BOOK REVIEW / All the king's men: 'So Idle a Rogue' - Jeremy Lamb: Allison & Busby, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 16 October 1993
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 & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Drugs Live cannabis trial: Hash is less harmful than any other drug, expert claims
- 3 Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway in dense fog
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 The majority of sex workers enjoy their job - why should we find that surprising?
The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, TV review: Alexa Chung impresses, but Chris Moyles makes Paul Hollywood gag
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
India's Daughter: BBC Four documentary provokes outrage on Twitter
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Seth Rogan's pot fumes delay hacked Sony boss’s office move
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
Boris Nemtsov shot dead: Outspoken Putin critic who had expressed fears for his life is killed near the Kremlin