BOOK REVIEW / All the king's men: 'So Idle a Rogue' - Jeremy Lamb: Allison & Busby, 14.99 pounds

IN THE summer of 1676 appeared on Tower Hill a magnificent quack. Sporting an ancient green fur-lined robe, a flowing beard and jewelled medallions, Dr Alexander Bendo provided remedies for scurvy, green-sickness and inflammations. He was paid for his medicines, which were made of soot, urine, old wall, soap, and powdered brick, among other tasty ingredients - but his advice was free. Simply by studying the naked body he could predict the future, interpret dreams and offer other 'affable and communicative' opinions. He became very popular.

While Bendo was drawing the crowds, Lord Rochester had disappeared. It was assumed that he was in France, escaping the King's disapproval. However, Charles II soon began to miss him and expressed a desire to see him again. The very next day Rochester reappeared in court, causing astonishment that he had crossed the Channel so fast. The fact that Bendo vanished from Tower Hill at the same moment did not seem relevant at the time and it was left to later generations to draw their own conclusions.

At the time of that bold piece of pantomime, Rochester was 29 and had only four years left to live, but he had already crammed in more achievements and adventures than many an octogenarian. His father had been Charles I's General of Horse before helping the younger Charles escape from Cromwell after the battle of Worcester, using the famous oak tree. The son, formidably precocious, was at Oxford at the age of 12, graduated at 14 and was sent on a Grand Tour for three years. He returned just after the Restoration, was imprisoned for kidnapping an heiress and joined the Navy to fight against the Dutch. By the time he was 19 he was back, married to the same heiress and a hero of the wars. The rest of his life was spent in and out of court before debauchery got the better of him and he died after a dramatic death-bed conversion.

These adventures, however, are not what made him famous. His reputation is primarily based on his writing. He produced some brilliant epigrams, some extremely scurrilous verse, some biting and accurate satires and the finest, most elegant and funniest collection of letters to survive from his century. His lyric poetry is sublime - particularly the song which begins 'Absent from thee I languish still' which ranks with Byron's 'So we'll go no more a-roving' as an expression of the regrets that self-knowledge can inflict on the idealism of love. He was a flaming meteor at the Restoration court and he deserves a better biographer than Jeremy Lamb.

The main trouble with this book is that Lamb has hit on the unsurprising notion that Rochester was an alcoholic and he does it to death. He must mention the word on nearly every page. He lists the 12 characteristics of alcoholism as defined by American researchers, the 12 steps to discovery 'espoused' by Alcoholics Anonymous and countless other drinkers, reformed and otherwise. Goodness gracious, so what?

Added to this ordeal, Mr Lamb is not much help as a literary critic. He writes of Shakespeare's great heroines as 'refined, delicate little creatures wafting around the stage'. And nobody could accuse him of being scholarly. Eschewing footnotes and references, he prefers his own airy generalisations about everything, from the assertion that 'mothers-in-law only ever seem to make matters worse' to speculation that 'it would be easy for a female biographer of Charles II to become a little dewy-eyed about him'. No dew in Lamb's eyes. He knows perfectly well what to say about the king: he was 'notably partial to a good pair of legs'.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'