In the election summer of 1987, five men met in a Wapping pub, the Old Rose. Not to conspire, but to read Latin, namely the works of Seneca, which they had rescued from a skip. In their normal lives, they were Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of Margaret Thatcher’s court: speechwriters, journalists, lobbyists and commentators. Every day they played out for real the ethical contortions and political survival tactics urged by Nero’s philosopher-tutor before, in his case, it became too hot in the imperial kitchen and he bled to death in a steam bath.
It was “merely a trapdoor of time” that separated these men from ancient Rome. They are all dead now, except their present spokesman, Peter Stothard, former editor of the Times and then the TLS, who allows his memories of the Wapping years to be dredged up in a year of interviews with a mysterious young researcher and muse, “Miss R”. To her, the Thatcher era is as antediluvian as a double-breasted suit or a handwritten letter, as fossilised as the prehistoric parrot, Palaeopsittacus georgei, found in Walton-on-the-Naze, near Stothard’s childhood home, along with “bungalows, breakwaters, bingo” and “beaded net curtains”.
Telescoping time and place, and splicing travelogue with memoir and the classical past, has already proved a fruitful autobiographical mode for Stothard. On the Spartacus Road traced a personal journey to the Italian south in the footsteps of ancient travellers, while Alexandria was a meditation on going to Egypt and not being able to write a book about Cleopatra. He has explored his Essex childhood and Oxford education before, as well as close brushes with mortality – his own and other people’s. This instalment feels like a final reckoning or conscience-clearing in the face of Miss R’s stern idealism.
Outside his window, the old Times HQ, “Fortress Wapping” or “the Great Wapping Lie Factory”, is being battered by wrecking balls. The “slipper wheel of high estate” (Thomas Wyatt’s translation from Seneca) has come full circle. Two brown rivers merge, the Thames and Seneca’s “slow, beery” Guadalquivir, in Cordoba, where the book starts and ends. Stothard has been lucky – happy in being not too happy. His rehearsals for death are one point of contact with the ancient stoic. The need to escape is another: less easy for Seneca, whose bid for retirement was silenced by Nero’s assurances that he was indispensable. Above all, the two men share a desire to sign off with their integrity intact. For both, as for many in Thatcher’s court, the life of letters offers a way out.
Stothard first encountered Seneca and Nero as balsa wood miniatures in an Essex model-maker’s workshop, an early infusion of classics and politics. As for the others in the group, Woodrow Wyatt, “the prime flatterer”, got his Seneca out of Robert Graves; he liked the Romans best when they were “creeping and poisoning about”. Ronald Millar, speechwriter and dramatist, saw in him the power to shape a ruler behind the scenes. Frank Johnson, an idealist who failed the 11-plus and wanted to learn Latin from scratch, channelled his political anger into inventing explosive Latin verbs. David Hart, millionaire eccentric with a Lord Lucan moustache, collected 16th-century Italian sex manuals that showed the empress Messalina in a variety of positions. Reading Latin was both a distraction and a preparation, “a good training for understanding a court, a constant reminder of madness and mutual dependency”.
Any editor knows that memory is selective and often opportunistic. But Stothard’s artful blend of truth and fiction is the right device, as it was once for Tacitus and Seneca, to nail the absurdity of those times – just as novelists Philip Hensher, Alan Hollinghurst and Ian McEwan are “often better than the best journalism”. Behind the scenes at the Times, journalism itself is exposed as a series of wildly ad hoc solutions to fast-moving events: scrabbling to find the Falklands on a map and a suitable image from a book about penguins, or the decision to publish John Major’s unsubstantiated “breakdown”.
Lovely coincidences fall into Stothard’s lap: Lord Lucan and the poet Lucan (Seneca’s nephew); Thomas Wyatt and Woodrow Wyatt; a Roman tavern recently unearthed near the ruins of the old drinking hole; parrots everywhere, in London, Essex and Cordoba. Other things are left unsaid: “Sycophancy or silence were the only choices on the menu.” In the case of the other Wapping tyrant, the choice is silence.
As for Thatcher, Stothard has perfected the Horatian art of not quite seeing. She emanates (looking and sounding “like a vinegary sponge”), squawks and murmurs but does not encourage close-up looks: “She was like a bright sun, hard to see directly, and she cast a long shadow. Throughout her public life her courtiers were like mirrors, each reflecting different aspects of her character, each one worth looking into by those who would understand her.”
Smooth, “flat-faced” types like Cecil Parkinson apparently gave the best reflections. This is no simple character assassination, like Seneca’s one-off experiment in comedy, The Deification of Claudius, which flushed Nero’s predecessor down the drain of history, but something rather subtler. Thatcher’s courtiers were baffled by how puritanical she was with the usual benefits and honours. Yet the parallels with Nero, however imperfect, are there to see: the solipsism, the numbness to advice, the inability to yield power gracefully.
Stothard’s editorship of the Times spanned an eventful decade. When the “deposed dictator” became a living ghost, her dazzling sun gave way to Black Wednesday and John Major’s “pale moon”. But the most biting satire is reserved for Tony Blair’s phony new dawn. Stothard is not trained to say “Hello, Caesar” one day and “Hello, Antony” the next, like the talking raven in Pliny. He is withering about the groovy people bussed in for the Cool Britannia event: “Pet Shop Boys, TV chefs and an especially thick crowd around the man who plays the Blackadder fool at the Tudor court.”
Other parties are memorably described, such as publisher Colin Haycraft’s 1987 anniversary bash for The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where the host was dressed in “frayed 18th-century frock coat and buckled shoes … Inside we had the words of Gibbon and outside the police sirens sounded”. At a Foreign Office soiree, ageing politicians whose wrinkles “ran like waste pipes” reflect a dilapidated regime, like courtiers in Juvenal. Stothard is sartorially aware and often subversive. He once sported yellow braces under his pinstriped suits. Pink, the libertine’s colour, flashes through his pages like a parrot’s wing.
The pose of wry outsider at other people’s parties goes back beyond Hollinghurst to Seneca’s contemporary, Petronius, author of The Satyricon, whose hero offers droll commentary on the vulgar dinner-theatre of his host Trimalchio. Perhaps Petronius is the Senecans’ true Roman counterpart. Nero’s style consultant also slit his veins but invited his friends round for a drink while he played with the flow of blood and made it all look casual. “You don’t have the rage,” says Miss R on her last visit.
Each Senecan had his own solution to domination and fear: dandyism, fiction, wine, cars or in Stothard’s case book-collecting, an activity that made him into a “miniature emperor”. Of Millar, he writes: “He took his responsibilities seriously, a seriousness that was hidden because he came to be known best of all for his jokes, his style, his elocutio as he put it.” Stothard’s poetically written, supremely stylish memoir only partly conceals its underlying mission, to insist that antiquity still has urgent things to tell us. As he says of writers like Tacitus: “Words from the past were as serious as any screams of the present.”
• The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher is published by Gerald Duckworth. To order a copy for £16.40 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.