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'.

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