Stephen Fry on QI, religion, knowledge and why Sherlock Holmes was wrong

"The beauty of the brain is that you can be as greedy as you like for knowledge and it doesn’t show"

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Knowledge is power, said Francis Bacon, so Stephen Fry has the whip hand over Radio Times. That’s because among the Bodleian Library of facts, quotations and ephemera Fry has cached in his almost visibly pulsating brain, right now there is one thing he knows with more conviction than any other: he will not be giving an interview to Radio Times.

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Fry does not read newspapers. He says he hasn’t for years and now it seems he has given up talking to them. Not that RT is a newspaper, but we’re all tarred with the same brush: being beastly to Stephen. “I’m sorry, I don’t do print interviews,” he explains politely, while fiddling with his latest toy, his Blackberry Z10 (or is it his iPhone 5, or Samsung Galaxy SIII or LG Nexus 4? He has them all). “I say one thing and then another appears. It’s just not worth it.”

For a man who has given up talking to the press, we know a lot about him. He has written two volumes of cracking autobiography (and still only reached the end of his 20s – there are another 25 years to cover), he has a Twitter feed followed by over six million, he blogs like a man possessed and has his own website that’s visited by more than his Twitter hordes. And he is never off the television. Somewhere down the on-screen TV guide QI, the Quite Interesting quiz he hosts, is always playing, as if on a permanent loop – the latest 16-part series starts next week on BBC2, themed around the letter ‘K’ – and that’s not to mention his occasional documentaries on everything from the City of London to the Amazonian manatee to being loudly and proudly “90 per cent gay”.

A week after we meet he will confess to an attempt at “self slaughter” during a bout of depression (he suffers from cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder) and soon after that he will start a one-man campaign to force the IOC to move the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi because of Moscow’s growing reputation for clamping down on gay rights. He really is very voluble about a lot of things. But not to RT.

Eventually we reach an accommodation. I shall ask questions that begin with the letter “K” – just like the show – and restrict myself to questioning Fry on Knowledge.

As we sit side by side on the photographer’s sofa he launches into answers as if giving an interview was absolutely the only thing in the world he wanted to do, sweeping his hair to one side with a trademark nervous tic. He is a very big man, fidgeting with energy. Physically tall – 6ft 4in – nose spread across his face like a heavyweight champ, with middle-aged paunch pressing at the buttons of a shiny blue shirt. “As I age, my metabolism slows down to the extent that I seem to put on more weight the less I eat – and it shows,” he says, his luxuriant sentences pouring forth like honey from a jar. “The beauty of the brain is that you can still be as greedy as you like for knowledge and it doesn’t.”

As he settles into the sofa, he has the air of a gentleman don, or perhaps, thanks to his bright shirt and beneficent smile, a Church of England bishop relaxing with a sherry after evensong.

“My favourite quotation, which would surprise some, is from the late Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury when I was a boy – my mother always used to say, ‘Do you know he’s the same age as Cary Grant?’ – and he was accounted a very wise man. When asked to define wisdom he said, ‘Wisdom is the ability to cope.’ There are people from the Kalahari desert to the Arctic wastes who may not know much, but they can cope and are wise. But knowledge is very different.”

Launching into roundabout answers, tossing in allusions and quotations, some of which are so obscure I later struggle to source them (if he was making this stuff up, who’d know?), there really is no stopping him once he starts talking.

“Sherlock Holmes professed complete ignorance about the components of the universe. He said, ‘What difference does it make to me whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun goes around the earth? It makes no difference to me or my work.’

Holmes believes the mind is like an attic room. All the information must be stored neatly and tidily, and if you fill it up with excess lumber you won’t be able to get to the things you need. Well, I think, both experientially and neurologically, that he’s completely wrong!”

Does he never lose a fact under excess lumber? “I do have a theory that – like with age, when it hurts a bit more to pick something up – sometimes to retrieve a memory takes a bit longer than it used to.”

Now 55, some might say Fry has had it easy, enjoying the fruits of a classically privileged education – Uppingham public school, Queen’s College Cambridge, admittedly with a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Pucklechurch Prison sandwiched in between (he stole one of his parents’ friend’s credit cards as a teenager). “When people say, ‘I haven’t had a classical education so I don’t know who Sisyphus was…’ I can assure you, nobody I was at school with did, either! You have already made the mistake of blaming the school, and it’s like saying, ‘I had a terrible geography master, so I hate the Lake District.’ But that’s what people say about Shakespeare.”

As a child growing up in rural Norfolk he read voraciously and he has been picking up books – he currently has 11 on the go – and facts ever since. “Being isolated in the country as a child, having asthma and chronic insomnia, I spent my time just reading and reading. My father was a physicist and my mother is a ferocious reader, so the house was full of books and there was a mobile library that ame to us every second Thursday… I was incredibly fortunate, as someone who is regarded as being fond of gadgetry, which I am, to grow up in a world without any! I didn’t have a television in my bedroom; all I had was books and a light!”

Is there anything he doesn’t know?

“People often tell me that I shouldn’t call myself an atheist, I should call myself an agnostic because I can’t know there isn’t a God, and therefore I must be agnostic. Bertrand Russell answered this one brilliantly many years ago. He said [adopting silly voice as he paraphrases], ‘Many things are beyond the realm of absolute knowledge in any sense, but let me put it to you that there is a teapot orbiting Venus in such a manner that we will never be able to see it. It is obscured from our vision. Now, if someone were to tell me that there were such a teapot, I could not demonstrate to them that they were wrong, but I would be perfectly within the limits of orthodox practice and sense and, I would say, philosophical rectitude, if I were to base my life, perfectly happy, in the belief and certain knowledge, as certain as knowledge as can be, that there is no teapot revolving Venus. And that is why I call myself an atheist.”

Perhaps religion is merely an accumulation of knowledge born of human experience, of how to live the good life, rather than a way of explaining the origins of the universe. Isn’t that what Archbishop Ramsey was getting at? “No, he’s not saying knowledge is wisdom; he’s saying that wisdom is the ability to cope. There are people in the Kalahari desert who are wise. They might not know anything of what we think of as knowledge, or much of it… they might not know the component theory of the universe, for example – but that doesn’t mean they can’t cope… there have always been wise people who are ignorant.”

How about closer to home? Does he think Britain is awash in a sea of ignorance? “Knowledge is always driven by thirst, you see. You may think someone who hasn’t heard of Marie Curie is ignorant but if you talk to them about Spurs, they will suddenly come out with a detailed knowledge and understanding of their love of football which shows their brain is filled with the things they want it filled with. Now the problem, as a society, is that we are perfectly happy for people to fill their brains with stuff about Spurs, but the crying shame of it is all these beautiful minds in the world are not being given enough to engage on.”

Is that the schools’ fault? “Yes! But don’t blame the teachers – Jesus, I wouldn’t blame the teachers for anything, it’s the most extraordinary thing they do [Fry taught at a prep school during his student holidays]. They are currently undertaking a comparative study of French and British primary education, and the French come out so much better. French schoolchildren, if you see them, are so much more well-behaved and engaged in what they are doing, and concentrating. Admittedly the French economy is in a bit of a mess at the moment but they are, I think, generally speaking, demonstrably a better-educated race.

“A lot of it is at the right age, somehow getting that gear, that cog fitting that excites a child, that makes them feel pleased with themselves for achieving and for knowing.” Perhaps he thinks education secretary Michael Gove is onto something with his proposal to create a school curriculum full of facts? “I think he’s absolutely onto something. I don’t think he means knowledge for utilitarian purposes – or I hope he doesn’t.”

Some would say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing… “I should remember the full quotation, really!” he jumps in, unable to stop himself. “It’s Pope, isn’t it? ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring…’ Don’t sip at it, I think is what it means. In a sense, yes, of course, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to bomb defusing. There are things when you have to know the full package. But knowing a bit about the Jacobite revolution isn’t dangerous.”

Actor, writer, quizmaster, comedian… what could he have done if he had concentrated? “As Oscar Wilde said, if you know what you want to be, you will become it – that is your punishment. If you know you want to be a judge or a soldier or a grocer or a lawyer, you will become one. But if you never know what you want to be, what he calls the dynamic or artistic life, then every day you will be different and that is your reward! For some people, of course, that punishment is a reward and that reward is a punishment.”

Is that how he has lived his life? “Not deliberately, but it seems so. It’s just that there are some of us – and maybe it’s to do with mental illness – who just can’t be a particular thing. Fenollosa reduced it to the phrase, “We are not nouns, we are verbs.” You don’t say, “I’m a manic depressive,” you say, “I’ve got bipolar disorder.” I’ve got. I know it’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing, too, because that’s us – we are changing, forever.”

And here endeth the lesson. It may be Stephen Fry’s final interview, but it’s clearly not his last word. Thank God – or is it a teapot? – for that. Without his extraordinary mind, television would be a less interesting place.

QI returns on Sunday at 10:00pm on BBC2


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