I was twenty when I first read Mr. Fry’s autobiography – at a time when I was poised precariously on the edge of university and The World. Romantically, it was an all too sensitive moment in my life – and this book struck hard, plunged the soul, plucked resonantly at chords buried deep within me. I won’t try to articulate, even if it were possible (besides, I lack Fry’s boldness, his confessional instinct), but there is in Fry’s language, and in the psyche from which it emerges, a quality – a certain…well…je ne swai quoi… that causes even those far removed from his sexual or intellectual universe to quiver, quake or cry with recognition, to bolt upright and yell ‘That’s it! That’s it! By Jove he’s nailed it!’ It is perhaps this indefinable yet instantly magnetic quiddity that has prompted an entire nation to take him to its heart.
And even the lumpishly indifferent philistine – the species against which his entire life has been pitted – may be moved to smile, or nod. ‘That chap Fry,’ they may say over their Daily Mail, ‘he talks wonderfully, really wonderfully’ – incidentally the grudging compliment paid by the Marquess of Queensberry to his son’s significantly older lover in Wilde, a film in which Fry plays the title role.
Oscar Wilde, of course, is one of a number of literary spirits who preside over Fry’s life. Others include E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and G. Henty, a Victorian author of slushy sentimental boy-friendship stories. Which brings us neatly to the messiest event of the autobiography – his falling in love with the pseudonymous Matthew Osborne, a luscious blond-haired blue-eyed first former whom he spots for the first time as the school files in for chapel. The instant of his sighting takes on the quality of a divine revelation:
And at that moment, before his face came into view, it happened. The world changed.
Thereafter his understanding of beauty is awakened and his adolescence plunged into a state of chronic disarray. Stir into the hormonal fray his undiagnosed bipolar condition and what follows is years of anguished, solipsistic chaos: expulsions, wilful academic failures, parental contretemps, felicitous face-downs with tetchy teachers – all culminating in a wild spending spree with a stolen credit card and a less than salubrious sojourn at Her Majesty's pleasure. Finally, of course, as is somewhat inevitable in an A-lister's memoir, the protagonist's fortunes swing powerfully in the opposite direction: he stiffens up his sinews, conjures up the blood, and lends himself terribly (well) to his academic studies. For which effort, alongside his prodigious facility for the English language, he is rewarded with the offer of a scholarship to read English at Queens' College, Cambridge.
If my first reading of the biography at the age of twenty tapped into a spiritual vein, the second reading at the grand old age of 31 resonated at a far more cerebral level. Mr. Fry interpolates the (in)action of his youth with comic yet sincere diatribe, caustic deconstructions of the British middle classes, explicatory notes on his favourite authors as well as a wide-ranging referentiality that embraces culture both high and low. The biography delivers everything you would expect of a Fry book – wit, humour, heart, precosity, percipience, perspicuity as well as a self-conscious revelling in the medium in which it is written. But language, of course, as Fry comes to learn about himself, is his whole point:
I would cover my life with words. I would spray the whole bloody world with words. They were still all that I had but at last they were getting me places.
We have come to expect irreverence from Fry, and despite his having become part of the cultural fabric of Britain he does not shrink from pinning his heterodox, even heretical colours to the mast. In today's sexual climate, where even the vaguest whiff of intergenerational sexuality is enough to provoke hysterical outcries from the righteous right, Fry dares to state his case openly and unashamedly.
'To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually attractive' is not to be regarded as 'shameful' or deserving of our apology, 'in spite of our suicidal attempts to convince ourselves otherwise'. Here 'suicidal' is loaded with a double meaning: the literal meaning is apparent, but it also hints at the wider sense in which many an Englishman – and the society of which he is part – continues to smother his/its own irrepressible yearnings under a blanket of denial and guilt. Fry goes on:
I will not apologise for the urgings of my genitals nor, most certainly, will I ever apologise for the urgings of my heart. I may regret those urgings, rue them deeply and occasionally damn, blast and wish them to hell, but apologise – no: not where they do no harm. A culture that demands people apologise for something that is not their fault: that is as good a definition of tyranny as I can think of.
Fry has made a number of literary forays into the world of paederasty. He touches on it (if that is the appropriate verb to use in the context) in The Liar and The Hippopotamus, and it forms the main subject of the play Tobacco and Boys which – despite the contentious subject matter – earned him an Edinburgh Festival Fringe First award in the very early days of his writing career. Alan Bennett is the only other contemporary British writer of note I can think of who explores the theme in as direct and frank a manner as does Fry. Comedians can explore taboo subjects because they enable us to laugh away our discomfort from a distance; writers may bring us dangerously close to the subject, and in so doing are far more likely to evoke tears than laughter. Stephen Fry does Oscar Wilde a great service, perhaps more so than ever the perfidious Lord Alfred Douglas did – for he is willing to confront, with a disarming and persuasive candour, 'the Love that dare not speak its name'.
'This is one of the most extraordinary and affecting biographies I have read' Daily Mail
'He writes superbly about his family, about his homosexuality, about the agonies of childhood... some of his bursts of simile take the breath away...' Observer
'Fry can be funny about anything' Good Book Guide
'So charming and acute that one cannot help forgiving him' Daily Express