Magazine article The Spectator

The Truth Is Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Magazine article The Spectator

The Truth Is Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Article excerpt


Hutchinson, 16.99, pp. 320 quaveringly epicene old don in the Cambridge-Forster mould was for a time during the 1980s a regular contributor to Ned Sherrin's radio show Loose Ends. Despite the character's ludicrous mannerisms it was some time before I realised he was not a real person but the imaginary creation of an ex-undergraduate comedian called Stephen Fry. Unlike the academics pilloried by Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett the character was presented affectionately as from his own point of view: here was clearly a most original talent.

I next noticed Fry as a columnist in the much missed Listener. Like his don he had an assured way with words and a most engaging gift for paradox. His opinions were broad Left but with no trace of Dave Spartism. To this day he subscribes to no `package-deal' of opinions; in his current autobiography, despite sometimes intemperately expressed hatred of British bourgeois thinking, he refuses to condemn either the boarding-school system which claimed him from the age of seven or the corporal punishment he frequently endured; he is lightly pro-hunting as the humanest death for the fox, whom he imagines saying, `Think I'll stick to dogs if you don't mind.' He supports the monarchy and aristocracy, comparing their possible priggish removal with bland cosmetic surgery and imagining disappointed foreigners `lunching at President Hattersley's residence or sipping tea with Lady Thatcher in some converted People's Palace'.

Seeing him subsequently as a performer in sketches and films, I was struck by his relaxed authority - an unusual concomitant of student exuberance. My favourable impression was confirmed when I finally met this affable giant - he was generous, courteous, adventurously witty; an attractively middle-aged young man, yet neither precocious nor patronising.

Despite making a few flippant references to a murky childhood, he seemed outstandingly well adjusted. So I was surprised and greatly saddened when some four years after our meeting he suffered a bad nervous breakdown -- abruptly leaving a West End play and disappearing abroad. This episode brought out the worst in the press: their righteous indignation masking a simple jealousy of a brilliant 'thirtysomething' millionaire whose mature confidence had clearly long concealed a desperate child's vulnerability.

Now happily he has re-emerged as the star of a film about Oscar Wilde: ideal casting as to physique, wit, likeability, sexual orientation and a personal understanding of the self-destructive urge. He has also produced a remarkable autobiography, or, rather, a confessional memoir of childhood and schooldays, in which at the age of 40 he attempts to re-enter the mind of the juvenile delinquent and failure he was until aged 18.

It makes gripping, sometimes unbearably sad, sometimes confusing reading. Three strands are here: a meticulously recalled narrative of youth, a ruthless self-examination and a manically clever literary standup comedy routine - now going off into Ronnie Corbettesque digression, now into Ben Eltonish obscenity, now into Connolly-style - Cyril, not Billy philosophising, garnished with quotations from E. M. Forster to Montaigne.

Fry's bizarre story is the potentially idyllic one of an upper-middle-class Norfolk boy with affluent, intelligent, happily married parents, his mother a sweet-natured Jewess, his father an unworldly, formidably clever, selfemployed inventor. …

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