Stephen Fry

Moab is my Washpot

“Extreme as my childhood was, its lineaments are perhaps not so very different from yours.”

“The first twenty were turbulent years, years crammed with Strum and stuffed with Drang, years so keenly felt and lived with such noisy desperation and agonized intensity that they were to form an obsessional part of much of my later life.”

Flick enough layers off that kernelled truth of youth and most of us could agree to sentiment above, so efficiently captured by Stephen Fry (born 24 August 1957); childhood struggles form our later troubled-rich selves.1

I rarely include childhood reflections from adulthood, like Fry’s Moab is My Washpot, on The Examined Life and when I do, it is with a mind to understand childhood, not the child-self of someone famous. That childhood – “years so keenly felt” are universal.

Stephen Fry aged 14. 1971 ca, LONDON , GREAT BRITAIN. Unknown photographer.
Stephen Fry aged 14. 1971.

“Extreme as my childhood was,” promises Fry, “its lineaments are perhaps not so very different from yours.”

When people today hear that I was sent away to board at a school two hundred miles from home at the age of seven they often raise a disapproving eyebrow, snort a contemptuous snort or fling up a despairing hand at the coldness, cruelty and neglect of parents who could do such a thing to a child of such tender years: the word ‘bosom’ and ‘snatching’ and phrases like ‘how could any…? and ‘at such an age’ and ‘no wonder the British are so …’ are often used.

As we search for connective lineaments through the first of Fry’s three-book autobiography, what emerges clearest are abominable feelings of being on the other. Phrases like “join in” and “taking part” and this just tirade against “healthy.”

Healthy

– a word that needs some unpicking. Its meaning derives from whole and hale and is cognitively related to such words as holy and healing. Heal is to weal… as health is to wealth. To be healthy is to be whole and holy. To be unhealthy is to be unclean and unholy, insanitary and insane.

For the English the words healthy and hale, at their best, used to carry the full-bellied weight of florid good cheer, cakes and ale, halidom and festive Falstaffian winter wassail. By the end of the seventieth century, the hale health of pagan holiday was expelled from the feasting-hall along with Falstaff… by the sombre holy day piety and po-faced puritanism. .. “Health” became no longer a bumping boozer’s toast but a quality of the immortal soul.

Poster for public school fitness. From Stephen Fry's "Moab is my Washpot" in the Examined Life Library.
“Healthiness: a picture of everything I was not.” wrote Fry. Illustration courtesy of Moab is my Washpot.

In Fry’s youth at the rather unforgiving public school, the purity of healthiness was the highest note of success, and in Fry’s case, otherness.

A boy who knows that he is other, who knows that the world is not made for him, who reads the code implicit in words like ‘healthy’ and ‘decent’, he may well be drawn to the glaring light and savage dark of the ancient world and the poisonous colors and heavy, dangerous musks that lie on the other side of the door into the secret garden… Without the ‘benefits’ of a classical education, a boy growing up knowing his difference, might in my day, have been drawn to The Wizard of Oz, Caberet musicals, glam rock and fashion. Today the gay boy in every section of society has a world of gay music, dance and television to endorse his identity. They don’t need a parcel of old poofs historically sequestered in Capri and Tangier to tell him who they are and where they come from and whether or not they have the right to hold there heads high.

I did need them, however, I need them desperately and without them I am not sure what I would have done to myself.

While the adult Fry articulates beautifully the nature of his otherness, the youth struggled to comprehend.

I knew then, knew I was queer. I had no idea, no idea at all, what anybody else meant by the word: all that inconsistency, that subtle coding that allowed one both to leer at pretty boys’ bottoms and to sneer at faggots, it confused me and it rattled me, but it never stopped me knowing. I knew I was queer for all kinds of reasons. I knew because I just plain knew, and I knew for that negative reason which is so easy to demonstrate to oneself: my loins never twitched at female bodies or the thought of them, there is simply no escaping such a primitive ineluctable fact and its implications. I knew that I could like and love women as friends, because since childhood I had always found the company of women and girls welcome and easy, but I knew just as strongly that I would never be aroused or excited at the thought of any physical intimacy with a girl, that I would never yearn to share my life with a female.

In Toni Morrison’s study of the persistent, pernicious human need to create “us” and “them” distinctions – what Morrison defines as othering– she calls it a function of our need for power.

[F]or humans as an advanced species, our tendency to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and the deficient needing control, has a long history not limited to the animal world or prehistoric man. Race has been a constant arbiter of difference, as have wealthy, class and gender – each of which is about power and the necessity of control.

From Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others

Although Fry made friendships (there is a touching story of making a friendship on the train to school), the primary response to feeling like an other was to remind himself of where he did belong (his photo of home became extremely “well-loved”) and to act out thoroughly against authority.

From stealing to lying to cheating (all within normal adolescent habit, says I) Fry pushed boundaries, perhaps claiming the role of the other.

Magistrate's court report on Stephen Fry, 1975 Featured in Stephen Fry's "Moab is my Washpot" in the Examined Life Library.
Catalogue of specimen of charges from Swindon’s Magistrates’ Court, 1975. Illustration courtesy of Moab is my Washpot.

In her subtle response to “what advice would you give your younger self” Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska lamented the inability to speak to her younger self.

Teenager

Me – a teenager?
If she suddenly stood, here, now, before me.
would I need to treat her as near and dear,
although she’s strange to me, and distant?

Shed a tear, kiss her brow
for the simple reason
that we share a birthdate

[…]

We differ so profoundly,
talk and think about completely different things.
She knows next to nothing –
but with a doggedness deserving better causes.
I know much more –
but not for sure.

The nature of time and our often totalitarian understanding of wisdom (that it comes with age) means our younger self will always be ignorant of our adult guidance. But rather than fret, let’s consider what advice would our younger self would give us now? That question threads together Fry’s narrative. And he answers it.

That aching, striving, younger self, so desperate to drive a stake through a moment, to feel a still point in a turning world.

To Myself: Note To Be Read Until I Am Twenty-Five

I know what you will think when you read this. You will be embarrassed. You will scoff and sneer. Well I tell you now that everything I feel now, everything I am now is truer and better than anything I shall ever be. Ever. This is me now, the real me. Every day that I grow away from the me that is writing this now is a betrayal and a defeat. I expect you will screw this up into a ball with sophisticated disgust, or at best with tolerant amusement but deep down you will know, you will know that you are smothering what you a really, really were. This is the age when I truly am. From now on my life will be behind me. I tell you now, THIS IS TRUE – truer than anything else I will ever write, feel or know. WHAT I AM NOW IS ME, WHAT I WILL BE IS A LIE.

At the end of Moab is my Washpot Fry arrives. Accepted to higher education, no longer an futureless embarrassment, Fry ends on a high note (continued in The Fry Chronicles. Although he carries a harmonious awareness of his sexuality, he had yet to unearth his later-diagnosed manic-depression.2

On the website Letters of Note, (a profound labor of generosity by Shaun Usher) there is a letter from Fry to a fan who wrote to the performer about depression.

Fry responds in perfect sync with his younger self:

I’m so sorry to hear that life is getting you down at the moment. Goodness knows, it can be so tough when nothing seems to fit and little seems to be fulfilling. I’m not sure there’s any specific advice I can give that will help bring life back its savour. Although they mean well, it’s sometimes quite galling to be reminded how much people love you when you don’t love yourself that much.

From Letters of Note. Read full letter here.

Read Moab is my Washpot on young love, acceptance, fitting in, so many other rich rites of passage that are so much more than passage. Fry’s remarkable genius and attention to the microbes of beauty can also be found in his retelling of Greek myths and invitation to read and write poetry.

Stephen Fry