Book: Paperweight by Stephen Fry

Good if it's the sort of thing you like

Stephen Fry
Arrow Books, 2004 (originally published in 1992)
ISBN: 0-09-945702-4
470 pages
UKP 7.99

Stephen Fry is an enormously brilliant and talented British comedian, actor, and author. He directed the movie Bright Young Things (based on Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel Vile Bodies) and starred as Jeeves in the hilarious television series Jeeves and Wooster (based on the novels and stories of P. G. Wodehouse) which aired on the UK's ITV network. Paperweight is a collection of his shorter writings, mainly newspaper and magazine columns from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Stephen Fry's comedy is distinctly English and, probably for that reason, he seems not to be very well known on my side of the Atlantic. Indeed, most of the people who would like Paperweight already know who Stephen Fry is and can probably judge for themselves whether they'd like it. For those who aren't familiar with Mr Fry's work, the best remedy for that is a few episodes of Jeeves and Wooster or perhaps a few of the Blackadder episodes that he's in. Or you could read an article he wrote about Wodehouse. If you don't find those shows funny or the article charming, you're unlikely to enjoy Paperweight very much.

But about the book: Many of the essays are hilarious and a large number display conspicuous good sense. Though many of the essays are short and light, and some of the references a bit dated and/or obscure to Americans, there's much of value here regarding some aspects of British culture. There are a few small lapses, as in the column "The World Service" in which he implies that Britons shouldn't mind paying for the BBC's short-wave service because it's funded by one sort of tax rather than another. And, naturally, Mr Fry has a few opinions that I don't share, but I don't mind that a bit.

But the best thing that I can do in regard to the book is to quote some of it. Here is a bit from the first piece in the collection. It's a transcript of a short radio broadcast. In real life, the British government had asked an academic to report on violence on television. Mr Fry invents Dr Donald Trefusis, a Cambridge professor, who will report the way Mr Fry wants.

Dr Trefusis turns on a comic BBC variety show and says of it:

    In this programme, violence was done to all the
    canons of decency, respectability, gentleness,
    courtesy, taste, humanity and dignity that I have
    striven all my life to promote. All were violated
    in ways too savage, too grotesque, too
    degraded to delineate. Such an obscene orgy
    of vulgarity, baseness and ignorance I hope
    never to witness again. (p. 4)

And a bit later, he says:

    However, amongst this mire of violation, ruin and
    despair, some redeeming pearls did shine forth.
    From America, and from here, there were many
    programmes in which actors dressed up and
    pretended to be policemen or criminals and gave
    entertaining representations of fights and shoot-
    outs. Many a car exploded in a jolly and exciting
    fashion as part of this make-believe. I became
    particularly fond of a pair called Starsky and Hutch,
    who were forever simulating gun-fights and
    beatings-up. These merry, silly, romping fictional
    diversions were, as fiction always has been, and
    always will be, harmless, instructive and charming.
    (p. 5)

I find that pretty darned funny and probably more than half true, but probably not everyone will.

There's a tiny editing error in that there's "On" where "One" is meant on page viii. And I don't believe that "retrovirus" comes from shortening "retroactive virus" (p. 352).

Posted: Sat - May 6, 2006 at 09:11   Main   Category: