Audience members in Peppers Theatre were few and far between for this discussion, chaired by Magnus Linklater. Peter Stothard and Michael Jacobs have both written memoirs which incorporate aspects of biography, travel writing and history.
Jacobs’ The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Columbia documents his quest to find the source of the Magdalena, which few people have seen. It also recounts his mother’s life, who now has Alzheimer’s, and explores Jacobs’ fascination with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Jacobs talked of not wanting to write a ‘little boy’s adventure story’ but that’s exactly how it came across. His stories of meeting Marquez and his encounter with FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) were full of mystery and danger, if appended with a touch of bathos. In between talk of Marx and Lenin the armed guerrillas demanded Jacobs go back to Europe and be a spokesperson for the Columbian tourist trade.
Stothard was the better speaker, both in sound and sense. His book, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, is written in diary form and completes his life-long dream of writing about the Egyptian city and its infamous pharoah. According to Stothard Alexandria has ‘been a fantasy ever since it was created’. It is a place that ‘exists in the mind’ and without it Greek culture would not have been propelled into Rome and the modern age. The Alexandrians ‘invented the invention of the past’. Cleopatra is similarly illusive. She was a woman ‘we know almost nothing about’ and was ‘defined through her enemies’ . That Stothard was writing parts of his diary in Alexandria three weeks before the Arab Spring adds another level of intrigue to the project.
Linklater asked why the two writers wrote about their respective subjects through the lens of their own lives. Stothard answered as a journalist: ‘you write what you can’. The issue was also addressed by an audience member who suggested that memoir would be more marketable. Looking around at the senescent gathering it was hard not to suggest one’s own hare-brained theory. Stothard and Jacobs, both born in the early 1950s, may have written memoirs because now they’ve reached their senescence it’s simply more natural to start excavating the past. To look into the future would be truly dangerous.