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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage