This subtle, mournful book is many things. It is a diary of three weeks spent, during the tense winter before the outburst of the Arab Spring, in off-season Alexandria, where nothing comes ‘except birds to the lake, most of them when they have lost their way’. It is also a series of fragments rescued from Peter Stothard’s rich life as Essex schoolboy, Oxford student, Times editor and lifelong classicist. Another part, but only a small one, is a history of Cleopatra — and the story of Stothard’s seven previous, failed attempts to write about her.
Classical scholars, however, will recognise this book for what it really is. The poets of classical Alexandria were renowned for their mastery of the elegy, a finely wrought verse form in which meditation on a past event — typically, a death — inspired mournful reflections, praise for the dead and, perhaps, some offering of consolation.