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26 October 2017

Peter Stothard’s Diary: Thatcher’s plotters, and memories of the battle of Wapping

The author and journalist asks: would any of my Senecans have backed Brexit? 

By Peter Stothard

Correct me, archivist, if I’m wrong but this is my second piece for the New Statesman in 40 years. I proudly remember the first, on some “Titanium scandal” in the early Thatcher era. I knew nothing then about lightweight paint-whiteners but to see my name in the NS office window in Great Turnstile was beyond thrilling for a would-be reporter. Journalism does not always get better than the first time, as I try to advise the ambitious young.

Speak, Memory

Titanium metal, as I did know in 1980, took its name from the Titans, old gods that battled the new in Greek mythology. I was a classics student and would have expected easily to answer the question “Was Dione a Titan?”, put to me and Mary Beard in our “How To Read A Latin Poem” session at the Cheltenham Literature Festival recently.

Sadly, the only name of a female Titan I could remember from the Cheltenham stage was Mnemosyne – Memory herself – which, while neat, was not the answer to the question asked by a patient young woman about the ancestry of Julius Caesar.

Dusty tomes

Now that the interlude between my NS pieces has come to an end, I am once again a “freelance”, surrounded by relics of my office at the TLS – all the books on Greek gods and Virgil that seemed somehow necessary for the future. Clausen on the Eclogues? Perfect for Cheltenham. Wackernagel’s Lectures on Syntax? Who could be sure? Where was Perry’s Aesopica, a series of texts by Aesop or ascribed to him? Given away to a Cambridge college. If I need it now, I’ll have to go to the Hellenic and Roman Library in Bloomsbury, London, one of the greatest classical libraries in the world, currently appealing to secure its future. Give, give, give – or da, da, da, as Latinists like to sing.

Delayed departures

Friends of one of the Hellenic Society’s most generous supporters, the painter Nicholas Egon, will have had one of two reasons for surprise at his obituary in the Times last week. Either they had no knowledge he was dead or, since his death at 95 occurred in April, they thought that the published appreciation would never come.

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There seems to be a bit of trend in late obits. I’m thinking of Sabrina “once hailed as the British Marilyn Monroe”, who died November 2016, obituary this month, and William Powell, author of The Anarchist Cookbook, who died July 2016, obituary March this year. In my days as editor of the Times I do recall complaining sometimes that our corpses were somewhat cold but this time the delay was at the request of Nicholas’s family.

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Perhaps this was not such a surprise. Count Ranov, as Nicholas could be known, surprised for all his long life: a man five-foot high who dominated rooms, a central European aristocrat much reduced after Versailles, studying at Oxford from a tent, surviving on dried egg and lettuce, becoming a painter of war and beautiful women, from Greek communist fighters to Helen Mirren. Nicholas was as capable as the kitchen anarchist of living wild in the woods. He never, as far as I know, painted Sabrina.

One woman, four ghosts, and Seneca

Outside one of my last office windows in 2014 was a demolition site which, when I was deputy editor of the Times in 1986, was the battlefield of Wapping. It now seems mildly quaint that men came to such titanic blows over print on paper (let any of us be so lucky now) but the plant was then a famous fortress. While I was packing my boxes, these once impregnable walls were being smashed by wrecking balls.

Nicholas was among those who dropped by from time to time to watch the show. He was a connoisseur of ruins and how old stories can come back to life from dust. Who first alerted me to John Major’s alleged “breakdown” on “Black Wednesday” when Britain was tossed out of the EU’s Exchange Rate system? Suddenly I could exactly recall the guilty one of the four notorious ghosts I later described in my book, The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher.

Woodrow Wyatt, John Major’s inadvertent Black Wednesday nemesis, was probably the one best known to the New Statesman, a socialist-turned-socialite and master of flattering the blackest Thatcher moods away. Ronald Millar was a classicist author of West End musicals and Margaret Thatcher’s best speeches. Frank Johnson was the wittiest describer of parliament, David Hart a libertarian speculator, dramatist and rogue. Our name came because the Roman playwright and politician, Seneca, provided our set texts for “Wapping Latin lessons” in a now ruined pub, his works rescued from destruction when the Times library deemed them surplus to modern requirement.

Sir Ronald saw Seneca as the model for an artist writing speeches for a sensitive and centralising employer: himself for his Margaret, Seneca for the Emperor Nero. Woodrow liked the court of Nero because it reminded him of Robert Graves’s I Claudius. For Frank, Seneca was perhaps the earliest prime minister. For David, Seneca had certain very useful beliefs: that virtue was proved by intention not results; that nature should be unimpeded by human fears; that vast wealth was no obstacle to virtue.

Boris the Titan

Would any of my Senecans have been for Brexit? That’s the question I’m asked most at literary festivals. Yes, I’m sure, though nervous if they thought that anyone like them was actually negotiating it. Only Boris Johnson seems today to have the slightest connection to them. I thought I might have seen our Foreign Secretary last week at Gyles Brandreth’s munificent Park Lane birthday party for Oscar Wilde. “He could be made a Titan or a toy,” as Wilde wrote of Dorian Gray. Supporters of Boris the Titan are perhaps too few right now.

“The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher” is published by Duckworth 

This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia