Title: More Fool Me: A Memoir.
Author: Stephen Fry.
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir, drugs, addiction, writing, acting, homosexuality, diary.
Publication Date: 2014.
Summary: In his early thirties, Stephen Fry - writer, comedian, star of stage and screen - had, as they say, "made it". A much loved television star, author of a critically acclaimed and bestselling first novel, with a glamorous and glittering cast of friends, he had more work than was perhaps good for him. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as the 80s drew close, he discovered a most enjoyable way to burn the candle at both ends, and took to excess like a duck to breadcrumbs. Writing and recording by day, haunting a never-ending series of celebrity parties, drinking dens and poker games by night, in a ludicrous and impressive act of bravado, he fooled all those except the very closest to him, some of whom were most enjoyably engaged in the same dance. He was, to all intents and purposes, a high-functioning addict. Blazing brightly and partying wildly as the 80s turned to the 90s - AIDS became an epidemic and politics turned really nasty - he was so busy, so distracted by the high life, that he could hardly see the inevitable, headlong tumble that must surely follow... Containing raw, electric extracts from his diaries of the time, the book is an eloquent account by a man driven to create and to entertain - revealing a side to him he has long kept hidden.
My rating: 7.5/10
My review: It appears general reviews on this book have been negative, mainly due to the fact that Fry apparently reuses a lot of material from his previous two autobiographical works, so I'm really glad I read this one first. Because I loved it.
♥ I consider myself incompetent when it comes to the business of living life. Maybe that is why I am committing the inexcusable hubris of offering the world a third written autobiography. Maybe here is where I will find my life, in this thicket of words, in a way that I never seem to be able to do outside the bubble I am in now as I write.
♥ A friend of mine pointed out recently how absurd it was that people reread so little: do you only listen to a piece of music that you love once?
♥ We were, in Jonathan Miller's immortal words, not Jews, just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog. But then, as the Nazis showed, you don't have to practise (even for 10,000 hours) at being Jewish to be beaten, exiled, tortured, enslaved or killed for it, so one might as well embrace the identity with pride. The rituals, genital mutilations and avoidance of oysters and bacon can go hang, as can the behaviour of any given Israeli government, but otherwise consider me a proud Jew.
♥ I think I may have written this before, or possibly stolen it from someone else: it is, in any case, hardly a fresh observation, and I should be very surprised if it does not strike home with you. The rest of the world was at That Lesson, the one we missed because of a toothache or diarrhoea, the one where they - the rest of the school - were told how the world works and how to comport themselves with confidence and ease. We all missed it and have felt insecure ever since. Other people know some secret thing, and no other people know more than children who are just a few years older than you are.
♥ Yes, dinner parties where the men wore black tie and the women "withdrew" from the dining room to the drawing room after the cheese to allow the men time for strong talk, cigars and port. My mother confided in me her probably accurate opinion that this old and now defunct ritual (defunct even in Royal Palaces I am able to tell you - more of that later too) was in fact a way of allowing women to go to bathrooms together without drawing to the attention of their men that the sweet creatures possessed such things as bladders which needed voiding just as much as any man's or horse's did.
♥ I happen to be that rare thing - rarer than a straight man in a Hollister T-shirt - a fantasist whose fantasies came true, it would seem. A lot of celeb haters would say that most celebs are narcissists. It could be that they are right. Counterintuitively, self-hatred is one of the leading symptoms of clinical narcissism. Only by telling yourself and the world how much you hate yourself can you receive the reliable shower of praise and admiration in response that you feel you deserve... or so at least the theory runs.
♥ Five minutes later, just in time for the camera to catch my humiliation, the "walking horse" freaked out at the horror of having me astride it or possibly (like every fucking horse ever fucking born) became utterly spooked by the astounding existence of such wholly unexpected and terrifying phenomena as wind, trees, sky, a bird gliding in the distance, a chicken, a hedge, a leaf whirling in the wind, a butterfly - you name it - and galloped off, bursting through the corral fence, while I screamed and juddered in the saddle, incompletely trying to operate the brakes.
♥ It was here that, to contradict Philip Larkin, love fell on me like an enormous No. Most of my life since has been a response to that. Fortunately, however, there had been books.
♥ I am not so foolish as to join myself with those heralds of doom who claim that the internet and social networking will inevitably spell the death of literacy, literature, focus, concentration span or "real" human interaction. When moving-type printing was invented it was damned as a technology that would rot the mind. No longer would a scholar have to know everything, they could just "look it up." When the novel arrived it was damned as destructive, escapist, shallow and detrimental to morals. The same howls of protest were screeched at popular theatre, music hall, cinema, then television, video-gaming and now social networking. Human teenagers in particular are tougher than their elders will ever believe. The bullying, abuse and trolling is, of course, horrific, but believe me, a teenager has a better life of it now than he or she ever did a hundred years ago, when physical punishment, cruel sadistic beatings and sexual abuse went unquestioned in schools and in the home.
♥ The fact is, real life is sometimes so complicated that a pure unmixed metaphor would be unconvincing. And the truth about love... well, as Auden wondered:
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
♥ We moan about the sense of entitlement the young are said to have today. I think it is nonsense. It is simply that they are aware of the actual entitlement my generation enjoyed. Despite coming from a comfortably off household, since expulsion from private school all my education was at the expense of the state. Grants to cover living costs, tuition fees, everything. I even, while I was in debt to a bookshop at Cambridge, had the cheek to send a photocopy of their bill for the due sum of four hundred or so pounds (the equivalent of well over a thousand now) to the Norfolk and Norwich Local Education Authority. A tutor had added a paragraph to say that, as a scholar and potential academic of the future, these books were necessary to me. A cheque to cover the bill was immediately sent. I tell stories like that to my godchildren and nephews, who are just emerging from their university careers, burdened with debt, and I can see them wanting to punch me in the face. Hard.
♥ Unforgivably gauche as it seems, I found my mouth forming the shy sentence: "So, er, what's Robert Redford really like?"
"Well," said Bill, "tell me what you would be like if for twenty-five years you had never heard the word 'no'."
Which is as good an answer as could be given. It is far from necessary and sufficient not to have heard the word "no" for decades to become a brat, or spoiled or impossible to deal with, but it goes a long way to explaining some of the more painful characteristics of those who are called stars.
It's rather like the argument used to defend those brought up in poverty and abuse, however. It fails to explain those many who, under the same intolerable, horrific circumstances, do not become members of gangs or crack-smoking thugs who could remorselessly beat an old man to death for asking them to keep the noise down. There are those who have endured childhoods we can't even imagine who go on to university and lives of fulfilment, kindness and familial bliss. Similarly there are long-established stars, Tom Hanks to pull a random name out of the Starry Sorting Hat, who are as kind, self-deprecating, professional, unspoiled and modest as it is possible to be.
♥ "Stay squeamish," was Hoffman's (typically) curt reply. It wasn't too long after that that he himself was dead. Twenty-three years "clean" and then one back-slide and it was all over. It's rather like nuclear weaponry: you can never say it is safe because it has only been safe up until now; it needs to be safe for all time: one moment of not being safe, and the whole game is up.
♥ Freud's book Über Coca contains some fascinating insights into the effect of this new drug on himself and his patients/volunteers/kidnapped tramps.
♥ Perhaps too much, for this marvellous lover in one arena loved what I exactly most didn't: the "scene", those gay clubs and pubs and their music. Conversation was what I adored. Sometimes even other people's. How can you converse with "Pump Up The Volume" vibrating your tummy and hoarsening your voice to a whisper that wouldn't be heard in a nun's cell?
♥ Barely a day goes by without someone on Twitter favouring me with the information that "I thought better of you than that" - the "that" being anything from passing on the blandest of off-colour jokes, to employing a swear word that "offends" them (don't get me started), to using a epithet that apparently slights a minority of some kind. Which I don't really get. "God, there have been a lot of clever yids" doesn't seem in the least problematic. Nor does "Amazing how many of the greatest ever American comedians have been kikes - must be something to do with their 2,000-year need to stay together and keep themselves amused", or whatever. Perfectly charming observations that don't need someone to say, "Excuse me, those words are offensive. Kindly use the word "Jews" or better still the phrase "Jewish people"," (as if the latter takes the ting out of being a Jew, as if even that word is too strong). "All Jewish people should be beaten up" and "Fucking Jews run everything - you know they conspire to keep others out?" How is it better that whoever writes something so ghastly is using "acceptable" words? It is the sentiment expressed that is repulsive or not repulsive, not the words. Hell, I'm turning into a foaming "political correctness gone mad" animal.
♥ Marry in haste, repent at leisure, as Congreve wrote. Tweet in haste, repent at leisure, as I have learned. Sorely. Write in haste, revise at leisure, as experience has also taught me. "I can write drunk, but must revise sober," F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have told his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
♥ I dived for the taps and the towels and made my escape back to the Smoking Room, as I seem to remember it was called in those days. It is probably known as the Herbal Tea Salon now.
♥ The fact is (I'm sure I shouldn't be so forward as to call it Fry's Law), such drastic and dramatic outward differences cut no ice at all. Anymore than cosmetic surgery would have turned Heinrich Himmler into a pleasant companion for a spring walking tour of butterfly-filled alpine meadows.
♥ The first rule of being a rebel is that you can't make yourself a rebel. It is an action not an identity, a process not a title. You rebel. When I was a distressed, confused, manic, disruptive and disrupted schoolboy, rebellion did not come as a choice.
♥ Everyone's memory will be different, but none of them, I think, will dispute my representation of the spirit of the age as we lived it, foul as it may stink in your nostrils, self-indulgent as it certainly was: precious hours wantonly pissed away, good money spunked, valuable brain cells massacred, execrable shit talked. At the time I loved it. Lived for it and little else.
♥ People, groups, movements, energies gather themselves into a ball sometimes and hurl themselves into history. Then the time comes when the fire dies. The great mass deflates like Ida's purple, spongy nose. Many will regard the Britpop and YBA movements as shallow and unimportant. But damn, it was fun to be caught up inside as an amused, amazed observer.
... Some may regret the passing of the old days and the inevitable deflation of that pumped-up, alcoholic, coke-fuelled nose, but all things change. Another time of energy and innovation will come and then go too. A compensation of age is a realization of the cyclical nature of fashion, politics and art.
♥ I also admire the tradition of the Prime Minister having to visit the monarch weekly and use him or her as an echo-chamber. I tell Americans that it is the equivalent of their President once a week being obliged to pay a call on Uncle Sam, assuming that that universally recognizable symbol of the nation were a real, bearded fellow in striped trousers and spangled coat. If a man as powerful as a President or a Prime Minister has to explain what he is doing, what he has enacted, how he has responded to this crisis or that, to someone who represents the nation in a way he or she cannot, I think it keeps them from going too power-crazy.
♥ Princess Diana holds in the threshold for a second longer, checks over her shoulder that her Prince is out of earshot and whispers softly in my ear, "Sorry to leave early, though secretly I'm quite glad. It's Spitting Image tonight, and I want to watch it in my room. They hate it of course. I absolutely adore it."
And there you have her in a nutshell. By telling me this she was putting me in her power. It was a statement then worth tens of thousands of pounds. "Princess Di Loves Anti-Royal Smut Puppets!" All I had to do was pick up the phone to any tabloid. But by confiding in me she had made me in some measure her slave: to be trusted with such intelligence was to be appointed one of her special courtiers. Even as intellectual, sharp, brilliant, knowledgeable and impossibly well-read and sensible a man as Clive James was utterly devoted to her.
♥ Next to me was Penn Jillette, one half of the brilliant Penn and Teller, American magicians, pro-science, skeptics of the highest rank.
Penn turned to me as he watched the Prince slowly coming down the line.
"Do I have to call him "Your Majesty" or any of that shit?"
"No, no. Not at all. If you were to use a title it would be "Your Royal Highness", and from then on "sir", but there's no need. After all, I haven't called you Penn once in this conversation until now, have I, Penn?"
"Oh, OK, just so long as he understands that we don't talk like that. And what about bowing? I have to bow? We don't bow in America."
"No, no," I reassure him, "no bowing necessary."
"Cuz I'm an American, and we don't bow."
"Yes, he knows you're an American."
"I won't get put in the Tower of London or anything?"
People always think that sojourns in the Tower of London, like knighthoods, are somehow in the gift of members of the royal family.
I reassured him on these points. No Highnessing, no kowtowing.
At last the Prince reaches Penn, who immediately falls almost prostrate to the floor. "Your Majesty Highness. Your Royal Sir..." and so on and so forth, babbling like a gibbon on speed. The Prince passes on to me and whoever was the other side of me without turning a hair. Seen it all before.
After he had gone, I watched Penn, an enormous man, crouching on the floor, rolling about, beating the planks of the stage, sobbing, stuffing his fist into his mouth and moaning up to the fly-tower: Why did I do that? What came over me? What power do they have? I betrayed my country!"
♥ ...but it was the commentators that gave me raptures with their magisterially rich and rolling American rhetoric. What a peculiar way with language they had, employing poetical tricks that had been out of date a hundred years earlier. My favourite was the "be-" game. If a word usually began with the prefix "be-" it was taken off. Thus "beneath" became "neath" and so on. But the "be" of "beneath" wasn't simply thrown away. No, no. It was recycled by adding it to words it had no business being anywhere near. Which would result in preposterous declamatory orotundities of this nature: "Neath the bedappled verdure of the mighty sequoia sinks the bewestering sun," and so forth. And what is the proper name for this rhetorical trope, also much deployed? It would start with the usual "be-" nonsense: "Neath becoppered skies bewends..." but then this: "the silver ribbon of time that is the Colorado River." The weird and senseless maze of metonym and metaphor that was National Geographic Speak in all its desplendour was a great influence on me, for where others had rock and roll music, I had language...
♥ On the flight back I garrulously chattered away to an American lady sitting next to me about how I loved America and was planning to live in New York.
"But honey," she said - she was rather in the Rosalind Russell Auntie Mame mould - "honey, you told me you'd only ever been to New York City and Los Angeles."
I confessed that this was true.
"Then you have never even seen America," she said.
I supposed regarding a part of something as being congruent to its whole might be viewed as a kind of pars pro toto fallacy or lazy synecdoche, but I didn't truly understand what this woman meant until, as the National Geographic might say, I bethought me of the colossal continent of succulence that was a Carnegie Deli sandwich. How could anyone say they had only gnawed at the thin slices of rye at either end while the whole continent of meat lay untouched? How could anyone say they had experienced America who had only nibbled at New York and Los Angeles?
♥ Oh memory, what a ditzy queen you are.
♥ Heat treatment and massage at 3.00. Actually took my clothes off this time! Mustn't do exclamation marks, it's so Adrian Mole.
♥ Trevor Newton back from his year's sabbatical in Australia, teaching at Rochester again. He seemed good, if a tad subdued and self-conscious. Strange: at Cambridge he was infinitely more urbane and polished than any of us, but since he's become a dominie he's grown away from London; it must be hard for him now that Kim is doing well writing for Ken B. and Greg Snow (also present) is getting on with things as a writer. Why a schoolmaster should feel inferior... yet we know they do. We are the ones who should feel inferior.
♥ Germaine Greer said to me afterwards "Jeez, you're so competitive" which I thought was highly revealing. She's a good stick though, for all that. It's clear in her conversation however that she still feels the need to prove herself all the time, which given her intelligence and confident eloquence is odd. No it isn't. We're all like that, eloquent or not. We just show it in different ways.
♥ Well, bugger me with a cocktail onion, what a day.
♥ One can overlook a lot by imagining they were shy or nervous, but generally speaking a disappointing set. There is no point in being shiny, attractive, intelligent and young unless you beam it out, whatever your gender, to those older than you.
♥ Huge crowds as always, somewhat amused to see me instead of Ken dismounting. Em, like Princess Di, leaps for the crash barriers and chats to the waiting throng. I stand on one leg looking like an arse until she joins me.
♥ One forgets just what a great man Wagner was. This was Art, this was total magic real uncompromising Art. Genius is, I'm afraid, the only word. Unparalleled genius.
♥ I sensed that The Liar was just the sort of thing that Cleese would not like, because, despite, or perhaps because of, his comic genius he does not seem to understands the profound truth that comic things are more serious than serious things. More serious and truer. It's part of his guilt of being a comedian, and reflected in his absurdly high doctrine of abstract spiritualist writing like the Tibetian Book of the Dead, Gurdjieff, Coelho and that kind of bogus baloney. If he had ever read a true mystic like the Author of The Cloud or Mother Julian he would know that abstraction and unearthed thinking are foreign to true spirituality.
♥ "Well, perhaps you can tell us what you think wisdom is?"
"Wisdom? Wisdom? Well now. I think perhaps wisdom is the ability to cope, don't you?"
I have never heard a better definition of wisdom since. Certainly wisdom is nothing to do with knowledge or intellectual force. There are brilliant minds who can't sit the right way on a lavatory, and wholly uneducated people whose fortitude and humour in coping with lives that we would find unendurable shames us all.
♥ Which takes me back to the world of my first book of memoirs, Moab is My Washpot, where I describe what I must hope and trust is common feeling amongst many children: that of being watched and judged. When our race was young all humans felt it and called it God. Now, most of us call it conscience, guilt, shame, self-disgust, low self-esteem, moral awareness... there are plenty of words and phrases that dance around the rim of that boiling psychic volcano.
♥ I am still a fool, but I have greater faith in the healing force of time. It is possible that age brings wisdom. The spectacle of many of our politicians and other citizens of middle age and beyond gives one leave to doubt that hope.
♥ If days be good, they shall pass, which is a lowering thought. If they be bad, they shall pass, which is cheering. I suppose it is enough to know this and cling on to it for some small comfort when confronted by the irredeemable and senseless folly of the world; to be a little like Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche who was "born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."
But I know enough of myself and the instability that seems to be my birthright to be sure that I have not yet learned this lesson.
More fool me.