Books: The bottom line

When he makes the effort, Stephen Fry the writer can produce something much finer than lavatory humour. Roger Clarke muses on a dandy's progress

Dearest Aunt Agatha, You ask whether Stephen Fry would make a suitable house guest for a weekend at Glandings? Of course he would. Perhaps you are worried about the popular conception of him. Will he come dressed in tweeds for all occasions like that odious twit Leo in The Go-Between? Will he perhaps aggravate the spaniels by declaiming The Waste Land through a hearing-trumpet? Bunk off with the gardener's boy? Slurp his Brown Windsor between orotund witticisms?

After all, you've seen him on Cook's telly, thumbed his best-selling tomes curled in the weak sun of Diss station and read the nauseating encomiums from Messrs Coren and Sherrin plastered over their defenceless backs (pappe kak, one of his more etymological characters says - Dutch for soft shit). He is a talented man; everyone says so. To tell the truth, I'm somewhat astonished that he can find the time off to "motor" out to the Broads, as he might say. He works hard, positively churns out the stuff. In fact, the man is arse-barkingly fecund.

But one cannot live by telly alone, and in order to research the Fry soul I traipsed to Hatchards to buy his collected works. There are piffling stocking-fillers tenderly limned with that sound man Hugh Laurie (a genre Fry calls "Harpic-stained", bearing in mind their final destination), a collection of yellowed newspaper jottings of dubious merit, two quite good novels heaving with the jovial buggery of public schoolboys and one stab at rewriting the past and Hitler's part in it, Making History. Next month, Hutchinson will regale us with his memoirs, cryptically entitled Moab is my Washpot.

In Nanny's favourite publication, the long-defunct Listener, Fry first made his writerly mark as a book reviewer and provider of pastiche Sherlock Holmes stories. As a writer, he's more like Jeeves than his beloved Oscar Wilde, whom he now impersonates in a new film. There's something deft and calculating about him rather than winning and inspired, although the sensual torpor of Wilde is much to his taste. He likes high camp, lightly fluffed. If he weren't Jewish, he'd be Popish, sure as eggs are eggs. He's artistically inclined towards the bells-and-smells school, a votary of purple Ronnie Firbank and a shameless disciple at the shrine of St Simon Raven.

Poor old Simon Raven. It must be galling for the novelist at his time of life to see young whippersnapper Fry cruise in and bag the loot just because he's famous and on the box. In his novels, Raven did everything that Fry did, only better. There's that same bohemian mendacity, that same screaming snobbery, those same lecherous warts-and-all sexual imbroglios with underage totty.

From the evidence of his books, with their diet of references to yesterday's men such as Maugham, Kipling and Forster, Fry hasn't read anything that came out much after the Sixties. So it's almost startling to find the dyspeptic narrator of The Hippopotamus name-checking the beat poet Gregory Corso with great disgust (Corvo, yes! Corso, no!). Disorientating, also, to find the main character in The Liar, a camp schoolboy tyke called Adrian, get sacked for owning Burroughs's The Naked Lunch. Kipling has no antidote for such reefer madness, even though he did have a delinquent son who probably would have written it had he lived.

If You Can Be a Man When All Men doubt you/ You'll be the Black Meat of the Centipede, My Son.

There are an alarming number of meditations on poetry. One might almost think Fry a frustrated poet himself. Perhaps he has stashes of scary verse tucked away in some locked Reisener Secretaire, or secreted in a rotting Norfolk gazebo.

Certainly, he originally made his name from his appreciation of the more chromatic nuances of language: ingeniously misused adjectives and adverbs, a lip-smacking relish for naughty syllables in silly words. He does dwell lovingly on bottoms, arses and all thereof and therein. Bottoms hover, omnipresent, like great zeppelins in the mind of his Blackadder general. As with Burroughs, it's all in the voice, my dear. His writing only succeeds when you can hear that voice, engorged with its love of language (and bottoms), ring joyously forth.

I came across Fry's memorable phrase about looking as sexy and attractive as a bin-liner full of yoghurt in his second novel, The Hippopotamus. It seems destined for the Fry entry in all future dictionaries of quotations. Everyone seems to think it describes himself, but of course it's his hideous alter-ego Ted Wallace, failed poet and whiskey-sodden hack, who utters the dread self-reference. It says a lot about Fry that everyone accepts it would be normal for him to refer to himself in such a revolting way. We are used to his violent self-disgust, and rather treasure it.

If young Adrian Healey in The Liar is Fry as a young turk at school, Ted Wallace in The Hippopotamus is the future he fears most: an embittered Kingsley Amis type (whose much-anthologised poem about queer public school love forms pretty much the plot of The Liar), given up to the demons of self-recrimination. The Liar, too, gives some hint of things to come. The novel has a nervous breakdown two-thirds of the way through, and goes walkabout in central Europe.

As for the collected writings, Paperweight should either have been called Lightweight or simply Paper. It contains the shredding-machine confetti of numerous Telegraph columns, radio sketches, and humorous out-takes from the good old Listener. Long after Fry has sold his manuscripts to California and students come knocking on his door, academics will pore over the strange sketch entitled "Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys". Still, Fry shines as a writer in unexpected ways: a telling turn of phrase, a love of pastiche (Dickens as well as Conan Doyle), a zest for highly complex structures which never quite last the distance - but well done for trying.

After the outrages of his three novels, it is something of a disappointment to read extracts from the rather staid autobiography. The fiction, however, contains graphic scenes of paedophilia and horse-molestation, but skilfully rendered so as not to offend anyone but the most prudish reader.

So, Aunt Aggie, there is no need to lock up sons, daughters or even the horses when Stephen Fry comes to stay because he is capable of deporting himself with enormous charm and grace. His books so far reveal a great interest in class and sex, and the amusing collision of the two, and he knows a bit about how things work in the countryside. He doesn't strike one as a gent exactly, or someone who has been to a pheasant shoot (described in The Hippopotamus) more than once or twice - and only then to take notes. He knows the depthless minds of butlers; but there again, he acted one, didn't he? What ho!

Your Godson,

Eddie

News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £20000 - £21000 per annum: The Jenrick Group: This high quality manufacturer o...

    The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical ...

    Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'