"More Fool Me" by Stephen Fry (audiobook)

Cover of

More Fool Me is Fry’s third book of memoirs, and covers roughly the years 1986-2001, when he was professionally and personally flying high, not least due to incredible quantities of cocaine and vodka that fueled his addictive, rather needy personality. I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Fry, and it’s a far better experience than reading it would have been, I’m sad to say.

The recording starts with an hour of him recapping the events of his first two memoirs (and mock-apologizing for it frequently) and ends with almost three hours of him reading his daily diary entries from three typically busy months in 1993. Had I read this on paper, I’d have been furious about reading a book that seemed assembled from parts rather than written. But hearing it performed took a bit of the sting out of it. When he tells his stories, he acts out the characters, takes on the voices (his impersonation of John Cleese, if impersonation it was, was spot on), and it feels as if one is sitting across from him as he expertly paces and tells his stories.

That said, three months of daily diary entries is asking a bit much of the casual reader.1 Fry includes the passages as an example of how fast and frenetic his life had become and how, looking back, he could see that a breakdown was inevitable. But it does not avoid becoming a long recitation of name-dropping, self-indulgence, and snobbery. Trey Graham’s NPR.org review sums it up this way:

In barely three months of diary entries, from August to November of 1993, Bad Stephen writes a novel; sits for a portrait; attends the London premiere of The Fugitive and is embarrassed to be seated with the B-list celebs; attempts [writing] the book for an Elton John jukebox musical; races about England benevolently signing books and meeting blushingly with personal bankers; does a speechy thing or two for Prince Charles; tries out a new bespoke tailor; dines with Dennis (aka Mr. Margaret) Thatcher at the Garrick Club and pronounces him, with a blithe arrogance worthy of any Cambridge grad, “better read than I had ever imagined.” Eventually he purchases at auction two letters in Oscar Wilde’s hand — but not without both citing and complaining of the price, and not before dropping roughly as many names, familiar and obscure, as he does pounds sterling. Fear not, he footnotes the obscure ones so as to evoke suitable awe.

Graham concludes: “A misguided, misspent early midlife is one thing to recount and repent. The blithe snobbery, the casual cruelty, the condescension to those less gifted that’s on such vulgar display in this all-too-dense diary of excess — they all demand more examination, more reflection, more humanity than Fry provides.”

During the period described in this book, Fry was enjoying immense visibility from appearing in “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” and the movie Peter’s Friends. It was entirely unforeseen for the schoolboy described in his first memoir, Moab is My Washpot. There, Fry felt like an outsider due to his increasing awareness of his homosexuality, being Jewish, and whatever other unknowable demons drove him to skip school, steal from fellow students to feed his cravings for sweets and cigarettes, take advantage of everyone around him, attempt suicide, and otherwise transgress shamelessly.

His second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, sees him begin to explore relationships, act, write and perform, and become addicted to applause and attention. Though clearly an intelligent and self-aware man, that knowledge doesn’t stop him getting addicted to cocaine as chronicled in More Fool Me and indulging himself by snorting the stuff not just in the private clubs that became his second home but also in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Buckingham Palace. Though he never snorted at Hugh Laurie’s house, knowing Laurie and his wife disapproved; even Fry’s inner demons respected Laurie and his friendship too much to transgress there.

Fry makes no bones about it: he enjoyed himself tremendously and did not see himself as an addict. He details the little kit he assembled to carry and snort 3-5 grams of coke with him whenever he went and is pleased to describe in detail its compact stylishness. (When I smoked a pipe in my 20s, I also happily indulged in all the paraphernalia that goes with that pastime. There is pleasure in the fetish of the ritual.)

Fry throughout feels himself to be the outsider still, even when the evidence of being a tremendous insider explodes all around him – the private clubs, the celebrities, the parties, Lady Di telling him a secret: he loves every drop of it. Cocaine is the thick icing atop a very yummy cake, the soundtrack to the exclusive A-list parties.

Moab is My Washpot remains his best book-length narrative to date because he was able to see young Stephen in toto, forgive him, see him from his childhood into young adulthood and a new beginning, and thus shape the story into a satisfying whole. It’s a touching and affectionate book.

A key reason for the weakness of More Fool Me is that Fry’s larger story has yet to come to an ending. The book is reportorial, brimming with surface details, bright anecdotes, and, as said, an entertaining vocal performance. But not enough time has passed for Fry to really understand who he was and what happened so that he could shape the material into a story that could stand on its own. Fry begins the story bewildered and beleaguered, and ends the same way; there is no change or transformation, just incident after incident.

Much waits in Fry’s future after this book ends: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a continued and apparently unquenchable thirst for vodka, and several suicide attempts, including a very close call from 2012. Fry’s demons are still in there. Maybe one day, Fry (if he is still in there as well) will be able to tell the whole story.

To his credit, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, just a chance to tell his side of the story. I don’t demand an answer to the mystery of his behavior but I do need more than a raconteur’s dinner stories.

Stray observations

  • Fry lists his early literary heroes as Wilde, Wodehouse, Waugh, and Doyle. You see their influence in his sometimes baroque, ornamental style. I wouldn’t say he loves the sound of his own voice so much as he loves the music he can make from his words.
  • Fry is stung by Alice Faye Cleese’s remark that she and John prefer his shorter pieces, such as the Telegraph and Listener columns and essays he wrote that were collected in Paperweight, over his comic novels. Fry thinks they’re wrong, that Cleese believes comic novels cannot treat serious topics. But Cleese is right: the shorter length tamps down Fry’s natural discursive style and forces him to focus. In that smaller container, he says a lot more. I stopped reading his fiction after his third novel; they were OK but not memorable.

(originally posted 2016-10-29, updated for micro.blog)


  1. If this book had been billed as Fry’s journal entries for these years, I would react differently. I love reading collections of diaries, letters, and journals. I object when verbatim diary entries take up room in what should be a shaped narrative, as this memoir purports to be. [return]

Denver, October 2016

Liz presented at the AMWA conference, so I tagged along and cavorted at will. From the mental grab-bag:

  1. I stayed pretty much in the 16th Street mall area, since we didn’t have a car. That’s OK – plenty to walk to from there, though like most malls, chain stores dominate the landscape.
  2. We stayed at the downtown Sheraton, the largest hotel in Colorado, we were told. Also, kind of staid. Nothing special here.
  3. We ate all our evening meals in the Yard House, a sports bar attached to the Sheraton. Loud and expensive, it nonetheless served excellent food and we were never disappointed. (I favored the Cobb salad and chicken tortilla soup.) Liz also liked their sour beer. We never could figure out what the phrase “yard house” meant.
  4. Thank God for the Peet’s Coffee just off the lobby – a life-giving Americano started my busy days.
  5. I spent almost my entire travel budget just buying meals on this trip. I settled on two meals for the day, with the occasional protein bar as a pick me up, and that did me fine.
  6. The Tattered Cover Book Shop is housed in an old railway warehouse and is a marvelous place to browse. City Stacks is a cozier, brighter bookshop where I had a very good peppermint tea and browsed the art books.
  7. Denver struck Liz as heavily male: young men in groups of three and more, bushy beards, tattoos, ear gauges. Lots of young men. Joe told us that Denver is in a tech boom and can’t hire programmers fast enough; that also answered the question of how all these young people could afford to hang out in this expensive area. Joe also said that “LoDo” (Lower Downtown) has become so infested with packs of guys and bros that the area is now called “BroDo.”
  8. The History Colorado Center had the Awkward Family Photos show alongside its own photos of turn of the 20th century Denver and Colorado. Interesting to note the similarities, differences, and reactions between the two shows. I did laugh a lot at the Awkward Family Photos, but I’d love to have a book of the older photos and just stare at them for long periods of time.
  9. Always take free walking tours. The free downtown tour took two hours and showed me places, like Larimer Square and the Blue Bear, that I’d overlooked wandering on my own.
  10. I spent a few hours in the Denver Art Museum. With exhibits in two buildings spread among 11 floors, I couldn’t hope to see it all. And besides, after a couple hours, I’m museum’d out. I went to the Glory of Venice exhibit, wished for more of the poster art exhibit, looked at the English and American art collections, the Western and Native American collections, and called it a day. Good for the soul.
  11. I walked miles and miles every day, and came back 1.5 pounds lighter.
  12. Was it the altitude or the desert environment that aggravated my allergies? I thought I was coming down with another cold before I hit on the right allergy meds that let me sleep without dying of post-nasal drip strangulation. Also: water (and lots of it), chapstick, and sunscreen!
  13. We totally missed the bizarre murals that decorate the Denver Airport and apparently form an apocalyptic story. Search on “Denver Airport murals” and a door opens to a new room of the internet that you didn’t know was there.
  14. We had a wonderful dinner and evening catching up with our friends Heather and Joe, the highlight for me of the trip.

Who's Working for Who?

I traveled with Liz to Denver CO for a few days while she attended a conference while I cavorted. For this brief trip, I carried a Chromebook, a Kindle Paperwhite, an iPod Touch 5g, a retro Tracfone-powered flip phone, a digital camera, multiple chargers, and 2 paperbacks.

This agglomeration of tech accumulated bit by bit over the years. It all works, it doesn't take up much room in the suitcase, it all does what I need it to do. I wish I didn't need a separate checklist to help me remember whether I've packed everything!

Am I on the road to being one of those old duffers who has drawers and closets full of perfectly good stuff that all sensible consumers have discarded? If this blog is still trundling on in 20 years, I hope to let you know.

Google Me This: "The Lost Art of *"

I was cleaning out my Evernote inbox and saw two topics side by side: "The Lost Art of Memorizing Poetry" and the "The Lost Art of Illustrating Your Favorite Books." How many Lost Arts could there be? Are they really lost, were they superseded, or are they underground? Have the practitioners and teachers died out? Did that many people really practice it? And when we say "art" we really mean "skill," right? Or do we mean a craft that elevated both the user and the practice? There's a rather weary head-shake and heavy sigh of regret that seems to go with the phrase "lost art."

As always, when faced with an odd little eyeworm like that, I feed it into Google to see what other pages out there are using, re-using, and wearing out those specific words in that specific order. I tweaked this search a bit and decided dropping the quotation marks netted a few good articles I missed otherwise; I also removed lyrics from the search. Try it yourself.

What do we learn from this? I have no idea. I just find it interesting to see what others consider a necessary skill or behavior that no one in their self-identified peer group seems to find relevant anymore.

From the NC State Fair Food Labs

From a AAA.com GO magazine article on what to expect at this year's state fairs in the Carolinas:

North Carolina's lineup never fails with offerings like Fry Me to the Moon -- a deep-fried chocolate Moon Pie stuffed with Ho Hos, peanut butter cups, and Oreos, topped with cream cheese, chocolate syrup, and powdered sugar. Need more energy? Try the Bacon S'more -- a quarter-pound of maple-syrup grilled bacon on a stick dipped in chocolate, marshmallow fluff, and graham cracker crumbles...

The mind, the mouth, the gut flora tremble, as if on a knife's edge...

 

Two people with languages unknown to each other met, and tried to communicate.

One said, “I want to do but cannot for some reason” and then did not, while the second said “do” and did for any reason and many reasons.

There was little to say between them. After all was said and done. Or not done.

The two people went their ways.

In museums, libraries, concert halls and theaters, markets and all across the land there was that which those who did had done. Those who could not fathom how all this had been done shook their heads, thinking they would like to have done what these had done. And then they went their ways, as before not doing as they had not done.

Time passed, as it does. As it will do. People pass as they do, and none don’t.

In 1911, Delafield was accepted as a postulant by a French religious order established in Belgium. Her account of the experience, The Brides of Heaven, was written in 1931 and eventually published in her biography. “The motives which led me, as soon as I was 21, to enter a French Religious Order are worthy of little discussion, and less respect” she begins. This account includes being told by the Superior that if a doctor advised a surgical operation “your Superiors will decide whether your life is of sufficient value to the community to justify the expense. If it is not, you will either get better without the operation or die. In either case you will be doing the will of God and nothing else matters.”

Another

Another death. Another killing.

Another explosion.

Another shooting.

Another outrage perpetrated by those in power on those with none.

Another set of babble and bile from the privileged talking heads.

Another day of confused thoughts and feelings no one knows what to do with.

I dread hearing the word "another."

"Priory of Sion" in Portland OR

In Portland OR, I saw the following chalked on sidewalks in different parts of the city: PofS, with boot

 

PofS, slant

In one or two cases, there was more of a message but we were typically walking too fast (even on vacation, we hurry hurry hurry) for me to read it or take a picture.

What the hell is the Priory of Sion?

The Priory of Sion is a well-known secret-society hoax, according to Wikipedia, itself a secret society in some ways, but never mind that now. The world has Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code to thank for promoting the Priory of Sion to a higher profile. Google will lead you to many other sites.

Why is Priory of Sion appearing all over the streets of Portland?

That other conspiratorial place, Reddit, had a few threads, like this one, on the phenomenon. One of the posters sees this as the work of one person who has a history of posting messages all over town, and others responded saying they’d seen different guys chalking the sign on the sidewalk.

What does a society have to do to stay secret??

The Case of the Two-Headed Author | The Smart Set

The feuding duo behind one of America’s greatest (fictional) detectives

Source: The Case of the Two-Headed Author | The Smart Set

When I was in – 9th grade? – I loved watching Levinson & Link’s TV series Ellery Queen, which starred Jim Hutton as the detective author and David Wayne as his police inspector father. I think what most captured me was Queen’s direct address to the camera just before he revealed the murderer’s identity: “If you’ve been watching – closely – you have all the information you need.“ I never guessed correctly, of course, but I enjoyed the period detail and that was a golden age for spotting character actors.

Double, Double (Ellery Queen novel)

I moved on to actually reading the damn books through junior high and high school. I have no idea why, as they don’t have a lot of charm, the writing is workmanlike, and there are no thrills or action to speak of. (I was probably also reading Doc Savage reissues at that time, so, you know, forgive.) They didn’t have the sort of antique charm of the TV series or even of an Agatha Christie cozy. I do remember one of the “twist” endings: “He wasn’t John’s twin – he was John’s triplet.

The most memorable thing about the Ellery Queen novel reissues in the ‘70s were their covers – a series of absolutely lurid and ghastly “shadowbox” photos of semi-nude women. In my local DJ’s Books and News stores, the Queens were competing against Matt Helm, Shell Scott, Mickey Spillane, and others of that ilk, so maybe that drove the decision. The distasteful, sexist, and just plain ugly covers did not hint at the musty, tame, and unsexy murder mysteries hiding inside. Ellery Queen was part of that necessary landscape against which real genius or originality is compared.

The Smart Set article is a delightful little delve into the Ellery Queen brand, with its own share of colorful and eye-grabbing pulp covers.

 

 

Non Finito | The Smart Set

The Metropolitan Museum Breuer on 75th Street and Madison Avenue (the former site of the Whitney Museum now relocated to hip new quarters downtown) currently features an exhibition that seems perfect

Source: Non Finito | The Smart Set

Paula Marantz Cohen:

I found I often liked the unfinished works on display better than the finished ones that I knew by these artists. Finish has obvious value from the point of view of resale and comprehensibility, but is it as esthetically pleasing or evocative? One could argue that a finished work is often over-finished, and that knowing when to stop is rarer than generally thought.

I also like the invitation of the unfinished work for me to fill it in myself. I also, truth be told, love seeing the scaffolding and architecture, seeing how the rabbit is loaded into the hat.

This may be why I love artist’s sketchbooks so much, more so sometimes. I own sketchbooks by Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Gary Panter, and others; their sketches have an energy, looseness, and immediacy that keeps me turning those pages long after their finished stories remain on my shelf. Also, they don’t worry about making them pretty, which makes me feel OK about my own slapdash sketching (though Ware’s dashed-off sketches look better and more like finished art than anything I could create in a million billion years).

I remember the comics artist Neal Adams reproducing from his sketchbook examples of his original pencil roughs and then the final product. He remarked in at least two cases that he preferred the roughs to the finished art. I could see his point. Inking the pencils somehow pinned those drawings to the page so heavily that movement and life had been drained. In the roughs, he was working out the problem and the scene looked alive. That mental and physical activity was almost absent in the published panel.

This may be why I adore reading journals, diaries, and letters more than any other genre; verbal sketches, perhaps, quickly done (most of them) and capturing life as it’s happening on-the-fly. I feel as if I’m living the life with the person who’s writing it down, fast as they can.

 

Maintaining the Technical Status Quo (For Now)

I spent the last week doing some intensive research on two potential tech purchases: an iPhone for me and Liz, and replacing this WordPress site with Squarespace. I decided to stay with WordPress and we both decided to keep our current “dumb phones.”

The major lesson from this exercise was one I’ve seen pop up in various coaching and self-help articles: if it’s not a hell-yes, it’s a no.

Details follow, if’n you want to read them.

If I had a really concrete professional fear, it would be that I would wake up in the morning and know what I was doing.
Quote I found in my old journals, attributed to “an obscure artist” (I have no idea who I was referring to)