Elegiac memoir of the Tories’ heady heyday in the 1980s among the court of Margaret Thatcher.
When Stothard (Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, 2013, etc.), the former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a devoted classicist, first met Thatcher in 1985, he was still a junior editor at the Times. She was just into her second term as prime minister and was busy cultivating a sycophantic court of powerful men, whom Stothard would soon get to know intimately—specifically, the four “Senecans” of the title who would eventually form a Latin-reading group meeting weekly at a pub in London. Framed somewhat stiltedly as a series of interviews with a young historian, “Miss R,” who was doing a “project” on Thatcher’s era in power, conducted between June and August 2014 as Stothard, then TLS editor, was emptying his office on Thomas More Square in preparation for the company’s move, this memoir celebrates the four now-deceased men—political adviser David Hart, journalist Frank Johnson, playwright and speechwriter Ronald Millar, and playwright Woodrow Wyatt—as versions of Seneca, a Latin writer who became a kind of political speechwriter for the powerful Roman emperor Nero. Seneca, the Stoic whose work partly comprised the group’s Latin lessons at the pub, wrote about everything from exchanging favors to “how to survive in dangerous times, how to live a good life in even the worst of times.” In these interviews, as Stothard and Miss R gaze down on the old newspaper building (in the process of being razed) that had been the site of violent confrontations between the government and the unions during the 1980s, the author contemplates the passing of his brilliant, disputatious friends and mourns an entire era as well as his own youth and newspaper career.
Stothard is certainly a unique stylist, but the structure and mystifying detail of British politics and personalities may be a tough sell for many American readers.