“If a thing can be said in ten words, I may be relied upon to take a hundred to say it. I ought to apologize for that. I ought to prune, pare and extirpate excess growth, but I will not. I like words – strike that, I love words.” – The Fry Chronicles
A celebrity autobiography can be the story of the persons life, with a narrative arc leading to their final success. Or it can be an exploration of what makes the person tick. Or it can be an amusing collection of anecdotes about the famous. Or if you are Stephen Fry with a love of words and seemingly endless stock of clever turns of phrase, you can mix all three. The result, the Fry Chronicles, is like a big pile of sweets – the sort some people do for Christmas with lots of different treats in a big bowl. And as it happens, big piles of sweets feature prominently in the early chapters as we hear in huge detail just how addicted the young Fry was to sugar in all its forms and just how much trouble that got him into.
Addiction to sugar doesn’t have the glamour of addiction to drugs or alcohol, and in most peoples hands would make for a rather tedious story. Not so with Fry. We get the chemical formula, a run down of the different brands of sweets available and his comments on them. (Very nostalgic for me personally, being only a few years younger than the author I recognised the entire inventory of confectionary that was his downfall.) He even manages to get a celebrity in. He saw the retired bear that advertised Sugar Puffs in Cromer Zoo. In a very Stephen Fry touch we even get his name. He was called Jeremy.
Sugar addiction may seem a trivial matter, particularly in a small boy. But it led the young Fry into a life of petty crime that marred his early life and got him into the frame of mind that would later end him up in gaol for credit card fraud. The Fry Chronicles doesn’t go into detail as it was covered in his earlier book, the self explanatory titled Moab Is My Washpot.
Gaol doesn’t seem to have been too traumatic an experience, and Fry’s main recollection of it seems to be about the sorts of phrases the prisoners use. Even banged up his love of language doesn’t desert him. In fact he neatly sidesteps the temptation to make a big deal out of it. He is very matter of fact about the whole business. Even though the book is mainly about himself, which is sort of the point of an autobiography, he always manages to enable you to sympathise and understand what he is going through.
It is quite a neat trick, because a 6ft 4in Cambridge educated polymath with millions in the bank is hardly an obvious everyman figure. I am not sure exactly how he does it, but it seems to do with constantly anticipating what the reader is likely to be thinking. So if he is going to give us celebrity anecdotes and sugary praise of his friends, he warns us in advance.
And in the Fry Chronicles he gives in to those particular temptations fairly often. In fact he indulges himself like a hungry American prone to comfort eating locked in a doughnut cupboard after a particularly traumatic day. They come thick and fast, are usually very funny and break world records for name dropping frequency, with extra points for style and panache.
Fry likes most things and most people, and so rapidly becomes very good company. On top of that he has a brilliant turn of phrase that make the most mundane things hilarious. I found myself really keen to find out the next thing he was going to introduce us to.
The other fascinating aspect of the Fry Chronicles, which isn’t consciously achieved by skill but just emerges, is the documentation of changes in the world. The keen observation and attention to detail unintentionally gives us a rare inside view of history. If like me you have lived through the same times you’ll know what an accurate picture it is.
We see the arrival of fast food. (A particular example is memorably described as “slapped into a triple decking of sesame seed bunnage and presented on a styrofoam tray”.) Personal computers arrive and a treated with awe, but only picked up by early adopters like Fry himself. Indirectly and almost imperceptibly we see the locus of the world being described expanding from Norfolk, to the whole country, to America and finally the world. Globalisation takes many forms, but the extensive travels of one particular inhabitant of it give one particular flavour of it.
So it is a good read on a great many levels. It is entertaining, educating and in its own way exhilarating to feebly attempt the kind of word play Stephen Fry is so good at. He’d have probably gone a bit further than simple alliteration. But this is a book that is probably even better in audio format. Because among his many skills, he can talk as well as he can write. He is also a remarkably good mimic. His Alistair Cooke could be mistaken for the man himself.
I remember when the film Wilde came out, Fry remarked in an interview that one of Oscar Wilde’s abilities was to make people he talked to feel intelligent. This book has the same quality. When I finished it I felt just a little bit more clever than when I started it. It was a nice feeling. Thanks Stephen.