Monday, 20 September 2010

The Fry Delusion


Who does he think he is?

In the last few minutes remaining to us before his inevitable knighthood for services to the mediocrity industry, let us ponder the enigma of Stephen Fry.
I'll be honest - I've always had a bit of a soft spot for him. In his day he was a beacon of reassurance, a sketch actor with a sophisticated way with words and a winning and refreshingly traditional style. Parts of the first series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, as much as a third of it maybe, remain among the best television comedy ever: a miracle considering it was made in the eighties. His trademark was a very English combination of pomposity and self-deprecation that made for a pleasantly intelligent alternative to his fellow alternative comedians.
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How bittersweet, then, that in the intellectually bankrupt culture they and others helped shape - this world where people pay two hundred quid a year, get given Russell Brand and say thank you, like a restaurant patron stumping up a week's wages on a turd in a bun and loving every mouthful - he should be taken as its ultimate sage and oracle. Now he plays his old act for real, minus the self-deprecation, the ultimate in self-parody, a one-eyed man drunk on the sycophancy of the blind.
It's not that he isn't the closest thing we have to a truly erudite television personality these days, it's that he probably is. That's what gives me the willies. If only he was the man he pretended to be I'd love him as much as he does. But he's not, is he?
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Having preposterously titled the first volume of his autobiography Moab Is My Washpot several years ago, he's has been out and about this week hawking volume two, which boasts the even more preposterous (but in a totally different way) title The Fry Chronicles.
In this video the big twit lists the various soul-lancing 'formats' in which his opus is available, including what he charmingly calls 'dead wood', and wonders aloud why every writer doesn't have so little respect for the legacy of the written word to do likewise. Then, remembering that he retains a contingent of middle-aged fans who persist against all reason in thinking of him as a custodian of English literary culture, he rushes to stress how much he loves real books (he loves the smell, he loves turning the pages, he loves vacuous clich├ęs), and reassures us with the prediction that books will not disappear in his lifetime. You reassured? Me too! Technology perverts like Fry have guaranteed us another twenty to forty years of books! The generosity of them! Worry not, pessimists!
The best bit of the clip is at the end, when he actually says, "I'll leave you with this thought, and it's an important one..."
He's talking to an adult!
Now, anyone who has ever heard him do the narration for a tv documentary will no longer be surprised by the repulsive 1950s children's radio voice he slithers into whenever he has something to explain to we mere ordinary folk, but still, if you're going to go around saying "I'll leave you with this thought, and it's an important one" to grown adults, surely the least you can do is make sure that the thought you leave them with is an important one.
Fry leaves us with the thought that old-style books, when taken on planes, "literally add to the fuel load of the aeroplane by quite a lot of money".
If this is the closest we can boast to a man of letters, better start building that ark right now.
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As well as a posturing buffoon, it's not often enough recalled that Fry is also a rather nasty piece of work, much given to the Leftist parlour game of demonising those who do not happen to share his predilections and beliefs. The insufferable crime of having a different worldview to Stephen Fry's is sufficient to justify the most venomous verbal assaults, always cynically justified by the pose of retaliating victim - the traditional means by which the Fascist mentality rallies support against its enemies.
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In this clip we see him dipping into his considerable store of nasty aristocratic contempt for the ordinary people, on the subject of swearing.
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Oh dear. Do I dare take issue with Britain's greatest intellect? Tentatively, I must.
Thing is, the whole point of swearing is to be offensive. That's what it means. If it wasn't offensive it wouldn't be swearing. The quality of offensiveness is what makes a word a swear word.
Berks like Fry like to pretend that language evolved first, in total freedom, and then, from who knows where, came the censorious, the wicked, small-minded bourgeoisie, pouncing arbitrarily on words and deciding they are offensive. Oh, the rotters! Spoiling our innocent fun! They probably read the Daily Mail too, the sods.
Sorry to pop the balloon, my drivelling little fantasist pals, but I'm afraid it's not quite as interesting as that. It's very boring really. All swearwords fall into one of three categories: sexual, scatological or blasphemous. Every swearword is a synonym for either a sexual organ or practice, or the product or process of urination or egestion, or an impious reference to some aspect of religious belief or heritage.
And in each case, the significance of the word is that it is flippant: it either trivialises the sacred, or knowingly violates the middle class assumption that one does not discuss matters of the bathroom or the bedroom in polite company.
The purpose is to wage war on a particular sensibility, a particular class, a particular minority - and to have fun doing it.
In its purest form it is valid subversion - the working class revenging itself in private on the social order. But never in polite company, never in front of ladies. Falling from the lips of self-hating toffs like Fry, however, swear words are revolutionary gestures, declarations of war upon the middle class. Nobody claims there is anything arbitrarily inherent in the actual word that is shocking, as Fry so wants us to believe. It is the what the word was designed to represent: a deliberate attack on middle class propriety and standards. That is why they are offensive: it is in their purpose, not their syntax. If they are not offensive, then they are nothing.
Their increasing normalisation and wide use - and anyone who would dare claim that it is possible to spend more than an hour on the streets of London without hearing the word fuck is a liar - is therefore not offensive in itself but rather is illustrative of a general relaxing of one of the mechanisms by which civil relations between strangers were once maintained, one of the signifiers of a predominantly middle class culture. (Now we wallow in a fake culture: that of the privileged media class aping what it believes to be the manners and standards of the working class it patronisingly idolises.) And fuck is not just said, with banal regularity, every fucking second of every fucking day on every fucking street in the fucking country: it is sneered, spat, shouted, between clenched teeth. Increased swearing goes hand in hand with increased aggression, and makes everyday life vastly more unpleasant than it used to be. If you can't see that, then you must be a filthy rich decadent. I'm naming no names here.
The word cunt is offensive not because of its meaning - oh the bourgeois prudishness! - but because everyone who says it fully understands that a violation of some sort is implied in its casual use. Fry wants us to see it as a defensive weapon in the hands of class heroes, bravely asserting their God-given right to use whatever synonym for vagina they choose. And so he offers his idiotic riposte about the cushion being unnecessary... a reminder that this supposedly cuddly national treasure is, like so many others of his class and profession, a man happy to let others pay for his petty freedoms in blood and despair.
Do I swear? Sure do. Bum, bollocks, Christ on a bike. I can't stop myself.
Do I think Norman Wisdom was a hypocrite that time he referred to himself as a cunt, misread my surprise as shock, and hastened to reassure me that he would never use the word in front of a lady?
No, I thought it was princely of him.
Do I think that the fact that swearing does not offend me personally is sufficient reason to spit bile on anyone who feels otherwise?
No I do not. Who would? This Fry character, for one.
If you must read his silly book, buy it in dead wood format and read it on a plane.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, as always.

As for Fry; could someone please bury this "National Treasure"?

George said...

Word-perfect, sir. His important thought made me swear.

Any more Norman Wisdom anecdotes?

hennesli said...

As a television peronality he can be moderately entertaining. Its his sycophantic audience that hang on his every word that irratates me.

The Venerable Bede said...

Yes, moderately entertaining. That's about as far as I'd be prepared to go too.
But it's not just the creepy way he's adored by people who - in all fairness to them - are now many, many generations away from a world of genuine artists and thinkers that's the problem. He also has some very unpleasant views and attitudes, and tactics for advancing them.

That's my best Norman story I'm afraid. Anything else would be anti-climax.