“If a thing can be said in ten words, I may be relied upon to take a hundred to say it. I ought to apologize for that. I ought to prune, pare and extirpate excess growth, but I will not. I like words – strike that, I love words – and while I am fond of the condensed and economical use of them in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too.”
So says Stephen Fry in the introduction to the second volume of his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles. Fry’s love of words drips off the pages, and I warn you that you may have to resort to a dictionary now and then, as I did, when you come across some obscure word you’ve never seen before in your life. So be it, though. I had no objection to learning a few new words either. I love them as much as Fry does. And the above quote serves notice that the reader is going to be treated to something more than a dull wash of facts herded into chapters. No. Fry’s narrative style, like his prose, falls under the “luxuriant profusion and mad scatter” heading as well. He runs off on tangents, describing in loving detail his rooms at Cambridge or the embarrassment of turning into a bit of a show-off once he started earning regular checks for his work. Rather than being annoyed by these tangents, however, I found them charming—like we were having a really good chat.
The first volume of autobiography that Fry wrote, Moab is my Washpot, deals with his childhood. The Fry Chronicles starts off with a bit of an overview of those years, just to catch you up, then picks up with the time just prior to his his getting his act together enough to win a scholarship to Cambridge (Queens’ College), where he reads English literature and meets Emma Thompson, who introduces him eventually to Hugh Laurie. Fry talks lovingly of his time at Cambridge, but he also introduces the idea that he felt, when he first arrived, very much like he shouldn’t have been there—academically, certainly, but also socially and personally. His family is solidly middle class, he has a criminal record (he spent three months in jail for credit card fraud as a teenager), and he’s been chucked out of more schools than he’s stayed in. He does a good job of conveying the discomfort he initially felt, and he’s smart enough to know that he needs to get involved to build a social network. He auditions for a play and is surprised to find himself cast. He continues in this pursuit, and even writes a play that is produced and is, to his amazement, wildly successful. He seems to have devoted little time to his academics, but is good at exams anyway, finishing with a second class degree. To be fair, he’s a little more devoted than Laurie apparently was. Hugh Laurie read Anthropology and Archeology, and Fry wryly comments upon their graduation “I think he would be the first to admit that you know more about Archeology and Anthropology than he does.”
If you’re one of those people with an insatiable curiosity about the great English universities and how they work, you’ll enjoy Fry’s descriptions of his time there—it all sounds like jolly good fun, and it’s quite informative about the system as well. But what’s most important about this time in Fry’s life is what he discovered about himself: he was a facile and versatile writer, was good at learning things and enjoyed learning things, and that the skills he honed there and the friendships he formed would lead him to a varied, interesting career that he never saw coming. He assumed he end up teaching in a prep school somewhere, not as half of a highly successful comedy writing team with Hugh Laurie and as someone whose skills were sought after practically upon finishing his degree.
And really, if we could all get that out of college, that would be enough:
“Education is the sum of what students teach each other in between lectures and seminars. You sit in each other’s rooms and drink coffee – I suppose it would be vodka and Red Bull now – you share enthusiasms, you talk a lot of wank about politics, religion, art and the cosmos and then you go to bed, alone or together according to taste. I mean, how else do you learn anything, how else do you take your mind for a walk?”
The second half of the book, roughly, offers an overview of the very beginnings of Fry’s career as a performer and writer, which seems to have happened with very little effort on his part, although in truth, the time he put in with the Cambridge Footlights had a great deal to do with it. As did his friendship with Emma Thompson, who had an agent even while a student—her agent took on Fry and Laurie as well after The Footlights’ original review, The Cellar Tapes, was a hit and approved by another of his famous clients, Rowan Atkinson. But Fry also found himself in demand for writing jobs, which he had a great deal of trouble refusing—he wrote articles, magazine headlines, comedy sketches with Laurie and Ben Elton, and revised and updated the book for Me and My Girl, which later went on to great success not only in London’s West End, but also on Broadway. His chronicles end with the beginnings of the Blackadder show and his first snort of cocaine.
All of that is very interesting in and of itself, but that’s that wash of bald fact. It’s cushioned among the much more interesting revelations that Fry boldly lays out: his self-loathing, his insecurity, his desire for fame, his bipolar disorder, and his addictive personality. In fact, if this book is about anything besides a chronicling of his years at Cambridge and as an up-and-comer in the entertainment world, it’s about his string of addictions—to sugar, to tobacco, to working non-stop, to technology, and, he hints at the end, to cocaine—and how he just sort of lives from one addiction to the next. He gave up sugar, only to get hooked on tobacco. His workaholic tendencies led to his having enough money to buy computers and fax machines when they were rare things to personally own. And so forth. And as he recounts these instances, the self-hatred he talks about regularly simmers beneath the surface, disguised by the charming narrative voice and the slick turn of phrase. And he’s well-aware that many a reader is going to find this incongruity annoying as hell because, on the face of it, he has everything:
“It does not suit the world to hear that people who are leading a high life, an enviable life, a privileged life are as miserable most days as anybody else, despite the fact that it must be obvious they would be – given that we are all agreed that money and fame do not bring happiness. Instead the world would prefer to enjoy the idea, against what it knows to be true, that wealth and fame do in fact insulate and protect against misery and it would rather we shut up if we are planning to indicate otherwise.”
I didn’t find it annoying. I found it honest. And it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this book as much as I did—who wants an autobiography that’s just a string of anecdotes and remembrances? Not me. I want to know how it felt, how it feels. And why not reveal all of those insecurities–in the end, Stephen Fry is a human being. If the reader feels let down to discover a favorite entertainment personality has feet of clay, then the reader needs to get over it. It’s nice to know I’m in such good company with mine. And while I’m not one to pour my insecurities all over the written page, Fry has no issue with laying his feelings bare, to be examined and critiqued and mocked. As he says at one point:
“Between funny and witty
Falls the shadow”
It’s the shadows here that make this book, and his life, so interesting.
And one last thing: this is, as befits the work of a truly gifted comedy writer, a really funny book. There are laugh-out-loud moments and phrases and stories that genuinely soften some of the more sad and honest moments. My only wish was that there was more Hugh Laurie–because if you read here with any regularity you know I am in lurve with Hugh Laurie–but Fry rightly points out that “It is not for me to go blabbing about his life and loves, personal habits, mannerisms and modes of behaviour, is it?” Probably not. But I kinda wish he had fewer principles on that score…