I finished reading Moab Is My Washpot – Stephen Fry’ autobiography – about a month back. To be frank, there are many individuals I really admire. And Stephen Fry (I will call him SF) is just one of them.
I remember clearly when for the first time I came across anything by SF. It was his intro to an edition of a P. G. Wodehouse book. However, this is not about Wodehouse, so I won’t even mention the name of the book. In the introduction to this compilation of Plum (Wodehouse, plum for Pelham) work in various books, SF had said that, ‘no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our head’. That is a great statement. It explains –even if not entirely- why we like books more than the movies based on the books. Hugh Laurie (HL) had written a piece as well. And at that time I found SF’s writing much better and readable that Hugh Laurie’s.
I watched Blackadder, A Bit of Fry And Laurie, etc. Then I watched Jeeves And Wooster. It was then that I felt Hugh Laurie was amazing. There are a very few movie characters I would rate as almost as good as corresponding characters from books. Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone was good for example. You feel that he really understood how Mario Puzo wanted Michael to be. But when sighted Al Pacino’s Michael as a reference, possibly you would be surprised that I consider HL’s interpretation of Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster as good as – if not better than – Al Pcino’s interpretation of Michael. However, it is so. SF’s Jeeves, howver, I did not like as much. I thought maybe SF is not as good an actor as HL. And I still do.
Then I watched House MD where Hugh Laurie is superb. And really, I did not have much space left for SF. So while admiring their comedy and other work, I was not much sold on SF, if you want that expression.
But then BBC QI happened. And I was upset that for so much time I – well kind of – ignored SF. I watched and watched again those QI episodes. Not entirely for SF but the format – interesting pieces of information interspersed with comedy. I have watched SF’s most work since (excluding the plays), I have read his tweets and listened to him reading Harry Potter books. (In fact, but for Stephen Fry, I would not even know Harry Potter’s world. I wanted to read HP of course, as so many of my friends were really hooked on to it. But then I did not pick the books up precisely for the same reason. I am very reluctant to acknowledge anything which gets successful so quickly. I believe in acquired taste – in case of books, movies, friendships, girls, songs and many other things – and sustained one at that. So as I said I was going to read HP some day but when I found audio books in SF voice, I could not wait. I liked HP by the way.)
So all in all, now I am huge Stephen Fry fan.
Now let’s come to the autobiography. Moab Is My Washpot. I had picked it up from a county library when I was in the US. However, midway through it I had to come back to India and so I returned the book half read. Then again, at that time, I was more interested to find about SF-HL friendship, etc. Little did I know.
Then I kind of forgot the book- I mean I could not lay my hands on it. Then recently I ordered it online and read it. And I liked it very much.
It is his story from childhood till he becomes seventeen. Of course he is very candid and seems honest. He is also good with words and language. But I knew that already.* The name of the book suggests that he wishes to wash away his sins in as large a washpot as possible.
I was not really interested in play of words. But the book sounds authentic and honest, so much that it is almost cruel. He talks about how he broke school bounds to visit the village sweet shop, how he stole money from people, his friends from public school, how he lied to get out of sports practice as he was not much into sport, how he gullied other boys to get out of school punishment, etc. Then how he got attracted to a boy in the school (He is gay, by the way.)
While his sexuality is a personal choice, compulsion or inclination, I must say there are parts where I sympathized with him. Until now, I considered homosexuality to be an unnatural thing. I still think that it is unnatural. But the way he described it during the period when he was attracted to Mathew, I really wanted to cry for him. Maybe he is very good with language and drama. But those pages really kill you. Another thing I found new was the argument that it is very hard for the rest of the world to acknowledge that gay people are together because they love each other. It is the love that is holding them together just like it holds two heterosexuals together. The others just don’t want to acknowledge that there is love involved. That argument really took me by surprise.** I knew such word like love associated with homosexuality from sources like FRIENDS (Carol and Susan), etc But I never fully grasped the idea of love based homosexual relationship.
Later SF is asked to leave the school because he is found stealing money, misusing permission to visit London to attend Sherlock Holmes society.
He still continues stealing, sometimes from his mother. Later he runs away from his home, is caught by the police while he is using someone else’s credit card, is sent to prison, etc.
He says that his mother – knowing how he liked to solve crosswords – had carefully cut the Times crosswords for all days he was away from home and one day brought those to prison. He tries to stifle the cry/sob when he sees that crossword bundle. While reading his story I did not even try that. I cried. Is there any other love as pure as a mother’s?
After his prison sentence, he says that he was older than other boys appearing for the university exam. The eagerness to start afresh and go to the university is forcefully apparent. He describes how he was to get a post if he was selected at the university (Cambridge, by the way if did not know already or you haven’t still checked wiki entry for SF.). He builds the eagerness, describes how he could not even wait for the postman to arrive in their village, how he goes to a town and how there he later gets a phone call from his mother that the selection telegram has arrived.
Of course SF is a good author and he has built the story of his life dramatically. As a person he may be a pawn of his vices and virtues but as the author he is in complete control. It is like he almost makes you feel for him. I so wanted him to get that university selection telegram. I guess I am not much of a musical person, but it was more like an opera. The music keeps rising, it is almost unbearably loud and still you enjoy it and you feel the drama and climax. And it stops right at the high point (This is mainly my free itunes Mozart and other audio podcasts talking, nothing more.) Or it was like the ending of Gone with the wind.
The first thing I wanted to do after I finished it was to meet the seventeen year boy and hug him. I ended up ordering the next autobiography of his (The Fry Chronicles which describes his university years). Stupid flipkart people delayed it saying that it is an imported edition. Then it arrived when I was midway through R. K. Narayan’s The Guide. And if it were (was?) any other author than Narayan, Wodehouse, PuLa, or even if I was re-reading the book, I would have gladly kept it aside and started with the chronicles. I have started it now. (And The Guide was good too. Narayan is a master story teller.) Guide took so much time because I was reading India-A History by Micheal Kaey – in parallel. I am still reading it.
Hope Chronicles are good. I loved the college days photographs of HL, Ben Elton, SF and Emma Thomson.
*(While I would rate their Tony And Control and some other jokes better here is a sample of play of words as I remember it from A Bit of Fry and Laurie:
SF: And how is everything? How is your wife doing?
HL: We got divorced.
SF: Sad, sad! Also I remember you had a daughter. I don’t remember her name though.
SF: Did he, did he? My God, did he?)
**My knowledge about what love is is basically from the book ‘The Road Less Traveled’ by M. Scott Peck. He says that real love starts when you fall out of love with a person whom you had fallen in love with. Loving, then, is really a conscious decision. Do read the book, by the way.