It was in King’s Lynn that I swam into the orbit of a most extraordinary circle of intellectuals who met regularly in the bar of a small hotel and discussed avidly the works of Frederick Rolfe, the infamous Baron Corvo. The very fact that I had heard of him made me welcome in the circle. These men and women, who were led by a bespectacled fellow called Chris and a glamorously half-French Baron called Paul, held regular Paradox Parties. Instead of a pass¬word or a bottle, the only way to gain entry to such a party was to offer at the door a completely original paradox. Paul, whose father was the French honorary consul (for King’s Lynn is a port), could play the piano excellently, specialising in outré composers like Alkan and Sorabji, although he was also capable of delighting me with Wolf and Schubert Lieder. He was planning, like Corvo, to become a Roman priest. Also like Corvo, he failed in his attempt, unlike Corvo however he did not descend into bitterness and resentment but became finally an Anglican priest, which suited him better, despite his ancestry... This group regularly produced a magazine called The Failiure Press (the spelling is deliberate) to which I contributed a regular crossword. A deal of The Failiure Press was written in the New Model Alphabet, which would take up far too much space for me to explain, but which nearly always looked like this ‘phaij phajboo ajbo jjjbo’ and took a great deal of deciphering to the initiated. In its early days it was light-hearted, occasionally amusing, and always self-consciously intellectual. ..In a town like King’s Lynn, such spirits were rare and it was amongst this group that I found my temporary best friend, and indeed first and only real girlfriend...For my sixteenth birthday she gave me a beautiful green and gold 1945 edition of Oscar Wilde’s Intentions, which I have to this day, and a damned good fuck, the memory of which is also with me still. STEPHEN FRY / 'Moab is my Washpot'.
THE FAILIURE PRESS. Privately Printed, King's Lynn 1973 +
I remember reading about the Failiure Press in 'Moab is my Washpot' and making a note to look out for these elusive ephemeroids. Recently I found 4 issues, 2 of which had crosswords by the 16 year old Fry, who by the evidence of his clues was already a prodigy and a polymath. Unless he contributed to some school mag at Uppingham this represents his first work in print--what the bibliographers call B1. The second issue has his first crossword and the third issue has the solutions and the second crossword. I have the first issue, fascinating but Fry free, the above two and an odd issue from April 1975. Stephen Fry writes that the magazine went on well after his brief involvement and '...plunged into a weird libertarian frenzy of polemical anti-Semitism, gall and bitterness: the title had ever been a hostage to fortune or self-fulfilling prophecy. In its early days it was light-hearted, occasionally amusing, and always self-consciously intellectual.'
It is certainly a very odd mag full of jokes, parodies, reviews of King's Lynn pubs, fake letters from Evelyn Waugh, Brian Aldiss etc. Baron Corvo is at the heart of it and there are genuine letters from intellectual priests like Brocard Sewell (taking issue with Donald Weeks) and the concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houdedard. There are poems and limericks in the New Model Alphabet, a crazed system reducing the alphabet to 13 letters to represent the 13 persons at the Last Supper - A B G H J K O P R S T and numbers 1 AND 5. Its problem seems to be that unless you are reading something you have just written you are unlikely to be able to decipher it. It is attributed to Viscount Luthor and in the issues I have New Model Alphabet writings probably represents less than 10% of the content. Corvo is 20% +--these were the times when Corvomania swept the cities and the fens. There is much whimsy and esoterica. The editorial in the first issue laments the lack of experimental or adventurous writing in current magazines like OZ and I.T. ('stylistic bankruptcy and bop mediocrity') and declares--
"...We will be as idiosyncratic, as paraliterary, as corvological, as quite other than uniform, and as quintessentially informed as we can and please. As usual, we are quite serious. Schopenhauer said: He who writes for fools will find a large audience; we will not underestimate ours!"There follows a spoof message from Pope Paul VI at Castelgandolfo granting the readers of the magazine a plenary indulgence at the hour of death. To be continued with an examination of Stephen F's damnably difficult and surreal crosswords. Try this (7 letters) 'the way someone uneducated smokes a cigar nonchalantly.' Answer tomorrow or soonish..