More Fool Me

more fool meStephen Fry is in danger of becoming a ‘national treasure’, the term applied to people in the public eye who have managed to find the stamina and resilience to live through the praise and the brickbats of the media, and keep performing nevertheless. Whatever happens now, he will have left an impressive legacy to popular culture, from his comedy acting in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, to his novels like The Liar and The Hippopotamus, his narration of the Harry Potter books, his earlier memoirs and his television game show, IQ. No matter what time of day and night you turn the television on, an old episode is playing somewhere, which might be normal for American friends, but is still a bit disconcerting in the UK.

And throughout it all, Stephen Fry has remained a remarkably coherent character. His voice is so easily conjured up in the imagination, his face so familiar and so redolent of what we believe is his real self. I remember a colleague telling me that he’d just decided to go and watch Fry playing the lead role in the new Oscar Wilde biopic when he walked into the SCR and overheard the film being discussed, the comment being made that Fry ‘played Wilde like a self-satisfied Winnie-the-Pooh’. ‘And I thought to myself, oh thank you very much,’ my colleague told me. ‘Now I’ll never get that image out of my head.’

But what of the man behind the Winnie-the-Pooh mask? Stephen Fry has been parcelling out his memoirs over the years and has currently reached his third volume, one that roughly covers the era 1984-1993, or in keeping with the spirit of the book, his cocaine years and the time of his rise to fame. More Fool Me opens, however, with a 70-page synopsis of the two books that preceded, covering his rural childhood living in a large rambling house with servants but little in the way of income, his father a sort of Caracticus Potts figure, creating mad and brilliant inventions in the barn. There’s some issue there that isn’t fully eviscerated, but Fry ends up a very clever, very troubled teen, cruising towards an eventual jail sentence for credit card theft. He then worked hard to get into Cambridge where life came right for him with his Footlight friends – Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery among them – and his subsequent career writing and performing.

‘I consider myself incompetent when it comes to the business of living life,’ Fry writes. ‘There was ever something darker, more dangerous and – let’s be frank – more stupid about me than about my friends. Socially, psychologically and inwardly stupid. Imbecilic. Self-destructive. More of a fool.’ The self-excoriation comes as a prelude to his account of cocaine addiction, and I always find it fascinating to read people writing about things they have done in life which they know will be viewed poorly. I have this theory that it is almost impossible to avoid self-justification. Only the most brilliant writers can do it, because a) you need to have reached a certain level of wisdom to be a brilliant writer and b) they put the narrative first, above the demands of ego. Sometimes being a bit bonkers helps, too. But Stephen Fry goes a much more classic route – he beats himself up and then he reaches for the familiar justifications: he wants to belong, he’s fascinated by transgression, he just plain likes the experience of it (and doesn’t suffer too much from evil side effects). More intriguing to me was the list he posts at the start of the chapter of places he’s snorted coke. It begins with Buckingham Palace, continues with Windsor Castle and the House of Lords, and trots gently through every famous club, hotel and restaurant you might ever have heard of, including The Ritz and the Savoy, The Garrick and The Groucho, before ending with BBC studios, 20th Century Fox and the offices of all the major newspapers. Now what is that list really trying to say?

Not that he’s incompetent at living, I might suggest. The middle section of the memoir is a hodge-podge of anecdotes about events like Charles and Di dropping in for tea, and room-sitting a suite at Claridges where he hosts a dinner party for great elderly thesp Sir John Mills and his wife. Names drop like summer rain. And this section is followed by a diary he kept in the early 90s in which he manages to write a 90,000 word novel over the course of about 6 weeks, immediately followed by a period of creating sketches with Hugh Laurie for the show they did together, as well as earning a healthy living from voiceovers and making a dizzying number of public appearances. To say Fry has a prodigious capacity for both work and play is a wild understatement. The amount of performing, creating and hob-nobbing he gets through is eye-popping. It’s no wonder he took cocaine though, to be fair, that novel gets written while he’s at a health farm. Lesson number one to all would-be stars: you must have outrageous amounts of energy, and be able to perform well off the cuff, hungover and without sleep. That’s the secret to success.

But where is Stephen Fry in all this? I wondered in the end whether he even knew himself. This is a period of his life in which he is celibate, not something that’s up for discussion. And the discussion of drug taking feels, oh I don’t know, just not quite convincing. The ‘Stephen Fry’ living the high life on the crest of a stellar career doesn’t tally with the breast-beating author who opens and closes the memoir, berating his stupidity and incompetence. ‘Where might my life have led me if I had not all but thrown away the prime of it as I partied like one determined to test its limits?’ he asks, without providing an answer. You can’t call productivity like his ‘throwing life away’ by any score. ‘I became something of a licensed fool in palaces and private houses,’ he writes as if any of the previous anecdotes actually reflected on him in a bad way. Of course, 1995 saw his breakdown and his subsequent diagnosis as bipolar, so maybe this is more a trailer for volume four than a conclusion. And a lot of the people he might want to write about are still alive, so there are evidently all kinds of stories he cannot tell. But my own feeling is that the answer lies in his childhood sensation ‘of being watched and judged.’ That sensation leads to consummate, life-long performers, and perhaps what Fry can’t even manage to say himself is that this performance took over every part of his life, and he needed cocaine to continue to function at that vertiginous level without losing his nerve and looking down.

This is an interesting memoir if, like me, you enjoy taking a scalpel to subtext, but I think the volumes that preceded it, Moab Is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles are probably much more satisfactory from the point of view of writing and event. Though if you like theatrical reminiscences, Fry always tells a good anecdote.

32 thoughts on “More Fool Me

  1. I like Fry, but haven’t read any of his memoirs. However, I suspect from what you say that this may be a book that presents Fry as he wants us to see him, rather than what he might really be like under the affable exterior. Interesting, nevertheless!

    • Ah I think you hit the nail on the head there, Karen. It does have a.. selected sort of feel about it. And Fry worries all the time about what the reader will think, suggesting possibilities. I like him too – and I think that he’s a genuinely nice man, and I suppose these years are hard for him to get a handle on. It was all very interesting!

  2. I don’t think I’d leave my diary lying around if you came to stay! I assume that Fry’s bipolarity accounts for some of that prodigious output. I haven’t read any of his books but was very much struck by a humane two-part documentary on being bipolar in which several ordinary people agreed to discuss their condition with him. I came out of it with a new respect for Mr Fry.

      • Lots of bipolar people are madly energetic and inventive when they’re in the mania bit of the cycle. Stephen Fry’s said that the upswing is glorious and makes the downswing so impossibly hard to deal with because the contrast is so great.

    • Susan – lol! It’s okay, your secrets are safe with me……🙂 I like Stephen Fry very much and agree that he IS humane despite being in a profession that wrings a lot of it out of a person. I also think he is extremely smart – which is perhaps why I expected more from him, and believe his other memoirs do deliver it.

      Dark Puss – what Jenny said!🙂

    • Heh, it is! I wondered whether he was just too close still to this era of his life to get any sort of perspective on it. I do think the other memoirs are probably much better, and that may be because he has the necessary distance. It will be intriguing to see what the next one’s like!

  3. I enjoyed your post but it doesn’t make me want to pick up the book. I think I know enough now. I would loe to read the next one though. If he’s going to write it. And some of his novels maybe.
    Taking cocaine and being bipolar sounds quite fatal. I can’t imagine what that drug would do to him in his manic moods. On the other hand – I have a feeling more than one afflicction would stay dormant without the use of drugs.

    • Yes, I wonder whether it would have been better to include the cocaine taking and his breakdown in one volume. Maybe he would think that pushed forward a causality that didn’t exist. But surely drugs do magnify any mental or emotional flaws and render the personality more unstable? I think I’d like to read his first memoir about his childhood – it sounded very intriguing, and he’s written lots of novels now that I haven’t read (though I did read The Liar many years ago).

  4. I think you may have put your finger on it (with your uncanny knack) when you wonder whether he even knew himself. For such a large, clever, engaging man, he always comes across as curiously vulnerable and perhaps that is why. Got the book, haven’t read it yet.

    • Ooh I would love to know what you think of it – please do tell me! I think you have it just right – that’s exactly the conflict he seems to be repeatedly acting out.

  5. Stephen Fry is one of those people about whom I feel I would rather not know more, lest the borderline annoyance I’ve always had with his creative work flare up into a full-blown conflagration. I will admit, though, that I get most of my news from QI. That’s my favorite Stephen Fry, though there’s also some excellent stuff in “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”–though it’s quite obvious that he is manic, and some of the comedy has that quality of being funny only to him.

    • I like his relationship with Alan Davies in QI – sort of schoolmaster and pupil but constantly subverted. I must have seen Fry & Laurie at some point but I can’t recall any of it. I’m sure it must be available on youtube! Interesting that you were aware of his manic side, too.

  6. I used to be a great fan of Fry, but over the last decade or so I’ve wondered if there’s an element of “protesting too much” in his relentless self-deprecation. I’ve no doubt that he has suffered, but for him to groan about “where his life might have led him” after the spectacular success of his career suggests someone totally out of touch with normal people’s lives; someone so used to sycophancy and cheap “validation” from his peers that he’s lost all sense of when it’s appropriate to maintain a dignified silence. I THINK I still like him, but he is too apt these days to slide into breast-beating self-pity.

    • It must do the strangest things to a person – being in the public eye all the time. I must admit I tend to feel irritated by too much self-deprecation, too, but that’s because I think of it as a way of maintaining the behavioural status quo. I think people beat themselves up so that they can continue with whatever vice they choose – it’s a way of creating internal balance without really facing what’s happening. But there’s certainly something odd going on, and it will be interesting to see whether he gets to the route of that strange self-pity himself.

      • You hit the nail on the head with the phrase “a way of creating internal balance without really facing what’s happening”. I don’t think self-pity is such a terrible thing, but there’s a difference between feeling it, and indulging it as a reflex – especially in public. There is evidently a real tension in Fry – he seems an extrovert with the soul of an introvert. Of course, having set himself up as a spokesperson for mental illness, it’s now part of his job to talk about his own angst at every opportunity, which perhaps isn’t too good for his angst! He does intrigue me as he is clearly a deep and complex person.
        And he is I think a basically nice guy. I knew someone who, on a whim, invited him round to a party at her house after he performed a show in her town. He turned up, despite not knowing her from Adam!

  7. His is not a name I recognize (or face), but I do remember the a little of Blackadder series. I love most of the Brit Coms that find they way across the pond, but for some reason this one did not resonate with me. But now I want to listen to all the Harry Potter books for some reason.

    • I would love to hear him narrate the Harry Potter books, too – I understand he did a fantastic job. I think you’d enjoy him as Jeeves too, Grad, if you enjoy a little P. G. Wodehouse!

  8. I’ve never been much of a fan but I saw a show that he did a number of years ago in which he traveled across America and he proved to be funny, perceptive, and very kind. It was fun to watch the show for a kind of outsider’s perspective and he even made it to Minnesota in the winter no less. I may no be a fan of his comedy but I like him for coming in here in winter and going ice fishing🙂

    • LOL! Give that man a medal!🙂 I remember the show being on – but for some reason I never got to see much of it. I’m glad it was good, and I do think he is a very genuinely good man, and super smart too. I think I really ought to read the first volume of his memoirs, which I understand is really excellent.

  9. I enjoy watching him in some programs (though not the awful QI show) but am not so interested that I’d read one let alone three books about his life. Why do personalities think we need to know about their lives in such detail?

    • From the memoir it seems that once you are a well-known personality, there is money being offered left, right and centre for just about anything you care to do. It’s the way the world turns but I can’t say I like it!

  10. An interesting insight into the writing of an autobiography. I have only read “The Liar” and have not read anything autobiographical by Fry.I was very fond of his performances in Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster and also Blackadder. Perhaps the performance I liked the most was the one no one has mentioned, “Peter’s Friends”.

    • Do you know, I meant to mention Peter’s Friends and forgot. Or to be truthful, I may have repressed it. The last time I saw that movie, I gave birth shortly afterwards, and I haven’t dared watch it again since! But it was a very good movie.🙂

  11. Oh God, “self-satisfied Winnie the Pooh”! That nearly makes me want to rewatch the film, except I don’t want to at all. I didn’t hate it, but I thought it veered into bathos and gave Oscar Wilde too much of a pass on his own bad behavior while making Bosie a cartoon villain (and I say that as a massive Oscar Wilde partisan and Bosie hater).

    • Jenny, I had forgotten you were an Oscar Wilde fan! How could I have done that? I haven’t seen the film so thank you for your warnings. It may well stay unwatched.

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