Allan Massie

The Queen & the Editor

Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra


Granta Books 383pp £25 order from our bookshop

From his time as an Essex schoolboy, by way of Oxford, brief stints working in advertising and in what he calls ‘Big Oil’, then a successful career in journalism during which he edited The Times before becoming editor of the TLS, Peter Stothard has had it in mind to write a biography of Cleopatra. She has been an obsession, though evidently not an all-consuming one. He has shared it with two school friends: a woman he calls ‘V’, an idealist left-winger who flits in and out of both his life and this book, and Maurice, a gay advertising man who staged, or tried to stage, a splendidly ambitious Cleopatra spectacle at Oxford. Other well-known figures, among them Duke Hussey, managing director of The Times during its years of struggle with the print unions, offer their contributions to his frequently stalled enterprise. A fine piece of advice comes from a tough lady in Big Oil who, learning of his Cleopatra project, tells him, ‘The only thing worth anything here is what the engineers do and what I do. They get the oil out of the ground. I make sure we pay as little tax as possible. The rest is rubbish. Get out while you can. Stick to Cleopatra but get her right.’

Follow Literary Review on Twitter