Stephen Fry is a self-proclaimed entertainer as he “lacks the stomach” and cares too much for others’ opinions to be an artist. 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.
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 he dedicates the book).
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 ingenuity of Fry—and he may shudder to hear this—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.
What lacks in Fry’s account is insight emanating from feelings of self-love. Many good, positive, and true aspects of his career, success, and personality are downplayed.
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 warm, 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 has done was to make a film version of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See, well worth a watch and read.