2011 (originally 1997), 434 p.
When, for what seems like years, the best-seller lists were dominated by Fifty Shades of Twilight (or whatever it was), one little spark of light was Stephen Fry’s ‘Moab is my Washpot’ which seemed to just hover there for month after month. I had no idea what the title meant, and now, with this reissue, I find that obviously no one else did either because he has had to append an explanatory preface. The title is a quote from Psalm 60 (‘Moab is my washpot, and over Edom I throw my sandal’). For the young Stephen Fry, it captured the idea that the world was a battleground between beauty and the barbarians, between sensitive souls like himself and the Phillistines who were everyone else. For the adult, successful Stephen Fry, it now captures the “rebarbative, supersensitive and insanely solipsistic soul that I was”. He has a measure of affection for that earlier Stephen Fry though, and by the end of the book, so I do.
Despite his claims to be “middle class at a middle-class school in middle England” (p. 201), it’s certainly not a middle-class that many Australians would recognize. Boarding school seems such a terribly British phenomenon, the tattered photograph of his childhood mansion that he carried with him throughout his life is certainly no middle-class Australian home, and the language in which he revels is certainly English, but not Australian.
It is a very self-aware autobiography. As he himself says:
…I was and am both transparent and opaque, illegible and an open book. (p. 319)
At times he addresses his putative reader: “Bloody hell, I do rattle on, don’t I?” (p. 256) and “Yeah, yeah, yeah- you were a thieving little tosser, we get the picture, we will draw the conclusions thank you.” (p 303). You are constantly aware of his awareness that this is all construction. He is, indeed, both transparent and opaque. He seems to write with disarming honesty about his inability to sing and play sport, his late maturation into adolescence, the almost-expected school-boy sex play with his peers, and his long awareness of his own queerness in both senses of the word, his stealing, his arrogance. In his writing about his infatuation with Matthew Osborne all the Bridesheadness of his story drops away: a crush is a crush, and an exhilarating, searing, heightened, poignant, unrealizable and utterly human thing it is too.
But being a book written Stephen Fry, you are well aware through his use of rolling, fruity, razor-sharp language that you are in the presence of a huge intellect and a huge ego very much in control of what he is divulging or choosing not to divulge. He’s aware of the power of his language too:
I have always wanted to be able to express music and love and the things that I have felt in their own proper language- not like this, not like this with the procession of particular English verbs, adjectives, adverts, nouns and prepositions that rolls before you now towards this full-stop and the coming paragraph of yet more words.
You see, when it comes down to it, I sometimes believe that words are all I have…Language was all that I could do, but it never, I felt, came close to a dance or a song or a gliding through water. Language could serve as a weapon, a shield and a disguise, it had many strengths. It could bully, cajole, deceive, wheedle and intimidate. Sometimes it could even delight, amuse, charm, seduce and endear, but always as a solo turn, never a dance. (p. 101)
It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that he had to have speech therapy to slow down his speech enough to make it intelligible. But even that’s part of the man too: the stream of synonyms and witticisms comes tumbling out so quickly that you can barely keep up and you feel that you’re drowning in his language. You sense that he’s toying with you as a reader too, and yet you don’t really want it to stop. I think that I would be struck dumb with fear, completely intimidated, if I were ever to sit next to him at the hypothetical celebrity dinner party that people keep summoning up. I very much enjoyed his book, but I think I prefer him safely in print.
My rating: 9/10
Read because: it’s a good before-bed read and I quite like Stephen Fry.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.