SOME physicists subscribe to the theory of parallel universes, which supposes that all possibilities are being played out across an infinite range of alternative worlds. Stephen Fry’s father wasn’t that kind of physicist. “He was interested in single atoms, the particles inside the particles, ” Fry tells me. “In taking everything apart to see how it works.” His mother, meanwhile, had “a mind packed with verse”, and bequeathed Fry her love of poetry.
The influence of both parents can be read between the lines of Fry’s new book, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within, a genial but technical guide to poetic form, which literally shows you how beauty can be built out of language. “One does like to think one contains the best of one’s parents, ” muses Fry in the green room of Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, before he goes on stage to read from the book. “I would say that I inherited the analytical fascinations of my father, and my mother’s interest in words and people.” But, to adopt Fry’s infectiously proper mode of speech, one must also go one’s own way.
And with The Ode Less Travelled, Fry reveals a certain wistful awareness of the different ways he might have gone in those other, alternative worlds. In his 48 years, Fry has gone to jail, attempted suicide, published novels, adapted classic musicals, acted on stage and screen, directed a film, written, performed and broadcasted comedy, made millions and established himself as what he calls “a personality”. He smokes a pipe, flies a classic biplane, and in his private moments, composes poems for his own pleasure. Those poems, he writes, “come from another me, a me who went down a road I did not take”.
The Stephen Fry I meet is an avuncular presence and a spectacular conversationalist, entering the room with the passive-aggressive confidence of a man who stands at a bulky 6’5” but also wears a sleeveless pullover and a dickie-bow. He asks aloud if he can smoke, then immediately announces that he’s going to anyway. “It’s only a cigarette, ” he reasons, not having brought the pipe. “If I was Dylan Thomas, I would be stirring the coffee with my cock by now.” But when he sits down, I can only think to ask about the Stephen Fry who writes poetry in a parallel universe.
“Oh yes, ” says Fry. “I can picture him sometimes, like a special effect in a film, taking a different path, living a quieter life. One in which he might have developed a poetic voice and perhaps become a teacher, which is what I always thought my vocation was. We all have that sense of missed vocation, and in my case I think maybe I should have focused more on one thing. There’s regret in that but, of course, it would be preposterous of me to complain.”
The Ode Less Travelled is dedicated to Rory Stuart, the schoolteacher who deepened Fry’s interest in poetry at Stout’s Hill High School in Uppingham, Rutland, and thereby managed to concentrate the mind of a young man so wayward that he spent three months in prison for credit card fraud before he was 18. “He didn’t dictate, he inspired, ” says Fry. “He found a light switch, which is what great teachers do.” Fry too would love to illuminate, and this book is, by own admission, “rather didactic”. It explains in systematic detail the mechanics of 40 different verse forms, from the regular pulse of iambic pentameter to the more rigid and archaic discipline of the villanelle. Fry’s thesis is that the art of writing poetry is more instinctive, more difficult and more rewarding than people tend to imagine. “We often think poetry is just an emotional outpouring.
“In fact, it’s staggeringly similar to music, and you wouldn’t say to somebody, ‘There’s a piano, now go and express yourself ‘. No matter how enraged or in love that person is, they won’t be hitting the right keys and it will sound like a demented fucking tantrum. Poetry is another kind of music, which is available to everyone who can speak, but there has to be some shape to it if you’re going to feel the delight of the language and the joy of making something beautiful with it. That’s what I’m trying to show. But I appreciate that not everybody will respond to it.” As Fry knows, his name alone will attract many readers and repel many others, regardless of the subject matter. This is the downside to being a personality, and the main reason he doesn’t publish his poetry: it is now impossible for him to create anything that would be judged on its own merits.
“There are people who will say, ‘that’s Stephen Fry showing off, trying to teach the world how to do things’. Which is nonsense. Alan Bennett once said there are two kinds of snobbery – one that looks up and is glamourised by beauty and talent, and that awful one that looks down. I suffer from the first, which is shallow and quite amiable, but I don’t think anyone is beneath me intellectually, socially, spiritually or in any other way.”
There are also people, I suggest, who will indulge him because they admire him. People daunted by the sheer insurmountability of everything they don’t know, who look up to Fry as a man gamely attempting to learn it all. “I’m aware that I am perhaps more competent in the world of ideas than others, ” he says. “I think that’s because I came to it late, after a disastrous early education, getting thrown out of schools and going to prison and eventually getting my act together and delighting in learning. But the fact is we all feel the same pain and yearning to be loved and understood, we all feel the beauty and strength and terror of the world, and we all find different ways of coping with it. And without wanting to make it sound purely functional, poetry can be a great help.”
THROUGHOUT his career, Fry has, in his own words, “disported myself in assorted noisome ways”. He started out on stage with fellow students Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie as part of a Cambridge Footlights revue troupe in the early 1980s, then made his fortune by writing a smash-hit West End revision of the Noel Coward musical, Me And My Girl. He and Laurie became household-famous with their own TV sketch show, silly supporting roles on Blackadder, and their perfect comic turns as Jeeves And Wooster in the popular series based on the novels of PG Wodehouse. Since then Fry has come to seem ubiquitous and polymathic – in recent years he has hosted the Bafta award ceremony, the smart-arse panel show, QI, and a radio programme about classical music, while also narrating the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series and directing Bright Young Things, his own film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies. Fry maintains that he is naturally lazy, and that his projects are part of a constant effort “to prove to myself that I’m not”.
“My father used to see hard work as a definition of what binds the universe, a force if you will. He saw that laziness in me, the cheapness, the shortcutting.” When I ask what kind of work now gives him most satisfaction, he clutches my knee and expounds galactically on the solitary pleasures of writing. “For me it’s like flying. My mind is so excited by the range of it, I stride around my own universe like a god and I love that feeling. Afterwards, there’s the horror of presenting it to the world and being second-guessed or misjudged or just plain hated, but that doesn’t matter. I could never give it up.” This is not to say that Fry thinks there is any more integrity on display in his one of his novels, such as Making History, than in his appearance in Spiceworld: The Movie.
“No. That supposes there is a chasm between serious literature and entertainment. To be human is to hold all sorts of things in constant balance and I am, I hope, almost endlessly curious. I feel there is little time on this Earth and I want to grapple with as much as I can. Taste every fruit of every tree of every orchard. “Well, not all of them, actually, ” he adds. “I have no wish to drop out of a plane with a parachute, or to go snowboarding. As Clint Eastwood says so wisely [in the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force], ‘a man must know his limitations’.”
If Fry knows his own, it’s because he banged up against them back in 1995, when he famously bolted from his lead role in Simon Gray’s West End play Cell Mates, leaving a brief note of panicked apology and turning up a few days later in Belgium. At the time it looked like a severe case of stage-fright. Today, Fry refers to the incident as “my embarrassment with that play that I left”, and suggests the reasons were more existential.
“I was questioning this whole business of success. I’d made money, I’d become well-known, written books and so on. But I felt completely joyless about it, and miserable as a result because I knew I ought to feel good. To achieve the things that are supposed to make one happy, and not actually be happy, seems like ingratitude or insanity.”
The situation can’t have been helped by Fry’s long-term affliction with bipolar disorder. “I don’t want to suggest I have it as badly as some people, whose lives are absolutely blighted, ” he says. “There are times when I have no energy, which drives me insane. On other occasions I have too much. But in my case it’s not severe enough that I need lithium for the depression, or a tranquilliser for the mania, which would make me feel more of a victim. Of course, everyone has these bio-rhythms of peaks and troughs, and there’s an interesting question in where you draw the line between everyday humanity and bipolarity. And the question of how you cope with it, which goes to the heart of what we believe is the difference between the mind and the brain.”
How does he cope with it? “The same way as I cope with the weather, ” says Fry. “I have to recognise that it’s there. If it’s raining, I can’t kid myself that it isn’t. I can’t make the sun come out. But nor does it mean that it will rain forever. You wear the right clothes for your mood, as it were. You allow yourself to feel it.” I wonder, though, why Fry ever thought fame would make him happy.
He seems, in many ways, a private man – he’s been going out with the “same fella” since he revoked his vow of celibacy nine years ago, but that’s all he will say on the matter. And the other Stephen Fry he imagines in his new book, the poet and teacher, never even entered “the loud public world”. “Well it’s like that old joke. How do you get an elephant off the stage?” I don’t know. How? “You can’t, darling, it’s in his blood. “In all seriousness, though, certain things you can’t explain. It’s genetic or whatever, that desire to be on stage, to be seen, to be heard. I think it’s something to do with my desperate need to be liked, which is in itself unlikeable. And I’m terribly wrapped up in it, like everyone else.” Fry goes on to talk about the “knowetic” and the “poetic”, and the “bizarre human condition” which makes our own feelings so difficult to understand.
“One might argue that’s what poetry and music are there for, ” he says. “To help us understand what we feel. It’s so simple and yet it’s the hardest thing we can do. To truly take command of ourselves . . . ” I ask him what he has actually learned about himself, and we agree that it sounds like a question from a self-help book.
“The real fault of those books is their goal-orientation. I’ve learned from disastrous experience that you should never set yourself a place to be, a person to be, or a thing to have mastered, because you’ll feel like a failure whether you succeed or not. But I also know that when people talk about wanting to be happy, they mean that they want to be fulfilled. They want to be everything that they could be.” How does that apply to Fry himself? Is he reconciled to all the other lives he might have lived? “Well, it’s always easy to imagine the paths one might have taken. Some are more like fantasies, and they will always be a source of regret. It’s true, for example, that I won’t know the joys or the miseries of having a child, making a family, having grandchildren, everything my parents went through. It would be fascinating to know what it feels like to be a father.” B
ut in this life, does he feel like he’s getting there? He answers with that famous quote from Robert Browning. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”