Peter Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, centered on his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.
Stothard traveled to Alexandria in 2011 when an ice storm prevented his flight to South Africa. He wanted to finish a book about Cleopatra; he had made seven attempts to write about her over the last 50 years. He rents a room at the Metropole Hotel in Alexandria. It is so small that he stands up to write in his notebook.
He looks over the yellowed old papers he has brought with him and explains “the first efforts [were] of an Essex schoolboy; the latest from the 1980s from a classicist finding some sort of success as a journalist. Between these beginnings and ends, which show uneven patterns of progress, there are pages written in Oxford between 1969 and 1971 and at an oil company desk in 1976, and in the Calthorpe Arms, a crepuscular pub beside what were the offices of The Times.”
Much of his writing about Cleopatra is lost, but he feels confident that he can fill in the lacunae by writing a diary in Alexandria. Much of the history of Cleopatra has been lost, too, though recently something new has been found, the ginestho papyrus. Cleopatra had written, ginestho , “Let it happen,” in Greek, approving Mark Antony’s general’s export of 300 tonnes of wheat and 130,000 litres of wine without taxation.
Stothard arrived in Alexandria on the eve of the Arab Spring. There is a bombing, and everyone is jittery. He spends time with two Egyptians, who befriend him, take him sightseeing, decide what he can and can’t see, and speculate about the terrorists.
Stothard writes about what is happening in Egypt, but doesn’t report on it. He brilliantly zeroes in on bits of his life that are connected to Cleopatra.
Much of the book is a memoir of his classical education and his working life as a journalist.
He grew up in Essex, the son of a radar engineer: Stothard adds ironically that his father was “a designer of military machines that made us safe.” There were only five books in the house, one of them the Loeb edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Books VII-XII. (This is the only book he has brought with him to Alexandria.) Stothard’s first attempt to write about Cleopatra was when he was nine, a story, “Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen.”
He studied Greek and Latin in the ’60s at Brentwood School in Essex, and then studied classics at Oxford. Many of his teachers at Brentwood were war veterans, some unstable. Miss Leake, the headmistress of his first school, idealized Brentwood: she thought the teachers were “earnest, slender, slightly socialist young men who visited her from time to time, asking if she had anyone who might excel at soccer or Cicero. This was an honest mistake. Behind Brentwood’s Martyr’s Memorial many eccentric instructors lay hidden including Mr. G, an ex-soldier of cement-mixer voice and stature, a survivor of a war which had been unkinder, it seemed, than the one experience by my father and his floating radar engineers.”
Stothard got a great education at Brentwood, but the students also paid a price for some teachers’ post-traumatic stress disorder. One teacher beat them with a rubber hose. One of Stothard’s lifelong friends, Maurice, had to sit cramped under the teacher’s desk with another boy for some infraction of the rules; a friend at another school, an outspoken girl called V, thought the punishments so horrifying that they ought to revolt. Yet Peter and his friend take the punishments for granted. It is a part of their boys’ school world. (One hopes such schools have improved since the ’60s, but most men I know who have gone to boys’ schools have told such stories).
Stothard also writes about Oxford, and I thought of Brideshead Revisited, which Stothard mentions in passing. It is the late ’60s and early ’70s, so less glamorous, presumably, than Waugh’s Oxford, but there are many fascinating, eccentric characters, and his old friend Maurice, who turns out to be gay, asks him to write a play about Cleopatra in which Maurice can play all the parts. (Cleopatra is to be deconstructed.) They end up instead putting on a short version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs.
Stothard’s writing is both fast-paced and lyrical, his voice tough and often humorous, and it often reads like fiction, which is the highest compliment I can pay. I still have 100 pages to go: his hilarious description of his work for an in-house oil magazine reminds me a bit of the office scenes in William Cooper’s Scenes from Metropolitan Life.
I will write more about this book later, because there is much more. I, too, had a classical education, and am thrilled by his unique perspective on history and the classics.
In April I read his remarkable book, Spartacus Road: A Personal Journey through Ancient Italy. In it he fuses journalism, history, memoir, travel, biography, and reflections on the classics as he travels the Spartacus Road, the route Spartacus and his slave army traveled when they escaped from the gladiator school near Capua.
A great writer: this is literary nonfiction.