My dread was that someone would ask me my opinion of Lermontov or Superstring Theory or the Categorical Imperatives of Kant. I would be exposed as a dull-witted fake.
Having left the year before he came up, I could have reassured him there was little danger. Everyone, as he puts it, was in the same punt. Cambridge in the late 1970s featured only the usual sprinkling of genuine intellectuals and egregious talents — of whom Fry was an outstanding example. His opinions were perfect for the time and place. He considered F. R. Leavis a ‘sanctimonious prick’, abstained from D. H. Lawrence and Hardy, wallowed in T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare and took an informed, but sceptical, line on the ‘Parisian post-structuralists and their impenetrable evangels’. Elsewhere it might have mattered not to follow the Clash, but not in Cambridge.
Fry also had a sex life, at a time when female undergraduates were scarce and homosexuality often still repressed. Despite his later celibacy from 1982-96, he enjoyed a long relationship with Kim Harris, a handsome classicist, chess grandmaster and fellow Wagner enthusiast. And yet still he considered himself a miserable failure: not merely inadequate as a singer, dancer and looker, but an intellectual fraud to boot. He even claims to have cheated at exams, although his crime turns out to be nothing more than cannily preparing universal answers which could be adapted to almost any question.
By the end of his third year he had organised the college May Ball, written a successful play, won the Perrier Award (with Hugh Laurie) for best comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, and was taken on by a top agent, who helped him earn ‘preposterous’ amounts of money. Poor, cringing Fry shares his agonies before every exam, audition and opening night but almost invariably emerges triumphant whether with the top Shakespeare tripos mark, lead in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, or hugely lucrative script for Me and My Girl. On the rare occasions when he falls short of perfection — with his 2:1 degree, and near miss in the final of University Challenge — it’s hard to share his disappointment.
Fry knows it. ‘To listen to the neuroses of a spoilt, over-paid, over-praised, over-pampered celebrity must be unendurable,’ he says, anticipating the reader’s response. But he begs us to see behind the smirk that ‘looks like complacency and smugness’ in order to understand ‘the real condition of anxiety, self-doubt, self-disgust and fear in which much of my life then and now is lived’.
A series of addictions that started, possibly, by being bottle-rather than breast-fed fuelled his self-disgust. A passion for Sugar Puffs morphed into a craving for cigarettes, and then workaholism. Under- lying all his indulgences is a desire for fame and love, he tells us, on a mammoth scale. Accordingly, he is syrupy about everyone he knows, from his Cambridge contemporaries, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Simon Russell Beale, to later collaborators, Douglas Adams, Ben Elton and Rik Mayall. All of them, he writes, are infinitely more talented than himself, so the occasional waspishness when he refers to Antonia Fraser as Pinter’s ‘Pakenham hound’ or Robbie Coltrane’s adopted working-class ways come as a relief.
This second volume of his autobiography isn’t as funny as the first, Moab is My Washpot. Ending in 1987, he keeps for future volumes the ordeal of his cocaine addiction, dramatic flit during the run of Cell Mates, and bipolar diagnosis. But it is saved from being anodyne by verbal inventions, such as ‘false mammary syndrome’, ‘badolescence’, and a flow of anecdotes. Among them is an enjoyable one about Stephen Sondheim, a total stranger, who telephoned out of the blue. He imagined a commission to supply words to go with the composer’s music. Instead, Sondheim asks him to spend Saturday evening by his fax machine (then a novelty), supplying a treasure hunt clue to members of a house party. No commission ever came through.
Fry suffers from feeling that he has not made proper use of his talents, a confession that begs the question of just how brilliant this astoundingly successful actor, writer and Twitterer thinks he is. Like most criticisms, he pre-empts it, but that didn’t prevent me finding his addiction to apologising somewhat self-centred and, for a 53-year-old, not very grown up.
Despite his confessions, after over 400 largely enjoyable pages I felt scarcely closer to the dazzling but often irritating show-off who is prepared to wear (selected parts of) his heart on his sleeve in order to hog the limelight.