The Fry Chronicles

Reading Stephen Fry’s splendidly entertaining and compelling second volume of memoir, the thought struck me with some vehemence: What exactly is Stephen Fry going to be remembered for? For his seminal work with Hugh Laurie, probably. For his excellent performance as Oscar Wilde in the biopic, perhaps. For his appearances in Blackadder, possibly. For his near-suicidal departure from a West End play and flight to Bruges? Doubtful. But for the apparently endless quiz show appearances, advert voiceovers, bit parts in films, Twitter updates, general ubiquity? It seems incredibly unlikely. Lest we forget, Fry – apparently a cuddly, loveable figure – makes no bones about describing himself as a self-loathing and deeply unhappy man, with his bipolar disorder and ongoing issues about his Jewish background and sexuality feeding into his work in a compellingly unusual way.

It’s sometimes as if there are two entirely different Stephen Frys both battling for space in the public eye. (No doubt there is an entirely separate entity who exists for private consumption as well.) There is the erudite Cambridge graduate, plummy-voiced and tweed-jacketed, who has more or less cornered the market in what the general public seem to expect of an intellectual. (Fry was once described, cruelly but with an edge of accuracy, as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person should be’. ) Then there’s the other, more complex man, someone whose latent insecurity led to him quitting Twitter briefly because he was upset by some ill-judged comments about him, and who was famously celibate for 14 years. So, can the real Mr Fry stand up?

In his earlier volume of autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, Fry explored, largely without recourse to self pity or after-the-fact moralising, the decline in his fortunes that led to his expulsion from Uppingham for theft, followed by his near-constant playing truant from his subsequent schools, ending up, notoriously, with his imprisonment for credit card fraud. The book ends on a positive note – he is accepted into a tutorial college to prepare for Cambridge entrance – but it’s a remarkably grim and surprisingly affecting journey.

After the fall, the rise. In The Fry Chronicles, it’s roughly split between his glittering career at Cambridge, with much made of his famous friends – Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie amongst others – and his success within the Cambridge Footlights, and his later rise to a sort of low-level fame on various sketch shows, and riches from his involvement in rewriting the book of the musical Me And My Girl. If you disliked Fry, this might seem another exercise in faux-modest smugness, a ‘stop it, oh stop it, oh go on tickle my tummy and praise me to the skies’ book that promises even more luvvie namedropping anecdotes in future volumes.

What stops the book being unreadable is that Fry is too intelligent not to anticipate the readers’ boredom at reading about yet another multimillionaire’s wonderful life. He openly discusses his belief that intellectually, sexually and socially he has spent his entire existence feeling inferior to others around him, and that even when he appears to be having a wonderful time of it he’s consumed with self doubt and misery. This current of sadness and, at times, almost absurd hyperbole might leave the reader wondering whether Fry genuinely believes what he writes or if he has given into ‘poor me’ syndrome, but it makes the book a far more compelling read than another bland recounting of success.

As with all Fry’s books, it’s beautifully written (in fact slightly overwritten – he never uses one adjective when three will do) and a very quick read. He helpfully indicates when some stories have already appeared in Moab, though there is an anecdote about a hypnotist which is already in the earlier book.  It ends on a cliffhanger with Fry doing ‘naughty salt’ for the first time, and the promise that the next volume should encompass Fry & Laurie, Blackadder Goes Forth, Jeeves & Wooster and, one hopes, the events of the 1990s that saw him crack up and flee the country and then return to play Wilde. If this is indeed what happens, it is entirely possible that Fry’s lasting achievement might well be these volumes of memoir. Who’d have thought it?

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