. This is schmaltz on toast with a mighty vat of syrup on the side.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump