Peter Stothard is described on the jacket of his latest book as “a classicist, journalist, and critic”. The order is interesting: anybody else who had edited The Times for a decade and the Times Literary Supplement for a further 14 years would probably call himself a journalist first and foremost. Indeed, he was knighted in 2003, presumably for services to journalism rather than the classics. But he is one of those rare and extraordinary people to whom the classical world is as real as the contemporary age, if not more so. This is his third book mingling a foray into the ancient world with fragments of his own autobiography, after On The Spartacus Road (2010) and Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra (2013). Like them, it is complex and multi-layered. Unlike them, it is also decidedly odd.
The Senecans of the title are four Thatcherites whom Stothard got to know in the mid-1980s when he was a leader writer and an editor on The Times. They are Woodrow (Lord) Wyatt, the colourful former Labour MP and Times columnist, Sir Ronald Millar, the playwright and speechwriter for Mrs Thatcher, David Hart, a sinister figure who possessed the dangerous combination of money and supreme self-regard and played a key role during the miners’ strike, and Frank Johnson, then an opinion-page colleague of Stothard, but more famously the Daily Telegraph’s witty parliamentary sketchwriter and subsequently editor of the Spectator, which he unexpectedly moved on from the Thatcher era, adroitly anticipating the Blair ascendancy by promoting the careers of several young left-wing writers. Stothard calls them Mrs Thatcher’s courtiers, as Seneca was of Nero, which is certainly true of Wyatt, Millar and Hart, perhaps less so of Johnson, although he was as vehement a supporter of her as the others, and frequently castigated Stothard for being insufficiently loyal in his Times leaders. (Indeed, it is far from certain, judging from these pages and his subsequent closeness to Tony Blair, that Stothard was even a Tory, never mind a Thatcherite.)
To review this quartet, Stothard uses the ploy of being interviewed over the course of several months in 2014 by a young woman, Miss Robbins, who is researching a thesis into Mrs Thatcher’s Court. The setting is his office at the TLS, overlooking the Times Newspapers complex at Wapping, one of the central symbols of the Thatcher era, which is being demolished as Stothard recalls the events and figures of 30 years ago. The symbolism hardly needs to be pointed out. He goes back even earlier, to his childhood and youth in Essex, as he does in his previous books, evoking some of the same people he has written about before, particularly his father and a girl we know only as V, who constantly reappears throughout his life: at school, Oxford and in Fleet Street. But does Miss R, as he calls her, really exist? Is she perhaps a literary device, Stothard’s partner in a Senecan dialogue? The revelation of her purported identity at the end of the book makes her seem more rather than less fictional. And did the Senecans really regularly gather with Stothard in The Old Rose pub, near the Wapping plant, to discuss politics ancient and modern and hatch their plots to support the Leaderene?
Were they, indeed, even Senecans? The irascible, cigar-smoking, wine-loving Wyatt was no Stoic, more of an Epicurean, most concerned with keeping his Times column to bolster his shaky finances. Hart saw himself as a man of action and only displayed Stoicism in the face of slow death by motor neurone disease. Johnson was more of an amused observer. The closest to the Senecan ideal was Millar, himself a former classicist. Like him, Seneca wrote speeches for his master.
Whatever the truth, Stothard provides insightful portraits of his friends and a clear-eyed if unnecessarily labyrinthine assessment of their different roles in defending Mrs Thatcher throughout the extraordinary decade in which she transformed Britain. I hope he will one day provide an account of his stewardship of The Times from 1992 to 2002, and wonder which classical figure will be invoked to compare to the Emperor Rupert.