On a street known as Vleminckveld in Antwerp, Belgium, there is a cozy little bar called the Kulminator. This bar is famous, not least for the fact that it boasts one of the most extensive collections of Belgian beer in the world. Here you can sip vintage beers (some of them date to the 1970s) while listening to Brahms, Chopin or Debussy (only classical music is played here). It truly is a delightful place.
It was here, a short while ago, that my husband and I sat with Peter, a friend of ours, each of us drinking a tall German beer that I recall as being thoroughly delicious, although the name now escapes me. Whilst I am not entirely sure as to how we got onto the subject, I do recall that at a particular point in the evening, we began to discuss who we would most like to spend the night with. I am smiling as I write this, for I am thinking of the now famous John Smith’s advert starring Peter Kay, in which, during the course of a double date, he is asked by his better half who he would choose if he could sleep with any woman in the world. In case you haven’t seen it, he responds with chivalry and tact when he tells his wife that he wouldn’t choose anyone, she is the only woman for him. When she persists, telling him that she’s offering him “Tess Daly on a plate” he finally drifts off into dreamland and says, “Claire from work.” Cue hilarious awkward silence.
Fortunately, both my husband and I are our own bosses, so there was no awkward revelations about fancying a quick bang with a colleague over the photocopier. To save my husband’s blushes, I shall refrain from telling you his choice, suffice to say that both Peter and I slowly and simultaneously lowered our drinks, looked at each other and then at my husband and said, “Really?”
Peter chose Famke Janssen, the Dutch actress whose Bond girl character, Xenia Onatopp, was as full of paronomasia than Pussy Galore
And then it was my turn.
So who did I choose?
Well, I’m afraid that I was rather greedy, for I chose David Tennant and Tom Hardy! I then followed that up with saying, “Actually, I would really love to spend a long, wine-filled evening with Stephen Fry.” “I’ve never heard of him,” said Peter, “Is he sexy?” In the unlikely event that Stephen ever reads this, I really must apologise, for when Peter asked that question, I laughed a little too loudly and inhaled some of my beer. Once recovered, however, I responded with, “No. But he is stunning.”
Throughout the course of his life, Stephen Fry has been known by many and varied names – some that flatter, some that don’t – by many and varied folk – some that matter, some that don’t. His career has seen him wear many different hats, including those of actor, comedian, author, journalist, broadcaster, film director and national treasure (I am not sure whether he likes to wear the latter hat, but it suits him just as well as all the others nonetheless).
To me, however, Stephen Fry is so much more than the summation of his personal or, dare I say it, millinery history. To me, he is a man wrapped up in beautiful contradiction. Just as the New York Tribune wrote of Oscar Wilde in 1882, “The most striking thing about the poet’s appearance is his height, which is several inches over six feet”, so too could the same be said about Stephen Fry. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, it is his height which you notice first, followed by his poise, which is ungainly and yet simultaneously elegant. To look into his heavy lidded eyes is to look into an intriguing soul, one that is at once confident yet self conscious, dreamy yet realistic, strong yet vulnerable, determined yet hesitant.
Above all though, Stephen Fry is to me, a man of boundless talent and knowledge, and a survivor. To quote his own words, he is “…a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance.” It was that altar of language to which I ran when I encountered unexpected criticism of my first published work. I shall refrain from giving credence to the critics’ words by repeating them here, suffice to say that they were not so much about my work, but of me. Given that none of these people had ever even spoken to me, let alone met me, I found their comments cruel and unnecessary. Stephen Fry has, over the years, had his own share of run-ins with critics, so when I heard him say that, “Critics may perform a service…the point is that no one would volunteer for this dreadful trade but the kind of worthless and embittered offal that we, by and large, get” he made me smile, when I felt that no one could. And for that, I am forever grateful.
As I said, he is also a survivor, and through his survival, he has given me a greater understanding of my own husband. His candid discussions about his bipolar disorder, allowed me to comprehend my husband’s depression all the more. My husband has battled depression for many years, both with medication and without. For the past two years or so, he has been medication free, but that is not to say that he doesn’t suffer. He does. I have seen it. And it breaks my heart that I can’t help him. Recently though, when the black cloud descended, he said that he could not pinpoint why it happened, what triggered the slide into the void of despond. With nothing else coming to mind, I paraphrased Stephen Fry, telling him that, “Depression isn’t a straightforward response to bad situation. And it’s interesting that you should refer to it as a black cloud, because depression just is, like the weather. You can’t reason yourself back into cheerfulness any more than you can reason yourself into an extra six inches in height.” I noticed that he slept a little easier that night, so I hope it helped.
So this is my portrait of Stephen Fry, an intriguing soul, a physical and literary giant; a man whose vulnerability is part of his strength; someone whom I shall probably never meet, yet who has helped me on my own path more than he will ever know; and who I regard as the closest thing this world shall ever get to Oscar Wilde. And to any critics who wish to write poisonous words about this stunning man, I say only this. How can you be so cruel to one so beautiful?