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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A renaissance of conductorless orchestras reveals the limits of traditional leadership

What could the modern counterparts of the first conductor-free orchestras, once a socialist utopian vision, teach our politicians today?

Moscow, 1922. In the bitterly cold first months of the year, word spreads among concert-goers of an innovative concert soon to be held in the Hall of Columns in the House of Trade Unions, in the Kremlin. The concept? A conductorless orchestra.

It was called Persimfans (an acronym: Pervyi simfonischeskii ansambl bez dirigera) – or First Symphonic Orchestra without a Conductor. By doing away with the conductor – the musical figure of authority – its founders sought to embody the egalitarian ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution; Persimfans was a microcosm of socialist utopia.

Before the Revolution, Persimfans’s founder, Lev Tseitlin, had travelled to the United States, where he became disillusioned with the structure of modern orchestras. He loathed their latent hierarchies; the ultimate authority of the conductor, the leader, section principals, trailing all the way back to the fourth desk of double basses. Under this system, Tseitlin believed, musicians were reduced to mere “mechanical keys”, which the conductor simply “played”.

In Persimfans, Tseitlin turned the internal mechanics of an orchestra on their head. Hierarchies were dismantled and socially egalitarian principles were instilled; all members received equal pay, players were free to choose their voice or desk (traditionally viewed as a measure of ability), and committees were established for decisions regarding performance and interpretation.

Players were required to study the entire score, knowing the part of every player in the orchestra (in traditional set-ups, players are only given the music for the instrument they play). The musicians faced each other directly to maximise rhythmic homogeneity, with some even having their backs to the audience. Any arrangement that implied authoritarian motivations was eradicated, replaced by a system that prioritised the collective.

Persimfans was fairly successful for a number of years. The enormously influential Otto Klemperer, after having heard a Persimfans concert, is reported to have said: “If this kind of thing continues, we conductors will have to find a new trade.”

But despite the orchestra’s initial popularity – and imitations cropping up in Baku, Kiev, and Leipzig – it had been disbanded by 1933. The exact reasons why are unknown, but it’s likely economic forces eventually took their toll, with players working long hours for poor pay – that, and alleged ideological fights within the string section (some things never change).

Once the original fell by the wayside, so too did the concept and – apart from a few exceptions in Eastern Europe – conductorless orchestras largely disappeared for a number of decades.

However, in the 1970s, conductorless orchestras underwent a renaissance. And now, numerous orchestras operate on both sides of the Atlantic with great success.

One of the first to appear in that decade was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York. Although free of the ideologically-laden mission of Persimfans, many of its core tenets resemble its ancestor. It aims to “create extraordinary musical experiences through collaboration and innovation”, “challenge artistic boundaries” and “inspire the public to think and work with new perspectives”.

The orchestra’s musical plaudits are now numerous, having won a Grammy in 2001 for a brilliant album of Stravinsky’s orchestral miniatures. The orchestra also appears annually at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

But does the premise of a conductorless orchestra have any real-world currency? As Tim Thulson, a cellist with Washington DC-based conductorless orchestra Ars Nova, tells me, “artists thinking about political problems are, admittedly, like poker players who aren’t betting real money”.

Well, in 2007, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces – an award that recognises organisations “based on freedom, instead of fear and control . . . allowing people to self-govern and determine their own destiny”.

How are the ideals honoured by the award practically enacted? And how do those qualities instil leadership?

Firstly, the principle that anyone can influence artistic direction remains paramount. “We must have all our players ready and willing to speak up, to stop the orchestra, to argue for their ideas,” Thulson says. “Even if they’re in what’s traditionally a non-leadership seat. If the presumption is that high voices get to lead, we have to treat that as a fragile presumption . . . We can’t let traditions make us boorish or lazy.”

But another, crucial, principle concerns sound – and how audiences react to the difference in sonority of conductorless orchestras. Whereas traditional concert-goers talk about “the composer, the sonata form, or the great recordings they’ve heard”, Thulson explains, Ars Nova audiences discuss their “concert experience”; the dynamism of the players and “how exciting it is to hear the inner workings of the music”.

This is a common positive appraisal of conductorless orchestras – their demonstrative, vital and dynamic nature. It’s an attribute often credited to the diversified origin of the artistic ideas that make up a musical performance. As opposed to the single vision of the conductor, audience members hear the collective conception of between 30 and 40 musicians.

Thulson views this premise as having broader social implications. “Pluralistic society,” he says, “gives us more sources of social good of all sorts, whether that’s ethical traditions beyond our own or simply global cuisine.”

Notions of pluralism are under intense scrutiny in the current US presidential election. Now more than ever, diversity and difference are under attack from the narrow-minded politics of Donald Trump. Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy, the co-authors of Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestras, think the Republican nominee could learn a few lessons from the tenets of conductorless orchestras.

“Leadership ensembles are high-performing multi-leader teams that share and rotate leadership roles based on knowledge and expertise, and operate collaboratively on trust, mutual respect, emotional intelligence and integrity,” Seifter says.

“In each of those respects, they are the antithesis of the politics of Donald Trump, and the ethos of Trumpism.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Thulson argues, is the leader representative of collaborative politics. “Good leaders are servant leaders . . . They’re moderators whose first responsibility is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard.”

Although a conductorless orchestra may seem like a radical parallel to draw, and while listening to the public may seem like a basic point to make, recent political events – the ascent of Trump, Brexit and broader euroscepticism – have shown what happens when the fundamentals of democracy are forgotten.