Moab Is My Washpot / The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

51rFUpKRdnL._!!eCCdS!!WM~$(KGrHqMOKpoE0U8DDwSGBNRC3qIKmQ~~_32  The Life Of Stephen, Parts I and II: Stephen Fry is witty, intelligent, dishonest, impulsive, deep, shallow, kind, inconsiderate, English, Jewish…human. The title Moab Is My Washpot is something to do with Psalm 60. Best not to enquire too deeply. The Thieving Magpie would, as he admits, be as appropriate. Much easier to understand too. For Stephen was a liar and a thief, nicking money from other boys’ pockets – although he came terribly unstuck when he tried the same trick with Matron’s handbag. This first memoir covers, more or less, his childhood, boarding schools, expulsions, first love, credit card fraud, prison and scholarship to Cambridge University. He has very considered things to say on what many consider to be two forms of child abuse – namely, sending seven-year olds away to school and capital punishment. In essence, Fry thinks his parents were driven by convention (i.e. everyone sent their children away to school and hitting children with slippers and canes was simply part of the fabric) and neither probably did him much (if any) harm. There’s a bit too much sixth-form (well, 15-year old, but he was always advanced in this area) poetry. A little too much about the (mainly) unrequited love of the mysterious Matthew (not his real name). But it is also funny, perceptive and at times terribly moving. The Fry Chronicles covers Stephen aged about 20-30, with modern digressions. In this period he does his degree, becomes a writer and performer on stage and TV, and earns his first million or so from re-writing the book of Me And My Girl. It is, of course, much less interesting. A trot through showbizland, it lacks the (sometimes eye-wateringly) revelatory nature of the first book. But it contains many other pleasures: it’s no surprise to find out how Alan Bennettish Alan Bennett actually is, for instance, but it is still comforting to have it confirmed. Likewise, finding out exactly how much it was possible to earn from three days’ work on a TV ad in 1982 is, frankly, staggering. You can view the Whitbread beer commercial on YouTube and you will, if you are of a certain age (mine) remember all the words. That is surely worth every penny of Fry’s £25,000 fee. £25,000! For three days’ work! IN NINETEEN-EIGHTY-TWO!! No wonder he confesses he has never had money worries since. And he wasn’t even a celebrity then – your mind naturally wanders: well, how much does George Clooney get paid now to flog coffee machines then? Would they let me do it for half as much? Oh, back to Stephen. It’s hard not to warm to someone who writes at the start of Chronicles that if he mentions events described fully in Moab ‘I shall append a superscribed obelus’ – that’s the sort of Christian cross you sometimes see, which used to denote the wicketkeeper on a cricket scorecard (the captain being an asterisk, of course). He apologises throughout Chronicles for being too bright, too rich, too mournful, too gilded, too ubiquitous, too complaining, too happy, too rich. It becomes slightly exhausting. He is clever. And clever-clever. And probably clever-clever-clever too. He meets the playwright and director Simon Gray a couple of spiky times, leaving the casual reader with the impression that the elderly man is really rather ‘off’ with Stephen. But Gray was the writer and director of Cell Mates, the production that Fry abandoned without explanation in 1995, leaving Gray and cast members such as the late Rik Mayall worrying that Fry had committed suicide. Read Gray’s Fat Chance, which lies bare the financial and emotional toll that Fry’s decision had on him, and you can see that being ‘off’ with Stephen for the rest of his life was fair enough. Stephen thinks, briefly, that it’s ‘very understandable’. Chronicles slips about halfway through into a more or less standard – if slightly more revealing than usual – luvvie biog. At the end of it, Fry has been introduced to cocaine and ‘the tragedy and farce of that drama are the material for another book’. The thought of a third tome on the subject of our hero in thrall to Colombian marching powder is not an appealing one. The Life Of Stephen III, when it arrives, may have to bat on without me. There should be prizes for his honesty, though. And it’s easy to forget now how funny Fry was on TV when he started.

 

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