Excerpt from the autobiography Moab Is My Washpot, by Stephen Fry (Arrow, 1997). Reprinted with permission from the author.
But does that, or does that not tell you something of the psychological minefield one trod through in those days, when it came to questions of sexual nature, of sexuality, as we would say now? The difference between sexual play and queering; the blind terror that physical affection inspired, but the easy acceptance of erotic games.
At Uppingham, much the same views obtained. Those whose morning prongers one brushed as Morning Fag did not think of themselves or of me as queer in any way at all. I am not sure anyone really knew what queer really, really meant. The very idea of it made everyone so afraid that each created their own meaning, according to their own dread of their own impulses.
You could openly admire a pretty boy, and all the middle and senior boys did. It was a sign of manliness indeed to do so.
‘Just ten minutes alone, me and that arse …’ a sixth former might say as a cute junior walked past. ‘That’s all I ask,’ he would add looking skywards in prayer.
‘Oh no!’ One senior would clutch another as they caught sight of a comely new boy, ‘I’m in love. Save me from myself.’
I think that the logic of it was that new boys, pretty boys, were the closest approximation Uppingham offered to girls. They were hairless in the right places and sweet and cute and comely like girls, they had fluffy hair and kissable lips like girls, they had cute little bottoms like… well, they had cute little bottoms like boys, but hell, any port in a storm, and there’s no storm like pubescence and no port like a pretty boy’s bum. All that public swooning however, was no more than macho posture. It proved their heterosexuality.
Some boys however had the most definite reputation for being queer, in the fully snarled out, spat out sense of the word as it was then used – before, that is to say, its triumphant reclamation by the proud homosexuals of today. I never quite understood how these reputations arose. Perhaps they came about because the accused had been caught looking furtively at someone of their own age in the showers – the furtiveness was more likely to earn you the label queer than open, frank inspection – perhaps they gave off some signal, nothing to do with campness or effeminacy, some signal that the healthy adolescent male responded to with hostility or guilt or desire. Perhaps it was all a dress-rehearsal for the tribal tomtomming of irrational rumour, bigotry and dislike, dressed up and explained as instinct, that today in the wider world decides daily on the nature, character and disposition of the well-known: that asserts Bob Monkhouse to be unctuous, David Mellor to be a creep, Peter Mandelson Machiavellian, John Selwyn Gummer odious and John Birt sinister.
I certainly didn’t know. My own view is that most homophobia, if one wants to use that rather crummy word, has almost nothing to do with sex.
‘But have you any idea what these people actually do?’
Self-righteous members of the House of Commons loved standing to ask that question during our last parliamentary debate on the age of homosexual consent.
‘Shit-stickers, that’s what they are. Let’s be clear about that. We’re talking about sodomy here.’
Oh no you aren’t. You think you are, but you aren’t, you know.
Buggery is far less prevalent in the gay world than people suppose. Anal sex is probably not much more common in homosexual encounters than it is in heterosexual.
Buggery is not at the end of the yellow brick road somewhere over the homosexual rainbow, it is not the prize, the purpose, the goal or the fulfilment of homosexuality. Buggery is not the achievement which sees homosexuality move from becoming into being; buggery is not homosexuality’s realisation or destiny. Buggery is as much a necessary condition of homosexuality as the ownership of a Volvo estate car is a necessary condition of middle-class family life, linked irretrievably only in the minds of the witless and the cheap. The performance of buggery is no more inevitable a part of homosexuality than an orange syllabub is an inevitable part of a dinner: some may clamour for it and instantly demand a second helping, some are not interested, some decide they will try it once and then instantly vomit.
There are plenty of other things to be got up to in the homosexual world outside the orbit of the anal ring, but the concept that really gets the goat of the gay-hater, the idea that really spins their melon and sickens their stomach is that most terrible and terrifying of all human notions, love.
That one can love another of the same gender, that is what the homophobe really cannot stand. Love in all eight tones and all five semitones of the word’s full octave. Love as agape, Eros and philos; love as romance, friendship and adoration; love as infatuation, obsession and lust; love as torture, euphoria, ecstasy and oblivion (this is beginning to read like a Calvin Klein perfume catalogue); love as need, passion and desire.
All the rest of it, parking your dick up an arse, slurping at a helmet, whipping, frotting, peeing, pooing, squatting like a dog, dressing up in plastic and leather – all these go on in the world of boy and girl too: and let’s be clear about this, they go on more – the numbers make it so. Go into a sex shop, skim through some pornography, browse the Internet for a time, talk to someone in the sex industry. You think homosexuality is disgusting? Then, it follows, it follows as the night the day, that you find sex disgusting, for there is nothing done between two men or two women that is, by any objective standard, different from that which is done between a man and a woman.
What is more, one begs to ask of these Tony Marlowes and Peregrine Worsthornes and Paul Johnsons, have the guts to Enquire Within. Ask yourselves what thoughts go through your head when you masturbate. If the physical act and its detail is so much more important to you than love, then see a doctor, but don’t spew out your sickness in column-inches, it isn’t nice, it isn’t kind, it isn’t Christian.
And if the best you can do is quote the Bible in defence of your prejudice, then have the humility to be consistent. The same book that exhorts against the abomination of one man lying with another also contains exhortations against the eating of pork and shell-fish and against menstruating women daring to come near holy places. It’s no good functionalistically claiming that kosher diet had its local, meteorological purposes now defunct, or that the prejudice against ovulation can be dispensed with as superstition, the Bible that you bash us with tells you that much of what you do is unclean: don’t pick and choose with a Revealed Text – or if you do, pick and choose the good bits, the bits that say things like ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, or ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’.
And please, whatever you do, don’t tell us that what we do, either in love or lust, is unnatural. For one thing if what you mean by that is that animals don’t do it, then you are quite simply in factual error.
There are plenty of activities or qualities we could list that are most certainly unnatural if you are so mad as to think that humans are not part of nature, or so dull-witted as to believe that ‘natural’ means ‘all natures but human nature’: mercy, for example, is unnatural, an altruistic, non-selfish care and love for other species is unnatural; charity is unnatural, justice is unnatural, virtue is unnatural, indeed – and this surely is the point – the idea of virtue is unnatural, within such a foolish, useless meaning of the word ‘natural’. Animals, poor things, eat in order to survive: we, lucky things, do that too, but we also have Abbey Crunch biscuits, Armagnac, selle d’agneau, tortilla chips, sauce béarnaise, Vimto, hot buttered crumpets, Chateau Margaux, ginger-snaps, risotto nero and peanut-butter sandwiches – these things have nothing to do with survival and everything to do with pleasure, connoisseurship and plain old greed. Animals, poor things, copulate in order to reproduce: we, lucky things, do that too, but we also have kinky boots, wank-mags, leather thongs, peep-shows, statuettes by Degas, bedshows, Tom of Finland, escort agencies and the Journals of Anaïs Nin – these things have nothing to do with reproduction and everything to do with pleasure, connoisseurship and plain old lust. We humans have opened up a wide choice of literal and metaphorical haute cuisine and junk food in many areas of our lives, and as a punishment, for daring to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden, we were expelled from the Eden the animals still inhabit and we were sent away with the two great Jewish afflictions to bear as our penance: indigestion and guilt.
I will apologise for many things that I have done, but I will not apologise for the things that should never be apologised for. It is a little theory of mine that has much exercised my mind lately, that most of the problems of this silly and delightful world derive from our apologising for those things which we ought not to apologise for, and failing to apologise for those things for which apology is necessary.
For example none of the following is shameful or deserves apology, in spite of our suicidal attempts to convince ourselves otherwise:
- To possess a rectum, a urethra and a bladder and all that pertain thereto.
- To cry.
- To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually attractive.
- To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually unattractive.
- To insert things in one’s mouth, anus or vagina for the purpose of pleasure.
- To masturbate as often as one wishes. Or not.
- To swear.
- To be filled with sexual desires that involve objects, articles or parts of the body irrelevant to procreation.
- To fart.
- To be sexually unattractive.
- To love.
- To ingest legal or illegal drugs.
- To smell of oneself and one’s juices.
- To pick one’s nose.
I spend a lot of time tying knots in my handkerchief reminding myself that those are things not to be ashamed of, so long as they are not performed in sight or sound of those who would be pained – which also holds true of Morris dancing, talking about Terry Pratchett and wearing velour and many other harmless human activities. Politeness is all.
But, I fear I spend far too little time apologising for or feeling ashamed about things which really do merit sincere apology and outright contrition.
- Failing to imagine what it is like to be someone else.
- Pissing my life away.
- Dishonesty with self and others.
- Neglecting to pick up the phone or write letters.
- Not connecting made or processed objects with their provenance.
- Judging without facts.
- Using influence over others for my own ends.
- Causing pain.
I will apologise for faithlessness, neglect, deceit, cruelty, unkindness, vanity and meanness, but I will not apologise for the urgings of my genitals nor, most certainly, will I ever apologise for the urgings of my heart. I may regret those urgings, rue them deeply and occasionally damn, blast and wish them to hell, but apologise – no: not where they do no harm. A culture that demands people apologise for something that is not their fault: that is as good a definition of a tyranny as I can think of. We British are not, praise the Lord, in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany or Baptist Alabama, but that does not mean, and has never meant, that we must therefore reside in the fields of Elysium.
Excerpted from Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry. Copyright © Stephen Fry, 1997. All rights reserved.
Stephen Fry is a leading light in film, theatre, radio and television the world over. As a writer, producer, director, actor and presenter he has featured in works as varied as the movie ‘Wilde’, the TV series ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Jeeves and Wooster’, the sketch show ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’, the panel game ‘QI’, the radio series ‘Fry’s English Delight’, Shakespeare’s Globe’s celebrated 2012 production of ‘Twelfth Night’ (as Malvolio) and documentaries on countless subjects. He is also the bestselling author of four novels – ‘The Stars’ Tennis Balls’, ‘Making History’, ‘The Hippopotamus’ and ‘The Liar’ – as well as two volumes of autobiography – ‘Moab is My Washpot’ and ‘The Fry Chronicles’, which published in six unique editions that combined to sell over a million copies. His third volume of autobiography, ‘More Fool Me’, is published in September 2014.
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