Dabbler Diary – A Multitude of Idiots

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I saw Stephen Fry’s anti-God rant and felt a burst of sympathy for the man. His stance – being very angry with something that he believes nonexistent – is a nonsensical one which usually means the angry person is really angry with Christians, either for being so stupid as to worship an evil God, or for attempting to force an evil God on them. But Christians haven’t been doing the latter in Britain for a long time, or not to any effect. And I can’t believe it has never occurred to Fry that people turn to religion precisely because they see the world is so full of pain and misery, and seek consolation and meaning thereby – he isn’t, I don’t think, a complete idiot (and in fairness he is directly asked what he would say if it were all true and he turned up at the Pearly Gates).

But he is a startlingly conflicted person, this being apparent in almost everything he has ever done. He ends his rant by claiming, against all the evidence of his own life, that an atheist’s life is ‘purer, cleaner, more worth living’. He wants to be an outsider, a causer of outrage, a modern Wilde; and yet he is also the snuggly embodiment of Beebish, Baftery, Establishment culture. You can just see him following up some foam-flecked fulmination about ‘capricious, mean-minded stupid God’ with a cosy afternoon tea with the Archbish.

He constantly utters things and then satirises his own utterings. It takes him ten minutes to give a ten-second answer to a question because of all his qualifyings and backtrackings. His love of Wodehouse betrays a deep nostalgia for an England whose values he loathes. His Twitter career betrays his dramatically ambivalent attitudes to celebrity and privacy.

 On QI he makes very crude jokes and then instantly admonishes himself and squirms with shame (contrast Jimmy Carr, who knows he is horrible and beams with pride at his own outrages). It is well documented that he suffers from bipolar disorder, but this is a different kind of thing – nobody could help but observe that intellectually Fry is a man continually at war with himself. As I said, Fry is not a complete idiot; rather, he’s two or three or five idiots, all arguing with each other.

But aren’t we all? I like Stephen Fry, though he is so very annoying. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes… Multitudes of idiots.


 Talking of which, while sussing out the competition, Worm discovered a (very nicely designed) blog called Ernest. Its mission statement (‘Meet Ernest’) introduces the concept of ‘slow journalism’ and is surely the high water mark of hipster tweeness, making any attempt at parody irrelevant:

Ernest is a blog, iPad magazine and biannual printed journal for curious and adventurous gentlefolk…It is a periodical of substance created for folk who love to build fires, embark on road trips, camp under a canopy of stars and run full pelt into the sea. Ernest appeals to those of us who appreciate a craft gin cocktail as much as a hearty one-pot supper, who love the grain of wood and the smell of paper, who’d like to learn how fly fish, brew beer in their shed and name all the constellations of the northern hemisphere. It is for people who like to whittle.


That’s right. It is for people
who like



We were delighted for Terry Stiastny – friend to this site and occasional Dabbler – when her novel Acts of Omission won the fiction category at the Political Book Awards the other week. I blagged a ticket and was surprised and delighted to find that the guest list included more or less every single political wonk, pundit, gobshite and Parliamentary grandee you can think of. Not wishing to drop any names, but (and with that you are surely now preparing yourself for an avalanche of them, and rightly so), I mingled with the likes of Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr, John Rentoul, Matthew Parris, Alan Johnson, Baroness Trumpington, Charles Clarke, Lord Adonis, Isabel Hardman, Hugo Rifkind, Michael Crick, Julia Hartley-Brewer, various non-political opening-of-an-envelope types like Mary Beard and Peter York and countless others whose names were on the tip of my tongue. I say ‘mingled’, in fact I mostly just wriggled grinning around the throng, earwigging shamelessly. Nick Cohen approached and I remarked truthfully that he looked very slim. For this he kissed me firmly on the ear, and that whole nasty business about the mini-roundabout was forgiven. It was, for a political geek, like being at the Oscars.

But then, later, as I recounted the evening to others, it fully dawned on me just how esoteric the Westminster Bubble really is. These people supposedly have tens of thousands of Twitter followers and are on telly and in the papers all the time; in some cases have held great offices of state. And yet, with the exception of Andrew Marr, and some bell-tinkling accompanying the name of Andrew Neil, nobody I told had heard of any of them.


After the afterparty I caught the last train out of Paddington – the 11.30pm to Taunton. Full of free champagne and nibbles, I settled down for an anticipated journey of delicious dozing interrupted by sudden, single snores that would jerk me awake. So I was dismayed to find the table next to me occupied at the last minute by a quartet of jolly lawyers. They were London lawyers who lived in or around Bath, and as their conversation went on (this time my eavesdropping was unintentional, but no less interesting) it became apparent that they belonged to a select breed, a breed much rarer than is generally supposed: they were genuine, full-bodied workaholics.

They were each very different-seeming people – equally representing both sexes and in age four different decades – but they were united by a sharp intelligence and by limitless reserves of energy. It seemed to be perfectly normal for them to arrive home at 1.30am and be back in the office in London by 7.30 the same morning. The three older ones had children, and the youngest had two horses, which she had to tend to that night before going to bed. For a while I’ve kidded myself that I’m a productive sort of person with a strong work ethic. But these Magic Circle commutaholics are from another planet.


Amidst the hype surrounding Harper Lee‘s unexpected ‘prequel’ to To Kill a Mockingbird there are some people striking a more cautious note.

The blog Lawyers, Guns and Money notes that the statement put out by Lee announcing that “after much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication” was in all likelihood written by her lawyer Tonja Carter. The blog adds:

In an interview with NPR last year the author of The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills, noted that the blind and deaf Lee — who recently suffered a stroke — often signs any document put in front of her by Carter.

I know everyone is very excited to read this sequel/prequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have a feeling that something very sad precipitated this novel’s publication, and that it involves taking advantage of an elderly woman.


The best band of the Britpop movement were Supergrass, who continued to put out albums of increasing quality and craftmanship long after their moment in the sun had gone and fashion had forgotten them. This has now been confirmed with the release of Matador by their former frontman Gaz Coombes – a record of rare quality and sublime musicianship which has rightly been greeted with rave reviews in the press. Mrs B and I went along on Wednesday night to the tiny, grubby Fleece to watch his first gig warming up the Matador set, and I was delighted but not surprised to see a familiar figure right at the front of the crowd. He is a very large man in his thirties with a great mop of curly yellow hair and he is always at every gig or musical event in Bristol.

More than that, he always dances, and he dances with incredible, Woodstock hippie-like vigour: head shaking, arms waving, eyes closed in a transport of rock ecstasy – not just in the encores when everyone else does, but literally from the first drumbeat of the first support act. It is almost as if he is the only person who can actually hear the music, and the rest of us are just listening through a glass darkly (as it were).

We got chatting with gig-goers around us about the times we’d seen him. I recounted how he’d been at the Suede gig and had actually been picked out and personally thanked by Brett Anderson, and then that not long after I’d seen him freaking out at an afternoon jazz festival outside a pub. A chap called Will claimed to have seen him dancing with equal enthusiasm to a string quartet in Queens Square. A lady called Harriett said that his name was Big Jeff, and that there was a film about him (adding that ‘everyone who goes to gigs in Bristol knows Big Jeff’ – a barb which Will and I allowed to pass). I found the film here.

The film casts a new, poignant light on Big Jeff. He is not on drugs, as one would assume. Nor even drink. At one point he says that he dances at gigs because he’s frightened to talk to people. But of course he must by his presence have brought hundreds and hundreds of people like me and Will and Harriett together. Indeed, there is now a sense that a gig without Big Jeff isn’t a proper gig at all, and I have a terrible feeling that if Big Jeff ever stops dancing at Bristol gigs, then that will be the day the music finally dies. Except of course, it never does.

But shine on, Big Jeff, and shake your yellow afro with pride. We are a multitude of idiots and even a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God knows someone needs to stand above the crowd.


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21 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – A Multitude of Idiots

  1. February 9, 2015 at 09:48

    Thank you for introducing us to the world of Big Jeff. I thought the film was very well done – respectful towards its subject and quietly moving.

    As for Stephen Fry, I think he’s in danger of becoming the Peter Ustinov of our time – a brilliant chat show guest who leaves nothing behind of any enduring value.

    • Brit
      February 9, 2015 at 16:48

      The Big Jeff doc completely changed the way I thought about him – it was very humanising. I do think it could have spent a bit more time on exactly why he goes to so many gigs though – its practically every night. And also how he affords it. I suspect some sort of parental/guardian financial assistance. There’s a lot more to his story, I reckon.

      • bob.vond@yahoo.com'
        Bob Vond
        February 12, 2015 at 09:31

        I’ve put on a load of gigs in Bristol – Big Jeff’s name’s always on the door.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 9, 2015 at 10:21

    Dr Jeykll and Mr Fry. Internal divisions caused by conflicting devils, creative and destructive in equal measure, who wins can determine destiny. Arriving at the destination one smiles, breathes out, and thinks ‘is that all there is.’

    • Brit
      February 9, 2015 at 16:51

      One thing I forgot to mention in my list of Fry self-conflicts is his Wagner obsession. He made a TV documentary specifically about his inner conflict over whether it was ok for him, given his Jewish extraction, to love Wagner.

      And now I’ve also remembered that I once praised Fry somewhere (on Appleyard’s blog?) for saying, correctly, that ‘whatever you try to say about America the opposite is also true’. To which Nige (I think) replied ‘Whatever you try to say about Stephen Fry, the opposite is also true.’

  3. Worm
    February 9, 2015 at 10:22

    The earnest blurb could be employed as an effective emetic that’s for certain. Funny how in the case of Earnest lack of guile is annoying but in the case of Big Jeff it’s excellent.

    Love guys like Big Jeff. We should all be thankful for the Big Jeffs of this world. There’s a facebook page and various other things online for Leamington Spa’s version of the same – a silent chap just known everywhere as ‘Rio’s Guy’

    • Brit
      February 9, 2015 at 16:53

      If Big Jeff wasn’t so huge (must be 6ft4 or 5) and had such distinctive hair, he wouldn’t be recognised everywhere. Makes you wonder how many equally eccentric but unnoticed Little Dark Unobtrusive Daves there are out there…

      • bob.vond@yahoo.com'
        Bob Vond
        February 12, 2015 at 09:33

        He’s not that tall but does have very tall hair.

        • Brit
          February 12, 2015 at 10:14

          Six ft two plus three inches of hair, would you say Bob?

          • bob.vond@yahoo.com'
            Bobn Vond
            February 12, 2015 at 10:56

            Let’s be accurate eh? 6’1” & 4” of hair. I’m 6′ 4” without my Michael Cole bouff. Jeff is a very nice bloke but as people’ve commented terribly shy.

  4. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    February 9, 2015 at 10:52

    How much time did Fry spend preparing for that? Five seconds? In this era of Dawkins Man, there is no need to wrestle with the contradictions and ambiguities that consumed sages past. Just point to something gruesome and Bob’s your uncle. Theodicy for the busy lawyer on the 11:30 pm to Taunton.

    I’d love to see some learned theologian with the moxie to go on Irish public TV in reply and, in response to the same question, answer “I’d say ‘Good job, Mate’. I mean, pub lunches, full moons, bunny rabbits…what’s not to like?”

    • Brit
      February 9, 2015 at 16:54

      It’s straight outta Dawkins, innit. Memorised a passage of The God Delusion.

  5. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    February 9, 2015 at 23:30

    OK, I’m an American and used to a different set of pundits, but still I knew exactly one of the names you dropped, namely Mary Beard. (I have in fact heard of a Matthew Paris, but that Matthew Paris died about 750 years ago.) And there really is somebody named Lord Adonis?

    • Brit
      February 10, 2015 at 09:34

      Indeed there is, but sadly he’s not like you’d imagine.

  6. robert.mackay11@btinternet.com'
    Jane Mackay
    February 10, 2015 at 06:24

    Julie Burchill denies authorship, but I love the description of Stephen Fry generally attributed to her: ‘A stupid person’s idea of a clever person’.

    • Brit
      February 10, 2015 at 09:33

      Yes, it’s exceptionally cutting and vicious all round, isn’t it? Even if it wasn’t Burchill it’s certainly the kind of thing she’d delight in coming up with.

      • bob.vond@yahoo.com'
        Bob Vond
        February 12, 2015 at 09:34

        I thought it was Jonathan Meades.

        • February 12, 2015 at 15:03

          I think the original coiner of the phrase was Willie Donaldson, in The Dictionary of National Celebrity. The book was co-written and completed after his death by Hermione Eyre, so perhaps she takes the credit.

          • Brit
            February 12, 2015 at 16:21

            Recusant agrees with that claim, Frank. Unfortunately the comments weren’t working yesterday so his comment to that effect didn’t appear.

  7. law@mhbref.com'
    Jonathan Law
    February 10, 2015 at 17:30

    Whoever applied the phrase to Fry was adapting Elizabeth Bowen on Aldous Huxley:

    Mr. Huxley has been the alarming young man for a long time, a sort of perpetual clever nephew who can be relied on to flutter the lunch-party … He is at once the truly clever person and the stupid person’s idea of the clever person.

    (from an essay published in 1936)

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