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.
People who know (of) Stephen Fry will want to read this despite, 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.