The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry

th3The novel only elicited a brief discussion on this occasion, which could only be considered as general apathy towards the book.

There was a focus on the supposed ‘author’ of the story, the has-been poet and general misogynist, Ted Wallace, with one member voicing his unabashed hatred of him. Another wanted to like the character but felt he lost the point of him; suggesting that, just as the character got into his stride, he became diverted. Ted’s rambling and often tangential letters were used as a prime example of this. Other members however quite liked him, finding him fun and charming, despite him living in a moral swamp. One member found their fondness of the character increased as the novel went on.

Surprisingly, the nuclear character of the novel, Davey, didn’t provoke much comment, other than one member joking that Christianity would be a completely different religion if Jesus had healed using the same methods as Davey. Although reference was made to the perhaps not so coincidental appropriation of a rather infamous publicity agent’s name, most other characters that featured in the book failed to receive a mention.

However, the mischievous, high-camp of Oliver was singled out for vitriol, with one member claiming to have hated the character, with specific reference made to the alliterative names he gives to nouns. Making reference to one of the group’s previous books, Queens by Pickles, a member countered that characters such as Oliver do exist in real life, despite being of another era.

The style of the novel prompted comparisons to other authors, with one member referring to its spoofing of Waugh as entertaining. Another member added that the stories of another notable influence on Fry, P G Wodehouse, only tend to run no further than a couple of hundred pages; it was considered a long book for a short story. Perhaps more surprisingly, Jilly Cooper, whom I suspect is not a monumental influence on Fry, was also referenced as a stylistic bedfellow, with one member claiming the novel was a cross between a Jilly Cooper Story and Downton Abbey; a curious notion.

Whilst one member enjoyed the epistolary nature of the novel, feeling it showed a command of the plot, the Agatha Christie style ‘reveal’ at the end of the book however wasn’t appreciated.

The light treatment of weighty topics such as bestiality and, with what is essentially statutory rape, was noted and it was felt that these matters could have been explored in a manner more befitting of the gravitas associated with these crimes.

Despite the majority of the group recognising the author as quite the wordsmith, one member felt Fry was too verbose in the novel, used too much heightened vocabulary and that the turns of phrase he employed was very specific to England and therefore the entire meaning of what was written was not fully understood.

The first instalment of Fry’s auto-biography, Moab is My Washpot and his semi-autobiographical debut novel, The Liar, were discussed briefly, with a member noting that, whilst his autobiographical work is moving, this novel was just titillating. Continuing with the autobiographical theme; the side story of Lord Logan’s father being a Hungarian sugar beet specialist rings true with Fry’s own maternal grandparents who also grew sugar beet in Hungary.

TH2The authenticity of the protagonist’s voice was raised and a member questioned whether it was believable, or just another conduit for Fry’s projections of the self, in the vein of his alter-ego, the Cambridge professor, Donald Trefusis. It is certainly difficult to entirely forget you’re reading Fry, to disassociate the novel from the author; being that it’s written in such a familiar manner.

One member reaction to the novel was with a ‘hurrumphing’ placing down of the book. Another member’s reaction was ‘so what’, feeling they had not had an ‘experience’ by reading it. Other members went as far as claiming the book to be ‘pointless’, a ‘sustained joke’ and ‘pompous’. Pertinently, the member who suggested the book, having read it originally quite a number of years ago, found it disappointing and not as humorous as they had first time round. It was recognised that the novel had some relevance, but it was questioned what relevance it would have when it’s another 25 years older: “We live in arse-paralysingly drear times”…


There are times when you envy faggotry, and times when you don’t. At least we plain old hetters never have to set up house with clerks and welders and shop assistants. Call me a snob and call me unkind, but how Oliver can bear the idea of ignor­ant dull-witted oafs from Clapham or Camberwell farting in his bed and scratching their balls in front of his cheval-glass, I cannot imagine.

How much do you know about computers? A great deal more than me, I should imagine. The machine I’m using at the moment is the first I have ever touched. I think of it really as no more than a socially ambitious type-writer. It belongs to Simon and has been transported to my room together with its printer and a simply baroque quantity of cabling. It lives on the writing-desk and hums irritably like the engine-room of a submarine. When I haven’t used it for a while the monitor succumbs to a fit and gaudily coloured fish swim quietly to and fro across the screen, which eccentric mannerism I find strangely endearing. The computer has a device attached to it called a MOUSE, on account of the squeaking noise it makes when it is grabbed and rubbed along a hard surface.

All I know about the use of the thing is that I have to SAVE all the time. This soterial requirement has no evangelical basis, but is s: me from accidentally erasing the thing typing.

Well, blow me down if I didn’t discover that JANE.2, my last letter to you, claimed that it was `Modified on 27/07/92 at 20.04′ — or five past eight yesterday evening. Now, I know for a fact that I was sucking down pre-dinner cocktails in the library with Rebecca, Oliver and Max at five past eight yester­day evening. I also know for a fact that I haven’t so much as looked at the computer since my marathon session on Friday and Saturday, the 24th and 25th…. This can only mean that SOMEBODY has read my last letter to you. This would never have happened if you’d allowed me to communicate in MANUSCRIPT (that’s English for handwriting).

Nowadays it would appear to be a flag of shame. Just because we like to take it up the Gary Glitter, darling, it doesn’t mean we have to grow fat to satisfy the fears of our friends.’

What do you want, blood? I am not one of those easy aristocratic types who can walk with kings nor lose the common touch. I’m a tight-arsed bourgeois masquerading as declasse. Give us a break, baby-doll.

`Well, for your information, my body is not something I offer around like a tray of canapes.’

“But you can’t argue that the world isn’t in an unhealthy moral state.”

“Wouldn’t think of it dearest. People lie, cheat, rape, swindle, kill, maim, torture and destroy. Bad thing. People also pop into bed together and cosy up. Good thing. If we think fucking is a sign of moral decay then we’re a little bit stupid-stupid, aren’t we?”
“In a dung heap, even a plastic bead can gleam like a sapphire.”
“When push-off comes to shove-off, a man must have a reason to get out of bed in the mornings, something more than the threat of bedsores, at any rate.”
“Cynical is the name we give those we fear may be laughing at us.”
“It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue”
“A month’s salary, deep regret, the telephone number of some foul rehab clinic and my lance was free.”
“Nobody seems to understand that in such matters the tact and sympathy should come from the one who is about to die, not the poor bugger who has to take the news.”
“If you spend your life on a moral hill-top, you see nothing but the mud below. If, like me, you live in the mud itself, you get a damned good view of clear blue sky and clean green hills above. There’s none so evil-minded as those with a moral mission, and none so pure in heart as the depraved.”
“Naturally I’ve known girlies form an attachment to the younger male before now, but in the tennis score of the bedroom most girls in my experience would rather Love Thirty or Love Forty than Love Fifteen. Men, of course, are a whole other issue; they start at Love All and stay there until they’re dragged from the court”
“I also knew that he was the kind of anile little runt who, in foyers and theatre bars the West End over, can be heard bleating into their gin and tonics, “I go to the theatre to be entertained.”
“[his healing skills] ..lay in the ability to comfort, to comfort in the proper sense, to make strong, to fortify”
“You want poetry, first you have to muck in with humanity, you have to fight with paper and pencil for weeks and weeks until your heart bleeds: verses aren’t channelled into your head by angels or muses or sprites of nature.”
“And he, despite the gallons of free whisky on offer, was wishing himself violently elsewhere.”
“The service took place on one of those afternoons that occur only in the past.”

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UTS3(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The start, straightforward gay cruiser looking for hitchhikers – except that it’s a woman and nothing is straightforward thereafter.

Set in northern Scotland, it traces an extraterrestrial who, manifesting in human form, drives around the Scottish countryside picking up male hitchhikers whom she drugs and delivers to her home planet where her compatriots mutilate and fatten them so that they can be turned into meat, as human meat, or “vodsel”, is a delicacy on the aliens’ barren homeworld.

The novel is darkly satirical. Its themes include sexism, big business, factory farming, and environmental decay; and reflects on more personal questions of sexual identity, humanity, snobbery, and mercy.

Isserley spends her spare time walking on the pebbled beach by her cottage, marveling at the beauty of Earth compared to her home world, where most beings are forced to live and toil underground, and the wealthy Elite live on the surface, but are still unable to tolerate being outside.

Eventually, she is raped by a hitchhiker, and is forced to kill him and leave his body. The experience shakes her, and she captures the next hitchhiker without interviewing him to assess the risk, failing to discover that she actually shares many inner thoughts with him, as well as the fact he would be missed by family (usually a key factor). In anger, she demands to see what happens to the vodsel during “processing,” where she watches as his tongue is cut out and he is castrated. Due to her claustrophobia of the subterranean structure, she has never seen this, and is shocked and disappointed at how fast it goes. She insists on seeing one actually killed and becomes hysterical at not being able to see the entire gruesome process.

Isserley is calmed down by Amlis, himself an Elite, whose beliefs are that vodsel should not be consumed, suggesting they are more similar to him and Isserley than she admits. After he departs to their home world, to share with their people what he had witnessed (the beauty of Earth, the treatment of vodsel), Isserley’s attitude changes. She begins to doubt her job, and is especially nonplussed after learning that others are more than willing to take her place. She captures one last victim, but feels guilty for doing so knowing that his dog has been left trapped in his van. Returning to where she found him, she frees the dog from the hitchhiker’s van.

Isserley decides to quit, and not return to the base of operations. She is forced to pick up one last hitchhiker, a man who insists on needing a ride to see his girlfriend give birth, and mentions reincarnation on the way. Driving faster than usual, Isserley gets into a car accident. Isserley’s body is essentially ruined while the hitchhiker is thrown through the window, still alive. Isserley ponders what will happen to her body, as she must activate an explosive that will destroy all evidence of the crash, and her. She thinks her atoms and particles will become dispersed in the environment and air, and is at peace with that. She then hits the switch.


“Shared suffering, she’d found, was no guarantee of intimacy.”
“Most distracting of all, though, was not the threat of danger but the allure of beauty.”
“The word troubled her, though. ‘Indispensable.’ It was a word people tended to resort to when dispensability was in the air.”
“The past was dwindling, like something shrinking to a speck in the rear-view mirror, and the future was shining through the windscreen, demanding her full attention.”
“she and they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?”
“In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, the couldn’t mesnishtil,they had no concept of slan.”
“They both sat in silence for the rest of the journey, as if conscious of having let each other down.”
“The variety of shapes, colours and textures under her feet was, she believed, literally infinite. It must be. Each shell, each pebble, each stone had been made what it was by aeons of submarine or subglacial massage. The indiscriminate, eternal devotion of nature to its numberless particles had an emotional importance for Isserley; it put the unfairness of human life into perspective.”
“Strange how a specimen like him, well cared for, healthy, free to roam the world, and blessed with a perfection of form which would surely have allowed him to breed with a greater selection of females than average, could still be so miserable. By contrast, other males, scarred by neglect, riddled with diseases, spurned by their kind, were occasionally known to radiate a contentment that seemed to arise from something more enigmatic than mere stupidity.”
“Needs could not bully her.”
“MERCY. It was a word she’d rarely encountered”
“Nothing happened, and time stubbornly refused to pass.”
“You know,’ Amlis went on, ‘Some water fell out of the sky not so long ago.’ His voice was a little higher than usual, vulnerable with awe. ‘It just fell out of the sky. In little droplets, thousands of them close together. I looked up to see where they were coming from. They seemed to be materializing out of nowhere. I couldn’t believe it. Then I opened my mouth to the sky. Some droplets fell straight in. It was an indescribable feeling. As if nature was actually trying to nurture me.”
“it was already tomorrow. She should have known from the beginning that it would end like this.”
“I sometimes think that the only things really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss.”
“Unreality was swirling all around her like the delirious miasmas”
“The indiscriminate, eternal devotion of nature to its numberless particles had an emotional importance for Isserley.

UTS2“ISSERLEY ALWAYS DROVE straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.”
“Isserley walked along the path the generations of sheep-flocks had made, up the tiers of the hill. In her mind, she was already”
“was a female. Isserley wasn’t interested in females, at least not in that way. Let them get picked up by someone else. If the hitcher was male, she usually went back for another look, unless he was an obvious weakling. Assuming he’d made a reasonable impression on her,”
“oh how she wondered, what she looked like to him, in his alien innocence.”
“The walls shrugged themselves loose from their foundations and slid towards the centre of the room, as if attracted by the struggle. The ceiling, a massive rectangular slab of concrete furrowed with fluorescent white, also shuddered loose and loomed bdown on her.”
“Their consciousness was rudimentary.”
“protective of his gleaming domain, beavering away in it alone like an obsessed scientist in a humid and luridly lit laboratory.”
“Vess Incorporated had simply dug them out of one hole and buried them in another”
“could indicate the cocky self-awareness of a male in prime condition.”
“behaving as if his actions didn’t need defending. Typical rich kid, typical pampered little tycoon. None of their actions ever needed defending, did they?”
“She couldn’t quite believe it, even after all these years. It was a phenomenon of stupendous and unjustifiably useless extravagance. Yet here it lay, soft and powdery, edibly pure.”
“Men! Armchair heroes the lot of them, while women were sent out to do the dirty work.”

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