Stephen Fry

The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography

“"The mask worn long enough will be the face."”

Stephen Fry (born 24 August 1957) is a self-proclaimed entertainer as he “lacks the stomach” and cares too much for others’ opinions to be an artist.1 In that vein, Fry begins The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography with an apology.

I really must stop saying sorry; it doesn’t make things any better or worse. If only I had it in me to be all fierce fearless and forthright instead of forever sprinkling my discourse with pitiful retractions, apologies and prevarications.

Once he dispenses with his apologies and a few vices (sugar and smoking), Fry slips into memories of college. Chronicles picks up where Fry’s Moab Is My Washpot dropped us: at the gates of Cambridge University.

Newton Bridge, Queen's College, Cambridge University
Mathematical bridge; optically, it looks like an arch, but it’s composed of straight timbers aligned in tangents. It was designed and built in 1749 to connect Queen’s College (Fry’s alma mater) across the River Cam at Cambridge University. Read more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It carries us through Fry’s undergraduate term, which was academically easy owing to his wonderful memory for recitation and his friendship with his comedic life-partner Hugh Laurie (to whom Fry dedicates the book).

Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry from "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" sketch comedy series which ran from 1987-95.
Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry from “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” sketch comedy series which ran from 1987-95. ©BBC. Courtesy Everett Collection.

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, 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?

Fry quickly finds love is for comedic theatre. After a few successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, a strong role in the Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe (John Cleese was a member two decades earlier), and a fast friendship with Laurie, he graduates Cambridge all set for a career in comedy. Despite believing himself to be witty, not funny.

I believed that being funny, being able to cause laughter through expression, movement and that mysterious palpable, physical something that is given to some and not to others was a gift similar to athleticism, musicality and sex appeal. In other words, it had something to do with a self-confidence with the body that I had never had.

The idea of being on the outside of something vital, something good is a major theme of Fry’s first autobiography, Moab is My Washpot in which he writes:

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. […] A boy who knows that he is other, who knows that the world is not made for him, who reads the code implicit in worlds 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.

From Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot

And yet, the lasting ingenuity of Fry—and he would shudder to learn—is he is likeable. He is, as he suspects, not as funny or natural or as physically pliable as his Cambridge cohort or the Oxonians like Rowan Atkinson. But he is loved. I’ve been a British comedy devotee for decades, and there is no one like Fry.

Laurie Lee, a fellow British writer, often comedic, disputed the truth of autobiography; he felt it was unable to form the writer in full.

Fry continues:

Deep inside I wanted to be recognized. I just wanted to count.

I was like that all through my teenage years and early twenties. Desperate to be famous but also very, very ready, if I didn’t make it, to vent my scorn on those who did. I content that people like me who burn for fame and recognition are much rarer than the prevailing view would have us believe.

Honest abounds, but there is a certain dishonesty in Fry’s memories, and that is any insight emanating from feelings of self-love. Many good, positive, and true aspects of his career, success, and personality are downplayed. Which is unbearably Fry, in all his self-skewering pomposity .

Maybe the childish desire for attention I felt then is all a piece of my childish desire for sweet things. The desire to be famous is infantile, and humanity has never lived in an age when infantilism was more sanctioned and encouraged than now… I know that fame to me, when I was a child, was much like candy-floss.

But there is truth in our memory of emotions. Whether he was funny or not is irrelevant; Fry believed he wasn’t funny enough. That truth Fry delivers to us fully, dutifully.

I picture myself at the surface of an ocean: the course of my life is played out as a descent to the sea bed. As I drop down I clutch at and try to reach blurred but alluring images representing the vocation of writer, actor, comedian, film director, politician or academic, but they all writhe and ripple flirtatiously out of reach, or rather it would be truer to say that I’m afraid to leap forward and hug one of them to me.

As always, there is approachability in everything Fry does. Spend more time with this gentle, generous man in his guide to reading and writing poetry, something Fry considered a “primal urge” in all of us.

One of my favorite things Fry moments was a film version of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See, well worth a watch and read.

Stephen Fry