Were you to take a peek into A C Benson’s Commonplace Book, you would, after a bit, come across the following exhortation from Dr F J Foakes Jackson: ‘It’s no use trying to be clever – we are all clever here. Just try to be kind – a little kind.’
It was addressed, at the turn of the century, to a novitiate don at Jesus College, Cambridge, and while Dr F J Foakes Jackson is not remembered for anything else (and indeed is somewhat rarely remembered for this), there can be no question but that his salutary murmur must continue to resonate, however faintly, within that university, much in the manner of an ancient ITMA beetling forever through intergalactic space.
I argue this mainly in default of any alternative as to how Stephen Fry, late of Queens’ College, could be at once so very clever and so very nice. That the cleverness, furthermore, is deployed in the service of the niceness, beacons from almost every page of this huge, crammed, wise, hilarious and utterly captivating book.
But what on earth has managed to protect Fry from his own brilliance? The older universities have spawned so many young smart-arses in whom the depth of the arseness so totally negates the height of the smartness that the observation becomes an equation. But Fry overturns this inverse ratio utterly; he is without arrogance or vanity, and even when he is giving freest rein to the expression of his remarkable mind through his equally remarkable vocabulary, the reader is nonetheless struck by a sort of covert humility which disarmingly mutes the fanfare’s brass. Often, indeed, Fry quite deliberately subverts his own cleverness, typically by spraying a synonymic rodomontade at you suggestive of a meeting between P M Roger and Sir Hiram Maxim at which they hit upon a means of firing 1,400 analogues a minute, until you seem to hear him crying: ‘Look at all these plums! See what a good boy am I!’
This self-deflation is a characteristic all the best columnists share, and they could share nothing better. The very essence of a column is pontificant, a pretence to infallibility, and the concomitant risks must rigorously be guarded against. The columnist thunders: ‘I am the master of this college, what I don’t know isn’t knowledge!’, too often forgetting that Jowett was also a two-stroke jalopy with an inherent tendency to bite off more than it could chew and run out of steam when the going got tricky. I shall labour neither the point nor the metaphor, merely invite you to read Paul Johnson or Peregrine Worsthorne or Norman Stone and consider whether you would unhesitatingly follow them into whatever jungle beckoned.
And I do more than invite you to read Stephen Fry. I urge you to. This book – apart from its finale in a corking two-act play, written, God help us, in his second undergraduate year – is composed mainly of his columns for the Listener, the Daily Telegraph and Radio Four, and exemplary they are of the feuilletoniste‘s trade. Or trades: Fry is by turns observer, humorist, reviewer, philosopher, parodist, autobiographer, academic, scourge, clown and, as often as not, an antic amalgam of all of these and more, and his variant style conforms flawlessly with each selected role. I do not intend to bang on about that style, since there are nigh on five hundred pages of it here and it would be as otiose to elect a handful of the typical as it would be unfair to wrench them from their context, but you may catch the drift (a poor term, mind, for such disciplined precision) as a by-blow of these examples of something more specific, viz, Fry’s invaluable narrative sense. Invaluable, because the best columns conform to the requirements of the best short fiction, the first, literally, of which is to stay the reader with your skinny hand and hold him there, to be the loud bassoon never so urgent. Look, then, at just a few of Fry’s irresistible hooks:
From the time homo ludens crawled from the primeval slime of spillikins and strip checkers and first stood and called himself a man, the sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces that define the limits of chess have exerted a powerful fascination over the species.
Whose is the last voice you would expect to hear drifting over to your table if you were dining alone in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel?
We live in dangerous, uncertain times. Dame War, her mean, pinched features cracked into a ghastly smile, threatens to enGulf us in a molten river of desolation and ruin. The Harlot Inflation is pulling up her petticoats and allowing us a peep of her huge swollen thighs. That surly footpad, Recession, rubs his brutal blue beard-line threateningly between finger and thumb and leers down with grim delight at the prospect of poverty, squalor and homelessness. At such a time, it’s good to know that people are coming up with television advertisements for Carefree Panty-Shields and Intimate Wipes.
In my family, as in millions of households throughout the land, we made use of the scouring powder Vim. This was a result of no politically or socially significant purchasing strategy on our part, Vim was simply the brand we used. If, visiting another family, I discovered a different powder there, every feeling would be revolted.
Paperweight is a book to buy for company; it is to be reached out for in the stilly watches of the night, and to be blessed when leafy points strand you at the gates of Didcot; because it is as warm as it is witty. Dr F J Foakes Jackson is not mocked: as Jorrocks observed, ‘Now, brains is good, and ‘eart is good, but if I gets ’em both on the one plate, in a nice brown gravy, it is very ‘eaven!’