Tag Archives: Hugh Laurie

Yes, I would like Fry with that

fry
Credit: SamFry Limited, Creative Commons License. http://www.stephenfry.com

I come to you today with a confession, though not one unfamiliar to anyone who’s peeked at my Twitter biography.  I am an Anglophile.   Although perhaps it’s more precise to say I have Anglophile leanings, or, curiosities, as it were.  I haven’t taken the full plunge yet into declaring an allegiance to a U.K. football franchise, or learned what the hell is going on in a cricket match.  Downton Abbey remains unviewed to this day and I’ve never been able to glom onto Doctor Who (those cheaply made space monsters with the creepy accents scared the piss out of me when I was little.)  I do, however, have an enormous infatuation with certain cornerstones of British popular culture – James Bond, the Beatles, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Eddie Izzard, the original Whose Line is it Anyway, David Attenborough nature documentaries, The King’s Speech.  My taste in music is almost exclusively British bands and performers.  My conversations are peppered with British idioms, and when required, British profanity (nobody swears better in English than the ones who invented the language, you bollocks-arsed wankers).  My sense of humor has always leaned British in its dryness and self-deprecation.  And in this spirit of confession I am forced to admit a massive man-crush on that pillar of all that is magnificent about being British, Stephen Fry.  In fact, one of my little goals for my Twitter experience is to somehow convince Stephen Fry to find reason to follow me – without going the usual route of “hey plz follow meeee back!!!!”  (He follows about 50,000 people while over 5 million follow him – so I figure I’ve got a 1 in 100 chance, hardly impossible odds.)  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this post is part of that strategy, but what the hell, Stephen Fry rocks, so even if he never sees this, it’s still worth writing.

The name might not be immediately familiar, but the face and voice are – the tall, imposing if sad-eyed figure with the bent nose, the deep, plummy voice you’ve heard narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks.  Stephen Fry has led a remarkably rich if not always charmed life, which you can read about in copious detail on his Wikipedia page.  From humble beginnings (naturally) he has become something of a world-renowned adventurer, not of the climb-the-mountain-while-battling-wild-zebras type, but of the mind, pursuing ventures literary, theatrical, televised, cinematic and everything in between, fueled by a love of language and a curiosity about everything.  As he says on his website, he finds it uncomfortable recounting his achievements, but he has nothing left to prove with a CV so varied.  One of the most interesting facets of Fry, particularly in his film roles, is that his screen time is usually limited, giving you a mere taste – as a result, he is this inscrutable larger-than-life character who never lingers long enough for you to figure him out and thus lose your interest.  You’re always left curious for more.  Indeed, there never seems to be enough Stephen Fry, and he seems to like it that way.  (Twitter in particular is tailored perfectly for people like that – I’m sure I come across as far more interesting in periodic bursts of 140 characters than I do in real life.)

The first time I saw Stephen Fry was in catching up on reruns of Whose Line.  In one episode he took part in a sketch where Josie Lawrence read every other line of a play while Fry was a flustered customer trying to purchase an airline ticket from her.  You can watch it for yourselves here.

His command of language is obvious; clearly a brilliant mind at work, confronting and embracing the absurdity of the premise and diving in with the bone-dry, semi-flustered and entirely elegant phrasing that marks the best of the British sense of humor.  Later, as I discovered and devoured his genius sketch comedy collaboration with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, I could see the man at the height of his creative endeavors.  One of the biggest reasons why English humor often doesn’t translate is that much of it is built on the class system, one social stratum poking fun at the foibles of another.  Fry has the education of an upper class “to the manor born” man but he resents that caste’s appropriation of high culture, and slays mercilessly, on their own terms, those who attempt to use their Etonian upbringing to peer down snootfully past upturned noses.  Check out this brilliant sketch where Fry displays his unbridled love of the English language while mocking the personae of highbrow elocution-happy would-be intellectuals.

So much of popular comedy, particularly on this side of the pond, is based in being crude, breaking taboos for the sake of “oh no he didn’t” shock value, mocking those who can’t punch back, spewing endless profanity at high volume.  What I’ve always appreciated most about Stephen Fry is that he proves by example that you can be smart about being funny.  That in English, we have an enormous, infinitely quirky tool at our disposal that can be bent, twisted, turned inside out, dropped on its head, sent through the post, dusted off, sprinkled with garlic and spread about liberally to uncover some wonderful and unique ways of expressing ourselves in a manner that will always evoke a smile.  Fry loves puns; he loves surprising us with linguistic connections we’ve failed to realize.  Behold, my favorite Fry and Lauriein which this trick was never more hilariously illustrated.

When I’m working on my novel and I write the phrase “He was crestfallen; in fact, his crest had completely fallen off,” that’s me doing my best Stephen Fry impression.  For me, English words have come more alive since discovering the collected works of Mr. Fry – I’m looking for those connections now and holding them up proudly while jumping about like something of a crazed jackrabbit when I find them.  Stephen Fry has also shown us, in his very public struggles with his manic depression, that a flawed man can still achieve great things – in fact, his greatness is emphasized by his ability to manage his weaknesses.  Not defeat them, necessarily, but acknowledge them as an inexorable part of the whole.  In The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry talked about wanting to keep his mania phases, even if it meant having to suffer the extreme craters of the other side – a bold choice, to be certain, even if some might justifiably disagree.  Contradictions and all, Stephen Fry remains someone to admire, a man who has been described as one of Britain’s national treasures – one can imagine the bemused smirk on his face at hearing that.  But as an Anglophile, or Anglophile-curious, I can think of few Brits who deserve it more.  So thank you, Stephen Fry, for being you, for the influence you’ve had on this one Canadian whom you might humbly consider lending a Twitter follow to at some point, some day.  Soupy twist!

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Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.

Fun with words: Fry’s Theorem

As regular readers know, I love the peculiarities – the quirks, as it were, of the English language.  Because to me, English is a bottomless trove of enigmas, a linguistic vein to be mined in endless permutations.  Creatively, it remains an invaluable resource, for if you are ever short on inspiration, you need only dive into its well to uncover a fresh helping of treasure.  Do not fear that bane known as writer’s block.  English will always be there when you need her.  Finding the creative impetus again can begin with something as small as the shape of a single word.

Glance if you will at the following sentence.  “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”  I borrowed it from a classic episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a sketch involving Stephen and Hugh discussing the infinite capacity and flexibility of English.  Just ponder for a second the absurdity of that phrase and how it could only belong to the Queen’s grand old tongue.  Keeping in mind of course that other languages can be arranged in their own nonsensical combinations, Fry’s main argument – delivered in his unique style – is that because of the dexterity of English, one can speak such absurdities in the certainty that they have never been uttered before by anyone in the history of language itself.  Language is capable of so much more than we realize.  Much like the oft-repeated factoid that humans only use 10% of their brains, in our regular conversations we use only a fraction of language’s potential.  No wonder why dialogue with one another can often feel so stilted, so underwhelming.  Our reluctance to exploit the potential of language to its greatest extent is one of our many failings.  Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how we converse with each other, and whether we are truly saying all we can say.  Quite possibly, those word-a-day calendars are really on to something.

Realistically, though, one has to wonder if we are an evolutionary downslope when it comes to how we speak to one another.  Slang is a far-too-easy layman’s recourse when our brain’s thesaurus fails to measure up.  Textspeak is another, and to a linguist like Stephen Fry must represent a true collapse of imagination, his well-documented love of technology to the contrary.  Ultimately the best approach on an individual basis is to set a good example, and hope that others may rise to the challenge.  Very likely some may dismiss this as elitism or worse, snobbery.  Whether or not they do is no reason why we shouldn’t still try to raise the game.  Xenophobia, or more precisely the fear of strangers’ reactions, certainly isn’t, in my mind, a compelling argument against it.

You may have noticed, if you are reading astutely, a particular quirk with this post, and you’re invited to submit your best guess as to what it is in the comments.  Zillions of imaginary happy points to the winner!