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The Fry Chronicles

I have mentioned before how utterly delightful I find Stephen Fry. It should therefore not be a surprise that I glared at the Blackwell's people when they told me the book might have arrived but it would still be in the cellar because you see they are an academic book shop and I must understand that bringing books to undergraduates is more important than my paltry needs; and also why I bonded with the girl at Waterstones who agreed to sell me the book at half price. She almost bounced as she told me she had bought it as soon as she got to work and she couldn't wait till her shift was over so she could run home and read it. The guy next to her weighed in with the information that he would buy it at the end of the day (bravo for self restraint?).

I suppose that is an indication that Stephen Fry really is a "national treasure", as the various newspapers I read seemed to agree to tell me about a year ago. I suppose that that also means that it is just a matter of time before it becomes fashionable to set oneself apart from the crowd by sneering that ``I know everybody thinks he is great, but I never thought he was all that wonderful, myself''. If you feel the inclination, please go over to the corner there and sit down. I don't want to hear it.

Treasure or not, he is definitely a good writer. The book is funny in a way very few books are, much like the previous instalment in this autobiographical project; but the wonderful truth is that this book is nothing like Moab Is My Washpot: it is something else. It is certainly an altogether happier book. Thank goodness. My laughs in the former were often slightly guilty -- it felt wrong somehow to laugh at the pain and despair of this child, no matter how humorously recounted. In this, the laughs are less problematic, more giggly and (unfortunately, if you are in favour of reading in cafés, like I am) loud.

But the major shift from Moab to Chronicles (it seems unavoidable to compare the two) resides in the fact that in the former, the story stood on its own. It might as well have been fiction, with the exception of the knowledge that this was Stephen Fry's life. In Chronicles, almost every participant is someone you will have heard of. Be it Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson or Alistair Cooke (or, indeed, Ben Elton). And this changes things. Not for the better or the worse, necessarily. But it is definitely different. You cannot help supplying information to the narrative. It happens automatically. You do not need Stephen Fry to tell you that it is interesting that Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton played Americans in a hit at Cambridge. And when he comments on the wildly different acting styles of Rowan Atkinson and Rik Mayall, you instantly know what he is talking about. And he plays around with it. He will often write long introductions, describing a person and his reactions to them, before he gives the name which ultimately makes the reader (or me, at any rate) apply the label (and images) attached to that name.

In something recalling the QI fashion (to me, at any rate), the book is structured around the letter C, opening with an emphasis on the addictions of candy and cigarettes (and coffee), which is the part of the book most reminiscent of the self-castigation of Moab, and then moving on to a two-part division into ``College to Colleague'' (about the Cambridge (another C) years) and ``Comedy'' (which contains a distinct sprinkling of computers, celibacy and celebrity, and ends on the concerning cliffhanger of cocaine). It is astonishing how well this period of his life orders itself around this letter, and I cannot help but wonder whether the C came first and functioned as an organising principle, or the organisation sprang from a sudden realisation that everything seemed to begin with that letter. I am not complaining. But I am intrigued. And a little paranoid, because suddenly it is cropping up (there it is again!) everywhere I look. Can you be stalked by a letter?

The first of the two main parts of the book was lovely. While he seems to have forgotten the layout of Edinburgh (he claims the Royal Mile runs from the Old Town to the New Town -- clearly he should visit more often; I'd be happy to show him around), the description of life at Cambridge made me curse my academic sensibilities and wish that I had spent time running from theatre to theatre instead of writing essays; and the discovery of Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie and the developing friendship are almost painful in their accidentalness (yes, that is a word; I just made it up). But if you are anything like me it will all make you will giggle in that painful, inward way which makes it difficult to breathe. It skips back and forth in time and serves up anecdotes with delightful punchlines, or insane descriptions, or (indeed) musings on life, the universe and all that jazz. It is happy.

The second part is surprisingly different, and ironically (as the title of the section is ``Comedy'') much less funny in that hilarious, giggly way the first part was. Still funny, of course. It is Stephen Fry, after all. A meeting at the Carlton Club (the bastion of the Conservatives) with cockney socialist Ben Elton (where Fry is offered a part in Blackadder II) provides this description:

I could see out of the corner of my eye that an ancient gentleman had been having difficulty accepting Ben's vowel sounds as they ricocheted off the portraits of Wellington and Churchill and into his disbelieving ears. For the past ten minutes he had been spluttering and growling into his soup with growing venom. He looked up at Ben's last exclamation, and I recognized the blotched, jowly and furious countenance of the Lord Chancellor, Quintin Hogg, now Lord Hailsham. He had his napkin tucked into his shirt collar like Oliver Hardy and his mixed expression of disbelief and a reluctant desire to know more put me in mind of a maiden aunt who has just had a flasher open his raincoat at her in the church tea-rooms. (381-2)

With a scattering of such mental images, how can we really complain? And it must be stated that while this section may be lacking in playful insanity, it is chock full of comedy interestingness. As a more conventional type of memoir, the description of the British comedy scene of the 80s certainly doesn't fail to give a strange peek behind the scenes of the madness. Fry also seems acutely aware of the narrative problem:

A cat that keeps falling on its feet, even one that had a rather problematic kittenhood, does not make a very interesting or admirable hero. (361)

The tension of overcoming, the struggle to succeed, is replaced by a list of success stories. But who cares, when the success stories are the stories of the successes we love and cherish as the best British television of a decade? Some may; I don't.

Margaret Thatcher lurks in the shadows (as you would expect her to). As does AIDS, except it is called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) at first. But they are never major issues to be dealt with. And his descriptions of named people are almost always positive and loving (there are exceptions: notably a less than enthusiastic attitude to Robbie Coltraine and a scathing portrait of Terry Allen Kramer and much of the New York theatre scene). This is very much an autobiography, in the sense that it is not an attempt to define a decade or reveal the ghastly secrets of former friends; it is, or gives the impression of being, a very honest attempt at honesty. Manic depression lurks in the wings, but the whole narrative is informed by a sense of unworthiness which is quite shocking when you know how brilliant the man is. In the forefront is comedy and the growing partnership with Hugh Laurie, and the geek with his Macintosh computer, the startling innovation of the fax machine and the laser printer, and the friendship with Douglas Adams.

He also gets special points for using ``Mary Whitehouse'' as a verb. And yet more points for the selection of beautiful/hilarious/fascinating pictures of the period (there is a beautiful picture of Emma Thompson with short-short hair, for example), leaving me with the conviction that there really should be a word for the very strange feeling you get when you see pictures of someone from a time before they were presented to you, before they are fully formed. That, of course, is the primary charm of an autobiography.


Jørgen,  16.09.10 11:15

And yet again, the list of books that I plan to read grows even larger. This was an enjoyable read, about what I imagine is an even more enjoyable read.

The mention of manic depression made me remember the two-part television documentary about that specific disorder, hosted by none other than Stephen Fry. He opened the first part with the story of his own condition. I think that was the first time I realised how uniquely exeptional Stephen Fry is as a teller of stories. And now I start thinking, do we have any similar personalities in Norway.

As for a term for «the very strange feeling you get when you see pictures of someone from a time before they were presented to you, before they are fully formed», can it be seen as a sort of modern nostalgia? One that is made possible due to the immensly increased availability of photographs? It's not quite a homesickness or a longing for your own memories past. It's more of a recognition of the passing of time in general, and a mild recognition of the fact that other people and objects also changed with time. And for such a feeling to occur or be instilled, one could be tempted to believe that you would have to be familiar wih the feeling of nostalgia. In a way, it is a sort of nostalgia, but one that doesn't demand a direct connection to the source of the feeling. Instead of bringing you back in time, it inflicts a certain feeling of knowing something or realising something about the past that you previously didn't have access to, or didn't acknowledge consciously. Wow. I'm blathering on here. Maybe the greek word for «the past» (parelthos?) + the word for realisation?

Adresseavisen vet hva de snakker om: Stephen Fry omtales som komikeren som spilte katten i Tim Burtons film Alice i Eventyrland, og leder av flere tv-program, deriblant «komiprogrammet som er forkortet IQ» (sic!). Bwuahaha! Hurra for research!
Camilla,  17.09.10 09:55

Jeg lurer på om det er en cupertino eller om det bare er snakk om ignoranse.


Jørgen,  17.09.10 12:51

Cupertino. Et fenomen jeg ikke har hørt om før nå, men det gir jo mening at den type feil oppstår. Vittig er det i alle fall, men jeg tror heller at det i dette tilfellet er snakk om ordinær hverdagsignoranse.


Camilla,  17.02.11 00:28

Stephen Fry kommenterte et eller annet sted at han av og til møtte folk på gaten som sa at de var kjempestore fan av nettop IQ[sic].

Jeg lurer på om vi kan få Tim med sin gresk-kompetanse til å konstruere et ord for den formen for moderne nostalgi du snakker om. Det er en veldig god beskrivelse, tror jeg.

Jørgen,  17.02.11 08:36

Oi. Ja. Det synes jeg vi burde.