BookNotes: Moab Is My Washpot: A Memoir
By Stephen Fry, Soho Press, September 6, 2011, 978-1616954727
I first heard of Stephen Fry by listening to the British version of the Harry Potter audio books. He’s a brilliant voice actor. I read The Ode Less Travelled, and I remember making an effort to try to learn poetry with the book. He’s an extremely good educator and writer.
Moab Is My Washpot came therefore as a shock. He’s none of these things growing up in boarding school. He was a wise-ass who got in lots of trouble. He was a terrible student, a thief, and a cheat. I relate.
Unlike me, he owns up to it, and part of it for him was getting caught. As he says, “Well, where’s the fun in [not getting caught]?”. It’s not a thrill for me, but I appreciate his view.
He served time in jail before going to Queen’s College at Cambridge. The journey to jail is the subject of this book. It’s well-told, and it comes off as an honest memoir. His primary struggle is with coming to terms with being gay, especially in regards to boarding school where there was mutual masturbation and other wanking about. (If you don’t like crude language, you won’t lke this book.)
Fry also gives a good overview of British boarding-school culture, including why he thinks it was good for him. I’ve never really talked with my British friends about their boarding school experiences. This definitely will spur some conversations.
The book is a very deep look into a man’s psyche. It’s brilliantly written, funny in parts, and mostly thought provoking.
[k271] Whether at boarding school, day school or at home with governesses and private tutors, I would always have been as screwed up as an unwanted letter from the Reader’s Digest. Wherever I had been, whatever I had done, I should have experienced an adolescence of sturm, drang, disaster and embarrassment.
[k285] It shames me to remember that eleven years and a couple of expulsions later, at seventeen and on the run from home, I was to return to Chesham, stay as a guest of the Brooke girls and steal a Diner’s Club card from their father before running off on a wild nationwide spending spree that ended in prison and disgrace.
[k293] There is of course nothing distinguished about a bent nose. A duelling scar may rightly be called distinguished, as might a slightly cleft chin or a glamorously imperceptible limp, but a bent nose is idiotic and unpleasant. I suppose people were trying to be kind and protect me from the humiliation of discovering that, even after an operation to straighten my ridiculous nose, I would still look a mess.
[k297] We keep our insignificant blemishes so that we can blame them for our larger defects.
[k300] I think of the monarchy and aristocracy as Britain’s bent nose. Foreigners find our ancient nonsenses distinguished, while we think them ridiculous and are determined to do something about them one day.
[k314] The trouble with doing a thing for cosmetic reasons is that one always ends up with a cosmetic result, and cosmetic results, as we know from inspecting rich American women, are ludicrous, embarrassing and horrific. But of course, I am a sentimentalist, and sentimentalists will hunt for any excuse to maintain the more harmless fripperies of the status quo.
[k955] I became intensely proud of my asthma, just as I was to become proud of my Jewishness and proud of my sexuality. Taking an aggressively defiant stance on qualities in myself that others might judge to be weaknesses became one of my most distinctive character traits. Still is, I suppose.
[k1036] White, well-nourished British children who holidayed with their parents in old plantation houses in the Bahamas and Jamaica, clapping their hands, thumping tambourines and striking triangles to the lisped words of “Let my people go” and “Nobody knows the trouble I seen,” to a clash of cymbals and symbols that still harrows the imagination.
[k1075] Music is everything and nothing. It is useless and no limit can be set on its use. Music takes me to places of illimitable sensual and insensate joy, accessing points of ecstasy that no angelic lover could ever locate, or plunging me into gibbering weeping hells of pain that no torturer could ever devise. Music makes me write this sort of maundering adolescent nonsense without embarrassment. Music is in fact the dog’s bollocks. Nothing else comes close.
AND I CAN’T FUCKING DO IT
I can’t so much as hum “Three Blind Mice” without going off key.
[k1090] I’M NOT EVEN TONE FUCKING DEAF
I’m tone DUMB.
[k1151] That, partly, is why classical music is also very nerdy. Its decontextualised abstractions take the classical music lover and the classical music practitioner out of the social stream and into their own heads, as do chess and maths and other nerdile pursuits. Mussorgsky’s “Night on the Bare Mountain” is not nerdy however, when it makes everyone brighten up and do their whispering impression of the slogan for that cassette tape TV commercial: “Maxell! Break the sound barrier …”
[k1186] It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing–they are not all bad. Those devils have also been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.
[k1277] You see, when it comes down to it, I sometimes believe that words are all I have. I am not actually sure that I am capable of thought, let alone feeling, except through language.
[k1291] Swimming, turned out when I did it, to be simply the ability to move forwards in water. When I did learn to play pieces on the piano, I discovered that I did not fly or approach any penetration of the cosmos. Language, I had to confess to myself, did get me places. It got me academic success, and later financial and worldly rewards that I could never have dreamed of I learned to use it to save me from bullying, mockery and rejection. Language went on to give me the chance to do things that I am pleased to have done. I have no reason to complain about language.
[k1356] But in a culture like ours, language is exclusive, not inclusive. Those on easy terms with words are distrusted.
[k1358] To the healthy English mind (a phenomenon we will dwell on later) there is something intellectually spivvy, something flash, something Jewy about verbal facility.
[k1400] Often, in fact, one was given a choice of punishments and I always chose the cane.
[k1399] As far as I was concerned it had at least the virtue of being over quickly, unlike detention, lines or the wearisome cleaning and sweeping errands that stood as lesser penalties. Often, in fact, one was given a choice of punishments and I always chose the cane.
[k1427] Let’s try–and God knows it’s hard–to be logical about this. If we object to corporal punishment, and I assume we do, on what grounds is this objection based? On the grounds that it is wrong to cause a child pain? Well, I don’t know about you, but when I recall childhood pain, I don’t recall the pains of toothache, a thrashed backside, broken bones, stubbed toes, gashed knees or twisted ankles–I recall the pains of loneliness, boredom, abandonment, humiliation, rejection and fear. Those are the pains on which I might, and still sometimes do, dwell, and those pains, almost without exception, were inflicted on me by other children and by myself.
[k1440] Abuse is exploitation of trust and exploitation of authority and I was lucky enough never to suffer from that or from any violation or cruelty, real or imagined.
[k1532] There’s more on this theme coming later. Let’s just say for the time being that I was wicked. When I wanted money or sweets, I stole them and I didn’t care from whom. From my mother’s handbag at home or from the desks and hanging clothes of my fellow pupils. For the moment, we’ll call me a weasley cunt and have done with it.
[k2133] Besides I was a terrible show-off and I used to react angrily, with great moral fervour and all the Jewy, pansy strength of my wicked tongue. Not that argument could ever swerve the stolid Uppinghamian mind away from his settled conviction that art, literature and the play of ideas were anything more than “wank.” Indeed, the better one argued, the more it proved it was all words, words, words. “Oh, you can argue anything with words, Fry. Doesn’t make it right.” It is one of the great ironies of British (anti-) intellectual life that a nebulous sense of twentieth-century relativism has taken hold, somewhere deep down, and is used to damn and distrust the logical and the rational.
[k2166] Note One is that the character of the English is essentially middle-class; after a little historical explanation as to why that might be safely stated, Forster continues: Solidity, caution, integrity, efficiency. Lack of imagination, hypocrisy. These qualities characterize the middle classes in every country, but in England they are national characteristics also, because only in England have the middle classes been in power for one hundred and fifty years. Napoleon, in his rude way, called us “a nation of shopkeepers.” We prefer to call ourselves “a great commercial nation”–it sounds more dignified–but the two phrases amount to the same.
[k2309] My mother has an absolute passion for sour fruit and can strip a gooseberry bush quicker than a priest can strip a choirboy.
[k2487] I still find any sort of confrontation, shouting or facing off unbearable.
[k2660] No matter how pissed off a boy might be with existence, authority or himself, there was always room to share food and affection with a dog. A dog allowed an adolescent, struggling to be manly, cynical and cool, to romp and giggle and tickle and tumble like a child.
[k2943] Christ, I could be a cheeky, cocky little runt. I gave the character of Adrian in my novel The Liar some of the lines I liked to use to infuriate schoolmasters. “Late, Fry?” “Really, sir? So am I.” “Don’t try to be clever, boy.” “Very good, sir. How stupid would you like me to be? Very stupid or only slightly stupid?”
[k3253] It is a little theory of mine that has much exercised my mind lately, that most of the problems of this silly and delightful world derive from our apologising for those things which we ought not to apologise for, and failing to apologise for those things for which apology is necessary.
[k3277] will apologise for faithlessness, neglect, deceit, cruelty, unkindness, vanity and meanness, but I will not apologise for the urgings of my genitals nor, most certainly, will I ever apologise for the urgings of my heart. I may regret those urgings, rue them deeply and occasionally damn, blast and wish them to hell, but apologise–no: not where they do no harm.
[k4200] “Wisdom?” Ramsay chewed the word around in his mouth. “Oh, I should say that wisdom is the ability to cope.” On that definition, one with which I wholeheartedly concur, I should say my mother is the wiser of my parents.
[k4557] There is nothing so self-righteous nor so right as an adolescent imagination.
[k5227] The moment that tried me the most sorely came when, as the interview drew to a close, my mother took from her handbag a fat wadge of crosswords neatly clipped from the back page of The Times. She had saved the crossword every day since I had been away, removing the answers from the previous day’s puzzle with completely straight, careful scissor strokes. When she pushed them under the window and I saw what they were I made a choking noise and closed my eyes. I tried to smile and I tried not to breathe in, because I knew that if I breathed in the choke would turn into a series of huge heaving sobs that might never end. There was more love in every straightly snipped cut than one might think was contained in the whole race of man.