On the Graham Norton show episode 8, series 11, 2012, Norton interviewed Steve Coogan, who had just produced a “made up” autobiography penned by his fictional alter-ego, “Alan Partridge”. Like “Ron Burgundy”, created by Will Ferrell, people think Alan Partridge is real. Graham Norton commented that Coogan “must’ve read a lot of autobiographies to have gotten the style exactly right”. Coogan responded that he had, but that faking it had given him the freedom to drop more names, and drop more people in the dwang, than he otherwise would’ve been able to.
Question is: what are the attributes of personal writing, like autobiographies, diaries, memoirs or travel writing?
- They are personal pieces of writing recording thoughts and feelings about life experiences
- The reader gains an insight into the writer’s life and personality – or at least what got them to this point
- People and places are described in detail (and that’s pretty random – it’s a given that this is not always a chronological historical account)
- Language is descriptive and imaginative (well, as imaginative as the author or ghost writer is)
- They are written in the 1st person (me, I)
So bear these features in mind when next you read an autobiography – the writer might be a famous actor, artist, or scientist but they may fail abysmally on point 4 and fail to engage the reader, despite their exciting lives.
The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry
People who know Stephen Fry will want to read this despite of, or because of, the fact that he’s a famous actor, writer, comedian, television host, outspokenly gay and passionate about English. I read it because of. That being said, this is precisely what his autobiography is about: what made him what he is today. Let’s see, that would be; a very tall man, with a very nice, deep voice, lovely pronunciation, a charming smile, an off-kilter nose, a sharp wit, and a huge fan base. So, despite what he says about being horribly unattractive and hating his body – which he feels is a mere carrier for his mind – he must be attractive one way or another. Parts of the book are so very sad, it really gave me the morbs, but there are laugh-out-loud witticisms too.
How’s his writing?
But dear reader, you must pay attention, because Fry expects his readers to come up to his level. For instance, if you spot a special character after some sections, you might think the person they refer to is dead. Flip back to p. 2 – “Where I mention events from my past that I covered there [in Moab is my Washpot] I shall append a superscribed obelus, thus: †.” Right. Now I know what a “superscribed obelus” is. (It’s challenging enough that the S’mores advertisers have a little ditty in their TV commercial that goes “S – apostrophe – M-O-R-E”. Wow, someone got the word for the little superscript comma! But who’d know – these days?) And so it goes.
Between the many references to British comedians and writers of whom I’ve never heard, Fry drops in words you would not believe – like “derhotacizations” – a distorted pronounciation of the letter “r” – (p. 246) and “countercantabrigianism” (p.139). For heaven’s sake, give me my Oxford dictionary – the real one, not the watered down on-line one. Oh that wouldn’t work – he made it up. “Cantabrigian”, means from Cambridge University, so Cantabrigianism probably means the state of being from Cambridge, or the belief in all things Cantabrigian. So the word in total means being against (or counter) the all things Cambridge. The person to whom he attributed this phrase was the quizmaster in the TV programme University Challenge, Bamber Gascoigne, who was himself from Cambridge. Fry and his mates, also from Cambridge, “ghastly Oxbridge wankers”, were competing against Leeds University in the first round, if Fry recalls correctly. So the short explanation of that long word is, that the quizmaster consciously tried not be biased against the non-Cambridge competitors. Quite right too.
What’s he like?
Fry explains that Cambridge was the making of him, as a comedian and as a man – and it had a lot to do with the Cambridge exam system. Fry was a student who would excel at exams, having done very little work along the way. Of course, that does take some genius. “Cambridge might have argued, should they have been moved to do so, that their examination system is perfectly suited to the real world…The tripos [exams] weeds out the slow, the honest, the careful, the considered and the excessively truthful – all of whom would be grossly unsuited to public life or high-profile careers.” (p. 152.) So he chose comedy, and made the world a happier place. Hurrah.
He shares the pages in generous praise of his life-long friends and famous actors and writers: Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Douglas Adams to mention a few – Hugh Laurie in particular, who has been his co-author and best friend since college. Fry makes it clear that he does not like himself much and his self-deprecation spills out on every page. Of necessity he has to mention his suicide attempts, his self-doubt, and his conviction that he will never find someone to love, because, as he has found out, he suffers from “Cyclothymia”, a particular form of bipolar disorder (p. 224).
That shows up quite clearly in the book – he writes that “I spend much of my life imprisoned by a ruthless, unreasoning conscience that tortures me and denies me happiness”. (At that, I felt a little bell of recognition chime in my head.) How many famous people would be so utterly candid in their revelations? It takes guts to do so. But, Mr. Fry is a famous person and he is famous for being the frontman for Good English Usage. In other words, he champions how not to sound like a yob when speaking and writing English. He says nevertheless that he fails in every particular of Strunk’s Elements of Style, but the book is a glorious, technicolour, psychedelic romp through the dictionary – great fun to read. To my delight I picked up the most common and reviled grammar mistake on p. 298 – “If I was disappointed..”, should be “were”. Ha! But as he says, he’s not perfect and the form could always be argued on the grounds of style.
I think anyone who reads this would like Stephen Fry even more afterwards.
Best in his own words
Here’s Stephen Fry introducing his book in that lovely, mellifluous, beautifully articulated way he has – so like Richard Burton.
Which leads me to the next manly autobiography, by Chris Hadfield. And boy oh boy, this is ever an accidental statement of machismo.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield
Colonel Chris Hadfield made the subject of outer space popular in social media, while keeping it real. This is not sci-fi. This is real science, real space flights and real man’s stuff. I saw the video of him singing and playing guitar inside the International Space Station, and thought – like millions of people – Cool! I thought the man behind the autobiography should be cool too, and it turned out he is, and how!
As most people know, he is a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. An Engineer and former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, Hadfield flew two space shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station. He lived on the station for five months, transferring control to Pavel Vinogradov and going back down to earth on 13 May 2013 – and then he retired and wrote this book.
This is like being the first man on the moon. Everyone remembers the name Neil Armstrong. But people generally don’t remember the other 11 people who also walked on the moon. (There’s even a Little Britain skit about that – the entirely unknown “Bing Gordyn, the eighth man on the moon”.) There are lists of astronauts and cosmonauts who got on with the business of outer space travel, but none, I reckon, have recently got the attention of ordinary people the way Chris Hadfield did. I agree that Hadfield is “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth” – he has 1.1 million followers on Twitter; his Facebook page has 21,700 followers, and 673,400 likes (at 13 June 2014).
What’s he like?
All this may have nothing to do with what this man is: a very, very, very intelligent, balanced, multi-talented, hardworking and driven person. He worked, literally, from when he was a boy, to become an astronaut, studying, choosing careers, relocating, even, I suppose having a family, to reach his goal of space travel. The man was hell-bent, and the same time, he knew that he might never go, that the chances of success were really miniscule. If ever there were a case for eating healthy, going to bed early, doing your homework and staying away from drugs, this is it. When the opportunity came, he was the right man, in the right place.
This is the theme of the book – patience, endurance, focus. Endless training, endless memorization and practice of procedures, endless waiting, up to the point when the rocket blasts off. “My kids used to make fun of me for having more homework than they did and for taking it more seriously, too. But when the risks are real, you can’t wing it.” (p. 65) Humility and self-awareness and being real are crucial to being an astronaut: “…we’d just assumed that she was prepared. That was a big assumption given the North American subculture of pretense, where watching Top Chef is the same thing as knowing how to cook.” (p. 66) Hadfield is not a big fan of pretension, nor of excessive praise for mundane achievements. He believes if you reach the top of your field, then you deserve praise. For the rest, it’s keep on trying, but don’t say “good job” when it isn’t.
How’s his writing?
There are actually quite a few places in this book where I laughed out loud – really. Hadfield turns from a business-like, unpretentious depiction of what got him to outer space, to a lyrical style when describing his first glimpse. Who wouldn’t? So few have had that point of view and the writing skill to adequately convey their impression. “Waiting for him I check behind me, to be sure I haven’t accidentally activated my backup tank of oxygen, and that’s when I notice the universe. The scale is graphically shocking, the colors, too. The incongruity is stupefying: there I was, inside a small box, but now – how is this possible. What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww.” (p. 89). You can almost feel his amazement.
Reading this book is a delightful trip, informative (down to the most embarrassing details of life off earth) and convincing, but especially fluently, naturally and expressively written. I couldn’t put it down – it was lovely.
The subject of space travel, and the subject of friends of Stephen Fry, brings me to the biography of Douglas Adams.top
Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, by MJ Simpson
Stephen Fry, in his autobiography The Fry Chronicles, writes of being friends with Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HG2G) series.”He was never free to play [on Macintosh computers] of course, being eternally under the shadow of a writing deadline and so, naturally, we would play. Douglas’s remark about deadlines has become the final word on the subject. ’I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by’.” (p. 367) This is the main conclusion I reached after reading Mike Simpson’s exhaustive and detailed biography: Douglas Adams was bad at deadlines and did a lot of his writing with the help of other people, editors in particular.
How’s his writing?
Simpson wrote it after he had been the deputy editor of the British science fiction magazine SFX, writer of two books on Adam, including this one, and the organizer and editor of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the official Hitchhiker’s Guide appreciation society. The book contains copious public documents and Simpson’s personal insights.
It is hard to read, being densely detailed, with reams of dates about when what was broadcast or published, for 382 pages, all of which I read because I’m a true fan. It struck me that Simpson was not particularly sympathetic towards his subject. Perhaps Adams really was a kind of a pain-in-the-ass personality, but surely everyone has more than one angle. Added to that, Simpson says: “Numerous other people agreed to be interviewed about Douglas but, because of my workload and impending deadline, I was unable to do so.” After having read it, I still had unanswered questions: What made Adams tick? Why was he the way he was?
What was Adams like?
What emerges is that Adams, while brilliant, was a procrastinator of note, and publishers had to lock him up to get him to write anything. Left to his own devices, he had fun, played on computers and let the deadlines fly by. South African author Rona Rupert said once, that everyone has one, just one, good story inside them that they have to write. If an author writes that defining novel, it is usually their top achievement and the best in their œuvre. The problem then is to continue on that tangent, pulling off more novels of the same quality and the same impassioned conviction.
Arguably, the second HG2G book, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, was the best of the series. The first HG2G book, by the same title, started as a 1978 comedy radio script, and then Douglas’ problem was turning it into a book. And following that with other books, computer games and spin-offs like film scripts. Adams suffered badly from writer’s block (I still don’t know why), and this was particularly bothersome when large teams of people depended on him, like during the development of the 1984 computer game based on the books. In the end it was up to Steve Meretzky to get the slog-work done.
Adams died in 2001, aged only 49, after HG2G had made him famous. For millions of people, HG2G is a cultural and literary benchmark. I personally refer more to the HG2G world on a daily basis than to Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune or The Culture. But after having read Simpson’s book, I doubt whether Adams would ever have produced something as great as the original HG2G “trilogy” in his lifetime. On the other hand, perhaps that achievement was sublime enough. I think Adams fans have to wait for a biography from another author for Father’s Day. Or read The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, a posthumous collection of Adams’ essays about technology and life experiences, and the incomplete novel on which he was working at the time of his death, called The Salmon of Doubt. top
HG2G is alive and well today
Google Doodle on Douglas Adams’s 61th birthday – I love Google Doodles, even this one that’s a bit blurry. It’s cute.
PS Food for thought
Here’s another very famous video of Chris Hadfield, performing I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) while in the ISS, with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and a backing choir of The Wexford Gleeks singing along on earth.
Read the lyrics to I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing). The title is a pun on International Space Station. The song premiered simultaneously on earth and in space. The words have meaning, and they’re scientifically accurate of course. The song was commissioned by CBCMusic.ca and the Coalition for Music Education with the Canadian Space Agency to celebrate music education in schools across Canada. The video of school children across Canada singing this live, with Hadfield, is quite something. Give you a hefty lump in the throat, more so than listening to Oh, Canada. I caught myself happily singing along to the video – the lyrics are below. Go ahead, join in!
The lines “What once was fuelled by fear, Now has fifteen Nations orbiting together here” is a central idea in Hadfield’s autobiography. He makes it clear that, despite differences of all sorts, the representatives of all the different nations involved in the ISS have to cooperate. The ISS programme is a joint project among five participating space agencies: NASA, Roskosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA. He writes with particular respect of his Russian colleagues from whose base, Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, he and his team blasted off.
The line “You can’t make out borders from up here” refers to Hadfield’s observation in his autobiography about the interesting visual patterns he saw from the ISS, which led to him creating pretty spectacular photos of earth. He put these on his Twitter feed, but they will also feature in his upcoming book, You Are Here, Around the World in 92 Minutes. The release date for the book is October 2014.
I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)
Music by Ed Robertson, Lyrics by Chris Hadfield and Ed Robertson
On solid fuel and wires
Turn the key and light the fires
We’re leaving Earth today
This rocket’s burning bright
We’ll soon be out of sight
And orbiting in space
Pushed back in my seat
Look out my window
There goes home
That ball of shiny blue
Houses everybody anybody ever knew
So sing your song I’m listening
out where stars are glistening
I can hear your voices bouncing off the moon
If you could see our Nation
From the International Space Station
You’d know why I want to get back soon
All black and white just fades to grey
Where the sun rises sixteen times a day
You can’t make out borders from up here
Just a spinning ball within a tiny atmosphere
Eighteen thousand miles an hour
Fuelled by science and solar power
The oceans racing past
At half a thousand tons
Ninety minutes Moon to Sun
A bullet can’t go half this fast
Floating from my seat
Look out my window
There goes Home
That brilliant ball of blue
Is where I’m from, and also where I’m going to
Pushed back in my seat
Look out my window
Here comes home
What once was fuelled by fear
Now has fifteen Nations orbiting together here