becoming stephen fry | OUTVisions for LGBT Professionals

becoming stephen fry

the fry chronicles

becoming stephen fry
alex johnston

Second memoir from Brit comedian offers many charms 

I certainly hope you are already familiar with Stephen Fry, the affable English writer, actor, comedian, tech geek, and general polymath. But even if you are not, The Fry Chronicles, second in his ongoing series of memoirs, offers many charms. The Fry Chronicles picks up where 1997’s Moab is My Washpot left off, with the author at age 20. He has left his troubled past behind him, largely come to terms with his homosexuality, and found his way to Cambridge.

The meat of the book is a series of reminisces and anecdotes from the period between 1977 and 1987: his years at Cambridge and the beginning of his career. The style is just the breezy, erudite and intensely conversational one that you would expect of Fry. The stories are pleasant in an Anglophiliac escapist kind of way, and even more fun if you are a fan of English comic actors. The legendary partnership between Fry and Hugh Laurie (of TV’s House) is born early, during the Cambridge years – at about the same time we meet a young Emma Thompson. Once out into the ‘grown up’ world of professional work, there are stories about Ben Elton, Rik Mayal, Rowan Atkinson and many others.

But of course pleasant anecdotes only take you so far – if the spine of fiction is plot, then the spine of the memoir must surely be the author’s personal journey. The spine of The Fry Chronicles then, is Fry’s reflections on the desires and insecurities that have propelled him through his life: from the over-arching desire for acceptance and respect, to various obsessions with gadgets, sugar and cigarettes. This internal struggle is often held up against the back drop of other’s (friends, colleagues, fans) contrasting perception of him.

Several times in the book he hits a ‘sweet spot’, balancing unflinchingly honest commentary on the highs and lows these desires and their attendant insecurities have brought him to, with thoughtful commentary on the way we as a culture approach such desires and insecurities, and with well realized stories of the decision points in his life that were influenced by these desires and insecurities. When it works, it is compelling reading; honest enough to resonate, and thoughtful (and dare I say ‘classy’?) enough to be engaging without needing to be lurid. However, like all balancing acts, this is a hard one to maintain and I must admit, around the middle passage of his Cambridge life, and again somewhere in the mid-‘80s, we almost  completely lose site of this narrative and wander off into a kind of dinner-party-anecdote-style storytelling. But Fry is a good enough writer to navigate back from these  blind alleys, and eventually brings the story of his twenties to a satisfying and intriguing conclusion. Surely the hint of more serious addiction and struggles with mental illness that were to mar Fry’s life in his 30s (and presumably form the core of his next memoir) is just about as close to a ‘cliffhanger ending’ as one can reasonably expect in an autobiography.

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Authoralex johnston

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