Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Fry Chronicles – Stephen Fry

I’m going to come right out and say it: I haven’t enjoyed a book as much in a long time. You’re free to leave the page now. Or stick with me while I ramble some more.

The Fry Chronicles is the autobiography of the English actor and writer, Stephen Fry. Specifically, it covers his stint at Cambridge and early years in television. An earlier volume Moab is my Washpot, covers his childhood, including his incarceration for credit card fraud.

I have always been a huge fan of Fry’s generation of English actors, and specifically British comedy of the eighties and nineties. My first encounter with Fry was through Jeeves and Wooster, which was televised in India in the early nineties. Although my mother, sister and I had too many preconceived notions about Wodehouse and did not think the casting perfect, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie registered in my mind. Over the years, they popped up here and there.

I first got a taste of Fry’s writing first through twitter and then through a wonderful article on PG Wodehouse written by him, which a colleague shared with me. (Read it here But Fry has actually been writing as long as he has been acting. His style is humorous, ironic and self-deprecating. I found myself wishing to write down quotes and phrases in a way I have not since my teenage years.

The Fry Chronicles seem to document the actor’s ‘normal years’ – the phase that came between imprisonment at 17 and cocaine addiction/experimentation at 30. The portions set in Cambridge are fabulous. I have always been an anglophile, with an unabashed admiration of an Oxbridge education. Fry spends more time at various theater performances – on stage and as a spectator than at classes – but he brings alive the history, tradition and exclusivity of these ancient institutions, particularly their special interest clubs. His nostalgic descriptions of the wonder and beauty of the May Ball and May Bumps especially, capture a beautiful moment in time and the whimsical, ephemeral nature of youth. You wish you had been around at that particular time, meeting those particular people, living those particular experiences.

Fry makes frequent apologies for the exclusive and often outdated traditions of these places, without once failing to show us their magic and mystery. He makes no bones about his love of Wilde (whom he played in a biopic which I have always wished to see), Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes, and the age and manners they represent. In a lesser man, these loves may reek of pomposity, but Fry is funny and self-aware and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Whenever he gets too introspective, he lightens the mood with a casually tossed remark such as “Goodness Stephen, who rattled your cage?”

It is also an absolute delight to bump into a hundred familiar characters – Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams, Tony Slattery (it took me a while to place him), Graham Norton, Richard Curtis and more.

More than anything else, I loved the hopeful, kind and gentlemanly tone of the whole book. In a world where sensationalism reigns, it is heartening to see a celebrity making no excuses for bad behavior, for erring - especially knowing that he is not playing to the galleries in doing so, but expressing genuine regret. Fry’s demons are very real, and this is evident from the way he resists aggrandising his mental agonies. Before you allow yourself to say “What does he have to complain about?” Fry takes the words out of your mouth.

The sheer wealth of intelligence in the book, the pleasure of not being talked down to, makes me want to take a crack at the classics again – Shakespeare perhaps? It’s like Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in ‘As Good as it Gets’, “You make me want to be a better man”. The Fry Chronicles makes me want to be a better writer and better travelled – or at the very least, better read!!


Jay said...

Loved his "Wagner and me" documentary. (Last year The Guardian was streaming this for free)
To paraphrase Vir Sanghvi, nothing can go wrong when it is deep Fried :D

shai said...

Jay, he does mention his love of Wagner in the book. Do read it, it is beautifully Deep Fried!

Jay said...

Thanks for this recco - absolutely loving A bit of Fry and Laurie (on DVD). This one is hilarious:

Jay said...

Hi, Hope you have settled in. Yeah, the Society sketch is such a riot! Btw, saw this via a retweet this morning: