Fry, Stephen. “Moab Is My Washpot”, Soho Press, 2014.
The Early Years
I have heard so much about this memoir by Stephen Fry and am so lucky that one of my British friends sent me a copy. It is due to be released in the United States in November of this year. It is “funny, shocking, tender, delicious, sad, lyrical, bruisingly frank and addictively readable”. It tells us that Fry was sent to a boarding school 200 miles from home at the age of seven where he survived beatings, misery, love, ecstasy, carnal violation, expulsion, imprisonment, criminal conviction, probation and catastrophe. When he reached the age of eighteen, he was ready to try and face the world in which he had always felt a stranger.
Fry is a master of quick wit as well as shocking candor. Since his PBS television debut in the “Blackadder” series, the American profile of this multitalented writer, actor and comedian has grown steadily, especially in the wake of his title role in the film “Wilde”, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and his supporting role in “A Civil Action”. In his earlier biography of his adolescent years, “The Liar”, we were given a taste of his writing ability. Now he takes us back to the years before that period. He was one of the very few Cambridge University graduates to have been imprisoned prior to his freshman year and we certainly see that he is a brilliantly idiosyncratic character who continues to attract controversy, empathy and real devotion.
Fry is prone to moments of weakness. He disappeared in 1995 after walking out of the play he was a part of, contemplating suicide and eventually surfacing in Belgium. Even when he was young, he had issues with depression, and he had a habit of lying, cheating and stealing. He even tells us about the period in his youth in which he stole a credit card and went on a criminal spending spree, eventually ending up in jail.
We learn some things about Fry that we probably never wanted to know—more happened to Fry in the first twenty years of his life than to most people by the age of their retirement, and it’s fascinating to read all about it in his own words. Fry writes with wit and wisdom, and it is fun to read about him in his own words. There are times we feel that we are actually at Stouts Hill Prep School with him. He makes us so comfortable that we feel we are reading what a good friend has written.
“Moab is my Washpot” sets you up perfectly for Fry’s later autobiography, “The Fry Chronicles”, which covers the later periods of his early life including his higher education and his meetings with some of the stars that he shaped a career with, including comedy partner Hugh Laurie. There are times that the book is a bit self-indulgent but that’s ok—like the rest of us, Fry is far from perfect. He suffered from anti-social behavior, his resentment of his father, his confused Judaism, his true feelings about his homosexuality, his relentless low esteem and self loathing .I imagine that this book was a form of therapy for him.
“The engaging Mr. Fry admits to lies, thievery, homosexuality, excessive cleverness, and other peccadilloes in this boarding-school adventure . . . An author in the long and honorable tradition of English Eccentrics, Theatrical Division, presents his coming-of-age story. With all the wit and Pythonesque antics, his book will entertain the Masterpiece Theatre crowd and others as well.”
Fry tried to commit suicide several times since his first attempt at age 18 (described with great sensitivity in the book) and this makes this book a bit disturbing. He suffers from a bipolar disorder but he does not say so here and I wish that he had. It might have clarified some of what I was unsure about. Even with all of his wit and charm, this is a chilling and sometimes confusing yet delightful read. That might sound contradictory until you read it yourself.