In the second volume of his autobiography (although “reminiscences” would be a more accurate description) Fry mentions performing in “All’s Well that Ends Well” in Queen’s College, Cambridge. I saw that performance, and while I have no memory whatsoever of “our hero” I think the odds are I must have seen him in it too. So that’s my personal connection with this book, for what very little it is worth.
If you had asked me a few days ago what the title of this book was I would have fought you to the death in defence of it being “Moab was my washpot”. Why the mental auto-correct? Obviously it’s in part the visual echo between “was” and “washpot”, but also it’s in the past tense, which is where biographies and their titles belong, in the “As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning” category. The biblical reference is kind of explained in this edition – I reread the quasi explanation a couple of times, but am still none the wiser, and the intended impression of look at me cleverness is clearly quite deliberate.
There isn’t really a criticism of the Stephen Fry aged approximately 4 to 20 you can make that he doesn’t make of himself in the book, in a way becoming immune to such criticisms as he goes. Of course he was insufferable, profoundly irritating, dishonest and despicable towards his loved ones. Guilty as charged and yet still quite pleased with himself. Fry had as you can imagine a very privileged childhood, although he portrays it as ordinary. This is in part defensible – to him it was ordinary – but he must have enough experience of normal life by now to know that having servants in the 60’s (for example) wasn’t normal. The prep and public school experiences dwelt in in this book are however banal, I’m sorry to say – the only remarkable thing about them being that this way of life was thought worth preserving into the 1970’s and beyond, and that he thinks we will find the arcane details of the schools’ invented languages and rituals in any way interesting. Similarly his numerous digressions, which give the impression of existing simply to fill the space available, are a soapbox on which he is able to argue for his various opinions, haranguing the reader without allowing any genuine room for dissent or doubt.
Autobiography that is a careful attempt to massage perceptions of a public figure are always going to happen – don’t hate me, I am ordinary really, look at these pictures of me in short trousers on the beach at Southend etc – but this book is more subtle than that. Describing at almost all times a rather unpleasant little oik is a strange way of garnering public affection, but we forgive him almost everything (as do his saint-like parents and family, and virtually every other authority figure he comes across). He had a QC to present his mitigation at his sentencing hearing in the Magistrates’ Court for goodness sake! This forgiveness is manipulated principally by the alchemy at the end of this book – somehow the A-level failing, prison-sentence serving, obsessive thieving has been transformed into a hard working genius who gets a scholarship into Cambridge after only one year’s study, a transformation which is his responsibility alone it seems. I don’t buy that. It is the one part of the book where there is obviously a whole lot more going on that we aren’t told about. At other points he is clear that he changes details to protect the innocent – maybe some journalist will one day dig out what really went on over those months.
I have managed to get this far without using the “national treasure” description, which is quite an achievement, so there you have it. As such Fry is immune from any criticism, and good luck to him for it – let’s just hope he uses his immense power for good, not to protect public schools, fox hunting and the royal family. I worry about a day in 20 years when he is in the House of Lords lecturing us on how things were better in his day, when schoolboys were taught Greek before breakfast, where sex abuse was seen as part of normal school boy development (the description of his “deflowering” even when sanitised in its description, is not for the faint hearted) and all good fun, and the poor knew their place, good for a comic turn now and again but not much more. You really want a happy ending for Fry, you really do, but does he deserve it?