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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot