Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard - review by Allan Massie

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.’

Well, he stuck to her, but other things intervened until, as he writes, ‘in the new year of 2011, on the eve of the Arab Spring, I was in Alexandria to complete a book about Cleopatra. With me were the remains of seven previous attempts. This time there had to

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