The Fry Chronicles is remarkable for two things: first, this volume follows the life of polymath Stephen Fry from his time at university to his first steps into the world of stage and screen. Second, known for his love of technology, the latest memoir was been published simultaneously in hardback, as an eBook and an iPhone app (‘My Fry’).
Mr Fry has achieved international repute as a polymath; comic, entertainer, writer and director. Fry stands for a nostalgic version of the best of English warmth, wit, charm, inventiveness, enthusiasm, generosity, an encyclopaedic mind and eccentricity. With his massive Twitter following, Fry has been variously called the Patron Saint of British intelligence and the Verbal Vivaldi, amongst other titles.
Having missed the first volume ‘Moab is my Washpot’, I looked forward to this instalment…
Of course, it is very well written. As you would expect, Fry is a wordsmith of the highest calibre, he writes as he speaks, effortlessly and you may want a large dictionary to hand. His main vice is his constant apologising, for which, in the first sentence of the book, he apologises. Expansive, amiable and, thanks to a stint as a teenage public school master, patrician and slightly professorial, the book is an easy read. Fry acknowledges that he uses a hundred words where ten would do, guiltily revelling in his generous love of words, which you will either find a joy or an irritation.
We get a bit of a recap on school days to set the scene of Fry ‘the character’, then onto the ages of 18 to 30; University, graduation, his rapid rise to success as a writer and performer, meeting Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, appearing in Saturday Live and Blackadder and the international hit reworking of the musical Me and My Girl which made him a million while he was still in his twenties.
The difficulty of the book is compressing so many interesting episodes of his life, yet somehow, covering so much that little of it is dealt with in any detail. Fry flits through episodes of his life like a butterfly. We find carelessly tossed in references to suicide attempts and largely glossed over prison experience (for juvenile credit card fraud). Aside from continual protestations of unworthiness, Fry’s much documented depression is barely addressed here and he sidesteps his many neuroses with barely a mention. His coming out as gay registers barely a page and is to Fry himself a huge anti-climax.
If you want an insight into what has made him the uncommon creature that he is, then this may be a little frustrating. This is somebody who knows he is extraordinary, but so uncomfortable in his own skin, goes to the edge of introspection then withdraws.
He turns his academic triumph into an indictment of the system; success in examinations proves nothing except the ability to pass examinations, other equally intelligent and worthier students should have had so much more success than he, blah, blah…
The book suffers from an excess of Fry’s self-deprecating “oh deary me, I’m so successful yet filled with anxiety and self-loathing. Please, don’t hate me for my success and misery, but I’ll understand, because I already hate myself.”
To quote the man himself:
“We have people making our beds and tidying our rooms for us. We live in panelled medieval rooms. We have theatres, printing presses, first-class cricket pitches, a river, boats, libraries and all the time in the world for contentment, pleasure and fun. What right have we got to moan and moon and mooch about the place looking tortured?”
Just so, Stephen, but you insist on doing just that for 425 pages: “…what a waste. What a fatuous, selfish, air-headed, indolent and insulting waste my life has been.”
That aside, I found great swathes of it rather like his TV travel show crossing America, all surface, no depth and actually a bit dull. It’s not helped by the closeted world of Cambridge college life; much of which will mean little to a reader unfamiliar with the Oxbridge set, the Colleges, the traditions and the kinds of people with whom Fry graduated. Where we do get a little light and shade is in the post-graduation period where Fry becomes the giddy débutante in the world of film, TV and journalism.
There are some genuine touching moments where Fry lets go and celebrates some of his success, amidst some ‘golly gosh’ anecdotes of meeting this terribly famous person at the height of their power, or that soon-to-be famous person like Fry, at the beginning of their career. Ever the loyal member of the theatrical company (and bitten by the tabloid hacks over the years) Fry seldom gives away ‘gossip’ tidbits about his famous goings-on through his rota of showbiz luviness.
All the way through, we are primed with evidence of Fry, the addictive personality, addicted first to sugar, then to tobacco, always to facts, words and knowledge, readying us for the sombre ending of Fry snorting his first lines of ‘C’ – cocaine. “The tragedy and farce of that drama are the material for another book. In the meantime, thank you for your company.”
Publisher’s prices for this volume are: hardback £20, eBook £12.99 and the myFry app 7.99. The app, which can be used on an iPhone, iPad or iPod, allows readers to skip through the book using colour coded categories to focus on different people and subjects. AJS