An Evening with Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry was in Amsterdam yesterday evening to present his new memoir The Fry Chronicles and I had the pleasure and the honour to be in the venerable presence of this great and charming man (thanks to Sueli who managed to get me a ticket for me). He does love to talk on and on, particularly about Oscar Wilde, not to mention the fact that he’s rather restless or gets sidetracked quite easily (although he does always eventually return to his original point after a huge detour). These are but minor criticisms however, and let’s face it, aren’t these the very mannerisms which define him as he is? It is this along with his intellectual playfulness which has gained him so much popularity in the first place. So yes, all in all it had been an inspiring and highly enjoyable evening.

One of the things that struck me about Fry was how he carried his innate insecurity around with graceful dignity, refusing to let his insecurity impede him in his progress as an intellectual creature. He uses the word curiosity plenty and often. To be curious about the world surrounding us, to have this urge to learn, to know, to understand is a trait he seems to hold in very high regard, perhaps more so than any other. During the presentation he wondered aloud that if his homosexuality hadn’t caused him to feel so alone and isolated in his youth, if he would have developed the same passion for art and literature as he has now, or that he would become complacent. I wonder the same thing regarding his uncertainty, which for a part is probably very much linked to his homosexuality. Would he have had the same insatiable hunger for knowledge, the same desire to constantly improve himself otherwise? I have my doubts.

Because he refuses to let his insecurity impede his curiosity, he seems to have little patience when other people blame other factors, such as their past schooling, for their lack of knowledge instead than their own incuriosity which he describes as “the oddest and most foolish failing there is (The Fry Chronicles p87).”Both in his memoir as well as in the presentation he uses a parable to drive across what he means. He pictures the world as a city where the streets are covered in gold coins. Imagine there is a beggar who holds up his hand and asks for money. Wouldn’t we be struck with incredulity by the behaviour of the beggar? ‘But look around you,’ you would shout. ‘There is gold enough to last you your whole life.All you have to do is bend down and pick it up (The Fry Chronicles p87)!’ And so it is the same with knowledge. Knowledge has never been more ubiquitous than in our present day and age. All we have to do is “bend down and pick it up.” And if we do happen to lack knowledge, we often have nothing else to blame than our own incuriosity.

One other thing I’d like to point out of course is that Stephen Fry is a true magician in the use of language and words, both in the way he talks ad writes. Ah, to have the ability to sprinkle words so liberally towards an appreciative audience; to have the ability to plant those words like tiny seeds into the minds of your listeners and readers so that they may blossom into images and ideas like flowers blooming in the capable hands of a caring and passionate gardener; to have such an inexhaustible passion for language and words*; isn’t that the highest ideal that any wannabe writer such as myself can ultimately strive for? As you can probably tell from this very paragraph, I am nowhere in the vicinity of Fry’s level of eloquence (although I love to pretend sometimes that what I say or write is terribly insightful and witty). I must not be intimidated by this however, easily intimidated as I normally am. Just because I will never be able to reach such heights myself doesn’t mean that I should stop striving to improve myself. Now, I do not want to imply that my own level of insecurity approaches that of Stephen Fry or that my own life contains any elements that resembles his many hardships, but as I mentioned previously, I believe that Fry is driven by his insecurity and I can only hope I will be able to say the same of myself.

*There is a passage in the Introduction of the Fry Chronicles which I particularly like:

Another is that in every particular I fail Strunk’s Elements of Style or any other manual of ‘good writing’. 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 go back and ruthlessly prune, pare and extirpate excess growth, but I will not. I like words – strike that, I love words – and while I am fond of the condensed and economical use of them in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too (p2).

I like the quotes between ‘good writing’. Since when do we equate ‘good writing’ with the use of so few words as possible? How nice it would feel to be able to scatter the page with words which are utterly unnecessary without a trace of shame.

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