Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher by Peter Stothard

A couple of weekends ago, Josh and I spent a weekend in Fort Worth.  Our first stop was a cluster of art museums and the first museum was the Modern Art building.  

There was an exhibition by Doug Aitken.  One of his works was a surround sound/movie with random people singing I Only Have Eyes for You.  Here is a recording by The Flamingos.

The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret ThatcherThe Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher by Peter Stothard

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Senecans is an example of how I got boonswoggled into reading a book because of a glowing review from a source I respected (ahem, Wall Street Journal...).

The premise sounded great. Peter Stothard is Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and former Editor of the Times. A mysterious young woman arrives to ask him questions about Margaret Thatcher and a group of men called The Senecans who were advisors or something to the Prime Minister. What ensues is a rather rambling, anecdotal account of Stothard's time as one of these Senecans and why Thatcher fell out of favor.

I say "or something" because it never became clear to me what their exact function was. In fact "unclear" ably describes the entire book.

Stothard talks as though we already know British political history, but even if you do, you don't really see what his connection with Thatcher was. He shares some vague anecdotes about her that never really includes direct contact with Thatcher. The rest of the book is talking about each of the "Senecans" but not so that you learn much about them.

They met on a regular basis (I think) at a pub. I'm not sure what any of them did, or whether they liked or hated Thatcher or each other.

They are called the Senecans after Seneca the younger, an advisor to Nero. I think Stothard was tring to make some sort of comparison between Nero and Seneca and Thatcher and his little group.

This connection is as arrogant as it is inaccurate. Thatcher was a Prime Minister who was voted in and later voted out for some unpopular decisions. Stothard alludes to a Poll Tax without explaining what exactly the Poll Tax was or why it was unpopular enough to oust Thatcher from office.

Nero was a monstrous tyrant that raised sadistic cruelty and perversion to such heights that people are still writing about it 2000 years later. Nero made Seneca commit suicide. Thatcher never ordered any of her "Senecans" to kill themselves.

Yet another example of how people in the first world never seem to understand what it means to live under a real tyrant. Perhaps Stothard should transfer his citizenship to North Korea.

And I find the title "Senecans" to a group of men who hung out at a pub to (kinda? sorta?) learn Latin a dubious title. Whatever they might have discussed about politics or history, ancient or modern is left a mystery. Another thing Stothard vaguely alludes to.

Thatcher, I conclude, he hated. I think. I'm not sure except he describes her in irrelevant, unflattering terms. She dresses frumpy. She holds her pearl necklace in a way that hides the one with a stain. She surrounds herself with "flat-faced men" (is he including himself?).

I suppose if you're an insider you would get all this.

Also, the writing is mediocre. How did this guy get knighted? Not for this book, I hope. He puffs his story up with lots (and I mean lots, like half the book) with irrelevant descriptions of the building he is in and how it is being torn down and inane descriptions of his "mysterious Miss Robbins". He could not refer to her or her questions without informing us of what she was wearing, which direction her toes were pointed and every time she gave a tight-lipped smile or looked out the window. I would say it was intrusive, but what was it intruding on?

Stothard flits about from this person to that person including some background information on a childhood experience with a girlfriend (friend that was a girl, not the other kind) whose father he occasionally visited. The father rants about some things political but not in any kind of coherent way. I have no idea where he stood politically. I realize he inserted this episode so when he reveals the identity of Miss Robbins, the reader will go, "Aha!". I went "Whatever."

I read it to the end as a kind of spanking for buying a book on impulse. Let that be a lesson to me.

And this review is a small revenge (very small, I doubt Stothard will read it) for wasting my time.

I do not have to be an Italian citizen do be well familiar with the works of Nero. If you want to actually learn something about Margaret Thatcher and her term as Prime Minister, seek another source.

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  1. Hi Sharon - This book sounds very puzzling.

    I can see calling modern politician "Nero" as a joke But I agree, if it is at all serious, it has no place in our discourse about modern politicians.

    I would also take The Wall Street Journal's book review seriously.

    1. Hi Brian. This book was a huge disappointment. I reviewed to warn others off of bothering to read it. Tellingly, there are only a few reviews for it on Amazon.

      Usually I respect the WSJ's reviews but this one was a lemon.

      Enjoy your weekend!

  2. Sharon,

    Thanks for the review. It appears to be a book that will appeal to Thatcher haters.

    1. Hi Fred, I'm not sure even Thatcher haters will enjoy the book because he's so vague.

  3. Sharon, your reading is amazingly eclectic! i admire that: i think that sort of reading gives a person a wider perspective on the world than just reading in once category.... and tx for asking me to please not read this book; i will cheerfully comply...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle. Thank you for the compliment. It's funny how many books have a great premise that causes you to buy the book, but it simply doesn't go anywhere in the direction you thought it was going to take. That was this book. I'm glad to warn others about bothering with it.

    2. Also with movies. I think about how they could have developed the characters and plot better.

  4. How disappointing! I'm always grateful for warnings about books that are not worthwhile, although I have to say I wouldn't have looked at this book do have eclectic reading tastes, which I admire!

    1. HI Carol. Thanks for the compliment, I appreciate it. I have often wondered whether I should limit my book reviews to a certain genre. I have different readers and their tastes differ from each other.

      I've decided that I will simply record the books I've read and I do like a lot of different types of books.

      Except best sellers...I rarely read best sellers...


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.