Friday, December 24

The Fry Chronicles - Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is intelligent, urbane, assured and the epitome of an Englishman - unless you ask him. In this second autobiographical installment (taking up where Moab is My Washpot left off), Fry describes is candid, clear-eyed and distressingly self-deprecating detail his life following his release from prison for credit card theft, from his university years at Cambridge to his thirtieth birthday.
In that time he began what was, and still is, a prodigious career. By any definition a polymath, by this point Fry had already established himself as an author (of fiction, a play and comedy skits), comedian and actor; hats as a screen writer, television host, wildlife documentarian, narrator of audiobooks and video games, director and early adopter of Twitter and other social media still lay ahead of him, though the seeds for many of these endeavours were also sown in his twenties.
Fry is quite clearly remarkable and yet he is refreshingly, almost disturbingly, oblivious to this. If one is to accept the interpretation he presents of himself as accurate, he gives himself no credit at all. His writing is honest and unpretentious, and filled with apology - from the first line ("I really must stop saying sorry: it doesn't make things any better or worse") his intense dislike of himself is clear.
I have yet to find an aspect of Fry that I, on the other hand, don't like. From Black Adder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which were my introductions to him in the eighties, through a number of his novels, Peter's Friends (one of my favourite films), his need (like mine) to point out that 'decmate' means to take away ten percent of something rather than (as is often assumed) to destroy it, his appearances on Bones and the brilliant enjoyment that is QI, and his revisiting of Douglas Adam's Last Chance to See, through to this latest chronicle of an extraordinary life, every glimpse appeals. The only down side for me is that I feel, in contrast, intimidated, talentless, unintelligent and a waster of life - a universal state of affairs, which Fry discussed later.
In his extraordinary life, Fry has met many other extraordinary people - The Fry Chronicles documents some encounters, and he is as good at observation as he appears to be at almost everything else (except creating music in any form). I particularly liked Tom Stoppard's observation:
I was at a dinner party many years ago, sitting alongside Tom Stoppard, who in those days smoked not just between courses but between mouthfuls. An American woman opposite watched in disbelief.
"And you so intelligent!"
"Excuse me?" said Tom.
"Knowing those things are going to kill you," she said, "and still you do it."
"How differently I might behave," Tom said, "if immortality were an option."
Further in the book, Fry recounts his experiences of working with Richard Armitage on the stage musical Me and My Girl, which originally featured "The Lambeth Walk" by Armitage's father, and rewritten some forty years later by Fry. Armitage was simultaneously "producer, the heir and manager of the composer's estate, and not least so far as I was concerned, my agent" and "proved himself capable of switching hats mid-sentence" thus:
'I have had a word with myself,' he would say, 'and I have agreed to my outrageous demands as to your financial participation in this project. I want to cut you out of any backend, but I absolutely insisted, so much to my annoyance you have points in the show, which pleases me greatly.'
It was the profits from this project, which ran for eight years in the UK, three years on Broadway, and was nominated for a slew of Tony awards, that initially contributed to Fry's wealth; he is, typically, modest about this achievement. but I have leapt ahead of the chronology.
Fry discusses his fears, when starting at Cambridge, of being found out, of having his intellectual right to be there questioned, a fear I once believed relatively unique to myself until a casual conversation at uni revealed not only all my fellow post-grads, but my supervisor and even the head of my department all felt the same. Knowing that has, sadly, in no way obviated my concern. There's also a fascinating section on the different characters of Cambridge and Oxford, too long to reproduce here but very interesting, particularly for someone wholly outside the system. Part of my, while reading The Fry Chronicles, in the same way that I wonder what might have been different had I not dropped out the first time around, did ponder how my tertiary academic life might have gone had my family not moved from England to Australia when I was a child.
Fry had a role as an extra in Chariots of Fire, his introduction to the world of film, and I love how he describes his thinking at the time (when given visiting cards marked "Cambridge University Tennis Club" by a prop man) "that film makers were imbecile profligates," with his insider knowledge now that they are instead "imbecile misers." The contrast of experience with outsider assumption is beautifully presented, elegantly written, and manages to be both self-deprecating and forgiving of other outsiders who may think similarly; he returns to this two pages later, and in both cases I was reminded of the episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson decided that all the people standing around doing nothing during roadworks were superfluous.
The heart of the writing, though, is the twin and twined elements of Fry's insecurity and his recognition that this state is all but universal.
Never, at any point in my life, can I remember feeling that I was any part of assured, controlled or at ease. The longer I life the more clearly one truth stands out. People will rarely modify their preferred view of a person, no matter what the evidence might suggest. I am English, Tweedy. Pukka. Confident. Establishment. Self-assured. In charge. That is how people see me, be the truth never so at variance... It may be the case that my afflictions of mood and temperament cause me to be occasionally suicidal in outlook and can frequently leave me in despair and eaten by self-hatred and self-disgust. It may be that I am chronically overmastered by a sense of failure, underachievement and a terrible knowledge that I have betrayed, abused or neglected the talents that nature has bestows upon me... All these cases may be protested, and I can assert their truth as often as I like, but the repetition will not alter my 'image' by one pixel. ..
What I wanted to say about all this wailing is not that I expect your pity or your understanding (though I wouldn't throw either of them out of bed), but that I am the one actually offering pity and understanding here. For I have to believe that all the feelings I have described are not unique to me but common to us all. The sense of failure, the fear of eternal unhappiness, the insecurity, misery, self-disgust and awful awareness of under-achievement that I have described. Are you not prey to all those things also? I do hope so, I would feel the most conspicuous oddity otherwise. I grant that my moments of 'suicidal ideation' and swings of mood may be more extreme and pathological than most have to endure, but otherwise, I am surely describing nothing more than the fears, dreads and neuroses we all share. No? More or less? Mutatis mutandis? All things being equal? Oh, please say yes.
it is this humanity and openness that makes fry's accounts so breathtakingly honest and fearless. These qualities are evident again when Fry recounts a premier he went to with Rowan Atkinson:
To hear his name shouted out by photographers and see the crowd of fans pressing up against the crash barriers caused the more intense excitement in me, combined with a sick flood of fury and resentment that no one, not one single person, recognized me or wanted my picture. Oh, Stephen. I have clicked on and selected that sentence, deleted it, restored it, deleted it and restored it again. A large part of me would rather not have you know that I am so futile, fatuous and feeble-minded, but an even large part recognizes that this is our bargain.
I went in to The Fry Chronicles respecting, admiring and liking its subject. I left with all my positive feelings burnished, and my feelings of comparative poor self-worth somewhat ameliorated. I know I have failed to do The Fry Chronicles justice - it is human, humane, intelligent, funny, insightful, modest and astounding, a just reflection of its author. - Alex

No comments: