Stephen Fry's documentary about gay life across the globe is unexpectedly absorbing

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

Stephen Fry: Out There
BBC2

I didn’t have high hopes for Stephen Fry’s two-part documentary about gay life across the globe. There’s some part of Fry that I can’t ever quite warm to and when, early in the first film (14 October, 9pm), he went off to see Elton John and David Furnish – cue the loud crunch of tyres on sweeping gravel – my heart sank.

It may well be true that, for Fry, Elton’s decision to come out was a “game-changing moment” but I can’t believe it was for many. Elton is another person to whom it’s rather hard to warm, for all his “bravery”, for all his fundraising white-tie balls. The clue to some of my distaste on this score lies, I think, in the words “white tie”. What do Elton and Furnish represent in our culture? The word that floats unbidden into my mind is “excess”. So kill me! I’m a puritan at heart – though not, I hasten to add, a sexual one.

After this, however, things picked up. The films were moving, absorbing and often blackly funny, and all praise to Fry, who managed to stay calm during several encounters that would have left me punching the walls. In Uganda, a country where politicians still hope to legislate against homosexuality, Fry enjoyed a bizarre conversation with a pastor who muttered darkly about carrots.

“Oh, gracious!” said Fry, mildly.

“You’re not using your penis the way you should use it!” continued the pastor, upping his game. “But I’m not interested in anuses and penises,” Fry said. He then listed his preferred sexual practices, none of which involved penetration. From the tone of his voice, he might as well have been reading aloud from the menu at the Garrick Club.

Next, to the US, the home of “reparative therapy”, which seeks to “cure” gay men of their urges. In Los Angeles, Fry met Joseph Nicolosi, the psychologist who is one of the technique’s leading lights and who believes that homosexuality is the result of childhood trauma. For a while, they batted the arguments (I use the word loosely when it comes to Nicolosi) back and forth. It was all a bit desultory, and I was worried; Fry seemed to be losing heart. But then a coy look moved over his face. Taking in Nicolosi’s tanned visage, carefully trimmed beard and surprisingly dark hair, he told the good clinician that his appearance was distinctly metrosexual: he could very easily pass for a gay man. Nicolosi, silent now, looked stunned; his mouth actually fell open a little. Goal!

I’m joking around, but in fact Nicolosi’s “therapies” are at best cruel and at worst dangerous. Fry’s second film (16 October, 9pm) ventured into more upsetting territory: in Brazil, a gay person is murdered every 36 hours; in Russia, it is illegal to “promote” homosexuality, a law that has far-reaching and monstrous consequences for the parents and children of gay people (who are “promoting” homosexuality by being alive); in India, the hijras (men who, broadly speaking, identify as women) are forced to live on the outer margins of society. Fry proved a kind and thorough reporter on these matters – though I wish he had not cried so often, which I found self-indulgent.

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

In Russia, nationalism has brought with it religious zealotry, incense seeping into the crevices of the political life, noxious as gas. Fry was granted an audience with Vitaly Milonov, a politician who has suggested that gay athletes could be arrested at next year’s Sochi Olympics. They spoke for some minutes. Milonov is training to be a priest, and kept going on about angels.

“How do you sleep at night?” asked Fry, exasperated. “I can sleep after I pray,” Milonov replied. Fry’s references to St Petersburg’s glorious past – he mentioned Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev, both of them gay – fell on deaf ears, which was hardly surprising.

I looked at Milonov, blunt as an old penknife, and tried to conjure his hinterland. I could see him lighting candles in an oniondomed church and I could see him rocking out to Deep Purple or Smokie (of Bradford, who are huge in Russia) as he drove home through snow-streaked boulevards. But I could no more picture this unthinking homunculus at the ballet than I could imagine him striding across the room and kissing Fry tenderly goodbye.

Stephen Fry outside the city parliament in St Petersburg, Russia. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit