At 7pm this past Wednesday, October 9th, UEA’s campus was functioning as normal. The last dishes of the day were being served at the campus kitchen, the sun was setting over the lake. Crowds of sports teams filled the Blue Bar, hollering chants and call-and-response tunes at the top of their lungs while others, working nearby in the library, huffed and puffed at the building’s seemingly cruel inability to mute the clarity of those same voices.
However on one part of the site, something was a little out of the ordinary. Lecture Theatre 1 was full-to-capacity with young and old, UEA affiliates and others, convened for the opening night of the 23rd International Literary Festival. These events, while always entertaining, are not always sold out. But then again, they don’t always feature Stephen Fry.
The discussion delved straight into religion, a subject it was bound to address at some point. In Fry’s opinion, “being Jewish is not a religious thing to be”, a point he evidenced by hailing Freud and Einstein as “arguably the fathers of modern atheism”. Still, this isn’t to say he takes the topic of religion, and his Judaism, lightly. Rather, he finds ‘Auschwitz’ to be “the darkest word in human history”, and maintains that there is “still no more extraordinary subject than the Holocaust”, echoing much of the sentiment currently floating around the launch of Martin Amis’ latest work, ‘The Zone of Interest’. And even if Fry never asked to be Jewish, if someone were to point at him and say “You’re a Jew”, he wouldn’t deny it. It is, in his words, “a peculiar thing that we define ourselves by our enemies and not by our friends”.
At this point, the first question of the evening looked like it could also be the last.
When Fry eventually reached his conclusion, after a particularly evocative retelling of a story involving a concentration camp commander calling a Holocaust survivor to play the cello in his office, the festival’s organiser, and compère of the evening, Christopher Bigsby, joked that someone had told him before the interview to “just ask a question and you can go have a coffee”. Clearly, Stephen Fry can talk – he’s effectively made a career of it. At the Hay Festival this past Summer, I attended an event where he, supposedly, would be interviewing the famed designer and inventor Tony Fadell. At the end of that event, I wasn’t even sure that Fadell had been in the room. Still, no-one tonight (or at Hay) seemed to be complaining.
For someone who is now at the centre of London’s literary scene, as well as the global technology scene (he was spotted in California at the invite-only iPhone 6 launch last month), it is interesting to hear Fry talk of a childhood where he felt “life was going on somewhere else”. For someone who now, in contrast, has such a public profile, Fry has no quarrels with being candid, both in his memoirs and on evenings such as these. When Bigsby observed that Fry’s stories read like ‘someone who wants to be caught’, the author replied with a confirmation, recounting his parents always having said that it was obvious he wanted to be caught out. This mention of the stories he tells brought us to the book he was ostensibly here to promote, his third autobiography, ‘More Fool Me’. Despite having written three of the kind, Fry finds memoir to be a form of ‘literary self-harm’, in which he feels he’s constantly baiting his readers into not liking him anymore.
From being someone who as a teen was “rather obsessed with [literally] walking above the school, looking down on people”, Fry, within a decade, found himself with a great level of fame thrust upon him, a fame which meant, as he puts it, he’d ‘never have to dream of turning right when I got onto an airplane’. However these supposed signifiers of success and comfort did, of course, do nothing to alleviate the effects of his bipolar disorder, and for a time his reliance on “little friends in his wallet” became so great that he once took cocaine in Buckingham Palace, something he reveals for the first time in the latest memoir. Fry also divulged during the evening that his initial medical reports, when he was being diagnosed, read as if the psychiatrist was not writing a medical report but ‘rather a list of the symptoms of ADHD’.
Still, would he press a button to get rid of his disorder altogether? Of the manic highs and enveloping lows? Absolutely not. Why? He answers by posing the same question to the audience, motioning to an invisible button on the table before him and asking if we’d press it to get rid of all the pain, sadness, disease, and war in the world, if it would take with it all love, art and music? The stasis of the audience provided their answer.
As the conversation continued to range, somehow seamlessly, from Nabokov’s childhood through to what makes someone quintessentially English (answer: not being entirely English, and therefore trying twice as hard to appear so, e.g. Churchill, Christie), it became even more apparent that if tested Fry would be able to talk for longer, and far more eloquently, than all five-hundred of the audience combined. One circumstance, however, where he will not speak is in the form of song, ‘so as not to disturb people’. He explains this with an endearing anecdote involving Paul McCartney vigorously encouraging him to sing along to a hymn, and then, after a few seconds, urging him to stop with equal zeal.
A mild complaint occasionally directed at Fry is that with the purchase of a book of his, one needs to also pick up a thesaurus. He has little sympathy for these people, and refuses to apologise for his ‘appalling habit of using one word where twenty would do’. Much to the audience’s delight, that habit wasn’t on show on the evening.