America’s Place In The World

The Spectator Lecture, Royal Geographical Society, presented in London 30th April 2009

Here we are. Gathered together in the very lecture theatre where Henry Morton Stanley once told an enraptured world of his momentous meeting with Dr. Livingstone. Charles Darwin was a member and gave talks in this same hall. Sir Richard Burton lectured here and John Hanning Speke … spoke. Shackleton and Hillary displayed their intimate frostbite scars to a spellbound RGS audience. Explorers, adventurers and navigators have been coming here for the best part of 180 years to tell of their discoveries. If only at school, geography teachers, surely the most scoffed and pilloried class of pedagogue there is, if only they had concentrated less on rift valleys, trig points and the major exports of Indonesia and more on the fact that Geography could promise a classy royal society with the sexiest lecture theatre in the land – if only they had done that, then maybe cheap stand-up comedians and lazy cultural commentators would be less routinely scornful of geography teachers as a class and geography itself as a discipline, which is one I rather unfashionably enjoyed when I was young. Don’t ask me why. Actually, now that I think of it, one reason for me to be fond of the subject was the circumstance that in my prep school geography room there were piles and piles of shiny yellow National Geographic Magazines available for skimming through. These, with their glossy advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes, Cadillac sedans and Dimple whisky, gave me my first view outside television of what America might be like. But there was another reason religiously to scan the magazines…

National Geographic, before it became a ‘brand’ best known for an imbecilic and embarrassing suite of digital TV channels, was – thanks to its anthropological coverage in a pre-internet, pre-channel 4, pre-top shelf age – the only place where a curious boy could look at full colour pictures of naked people. For that alone it deserves the thanks of generations. One did get the false impression that many peoples of the world had protuberances shaped exactly like a gourd, but never mind.

National Geographic made films too, and at my school these would be run through an old Bell and Howell projector by the geography masters to keep us quiet and to give them time to beetle off and pursue their amorous liaisons with matron or the whisky bottle, depending on which teacher it was. ‘Fry, you’re in charge,’ they would never say on their way out. But what strange films they left us to watch. I seem to recall that the subjects were usually logging in Oregon, the life cycle of the beaver or the excitements to be found in the National Parks of Montana and Wyoming. Very blue skies, lots of spruce, larch and pine and plenty of plaid shirtings. The unreliable speed of that hot and dusty old Bell and Howell rendered the soundtrack and its music flat then sharp then flat again in rolling waves of discord, but it was the commentators that gave me raptures with their magisterially rich and rolling American rhetoric. What a peculiar way with language they had, employing poetical tricks that had been out of date a hundred years earlier. My favourite was the ‘be-’ game. If a word usually began with the prefix ‘be-‘ it was taken off . Thus ‘beneath’ became ‘neath’ and so on. But the ‘be’ of ‘beneath’ wasn’t simply thrown away. No no. It was recycled by adding it to words it had no business being anywhere near. Which would result in preposterous declamatory orotundities of this nature: “Neath the bedappled verdure of the mighty sequoia, sinks the bewestering sun,” and so forth. And what is the proper name for this rhetorical trope, also much deployed? It would start with the usual ‘be-‘ nonsense: “Neath becoppered skies bewends …” but then this “the silver ribbon of time that is the Colorado River.” The weird and senseless maze of metonym and metaphor that was National Geographic Speak in all its besplendour was a great influence on me, for where others had rock and roll music, I had language.

This is all a way of saying how pleased I am to be delivering this talk, this first ever Speccie Leccie, here in the temple, the palace, the very headquarters of geography. But it’s no good skirting the issue. This is not only an honour, it is also a great surprise. Not only to me, I would venture to suggest, but to the preponderance of Spectator readers around the land too. In fact not so much a surprise, more a deeply unpleasant shock. Acquit me of false modesty when I state that I take it as certain that when Mr. D’Ancona, the Spectator’s sappy young editor, announced to his readers (and I dare say to his staff) that he had chosen me to deliver the inaugural lecture there were many horrified screeches of startled disbelief and agonized howls of apoplectic protest. Surely persons such as I are exactly what the Spectator holds itself foursquare against? Am I not just about the Platonic form, paradigm and pattern card of everything the magazine was put on this earth to dispraise, damn and destroy? I am a crew member of that ship of fools, the sneering liberal elite, a cheerleader of the chattering classes, a loathsome Labour luvvie, a champagne socialist a – goddammit – a celebrity, a twittering celebrity dripping with the sickening syrup of popular culture, political correctness and nauseating kneejerk liberalism that is the leading symptom if not the primary cause of our national decay. It is as if all nature conspired to make a living suppurating mass, a walking purulent bolus compounded of all the poison and pus that oozes and weeps from the sores of today’s Britain and gave it legs, life and a name. Stephen Fry. Lo. Gaze upon him. Know your enemy. And it is he, he of all people, who has been chosen to give the inaugural Spectator Lecture. Eheu fugaces: o tempora o mores. Ichabod. The glory is departed.

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38 comments on “America’s Place In The World”

  1. Gertrude Susanne says:

    Actually, I came as close to being British as you did to being American. Sadly, my grandmother was only 17 years old and not allowed out of the country, to emigrate to the UK in 1938.

    What an impressive lecture, so much to take in! I shall have to read it a third and fourth time to grasp it all. Thank you very much for sharing a transcript of this lecture with those who were unable to attend.

  2. WIIIAI says:

    Very good but, er, it’s Tom Paine, not Tom Payne.

  3. elvis717 says:

    What an excellent lecture! As a half-American I fully appreciate and agree with Colonel Fry’s observations. Though I live in Europe, and have done so for more than half my life, I often feel the pull of the land of my birth, precisely because of its constant contradictions and delicious diversity. A fabulous read on Independence Day. Well done Colonel Fry! I do hope you’re wrong about the water issue, while indeed serious I can only hope that the US will do as Churchill once said: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

  4. murrayhenson says:

    If nothing else, the idea that for any stereotype of Americans there is an opposite stereotype… well, I would consider that quite true. Though I think that, upon close inspection, the same can be said of many places that possess a diverse population.

  5. KTDP says:

    A very pleasant read. Thank you for helping me kill 40 minutes between patients.

  6. LadyGirlPerson says:

    This was something I really enjoyed reading. Thank you.

  7. cgallo42 says:

    Excellent lecture, Colonel Fry! And some interesting theories. As an American on the more cynical end of the spectrum, much of it resonates quite deeply. I was in Kenya myself the summer before the election and had some intriguing conversations with people there about Obama as well.

    Your delineation of the Western world is quite thought provoking; I never thought of it that way before. But one wonders where to place the Islamic Golden Age, the predecessor of the Enlightenment, in all this. Or the rest of the world, for that matter, if Plato’s imaginary creation myth is to apply to all of humanity; on top of which is the fact that most immigration to the US after the 1950s has indeed been from non-European countries.

    A great read– thanks for sharing!

  8. listerdude says:

    Thank you for the transcript. Now I need to stretch for the dictionary as always after reading Fry. It is such a pleasure though.

  9. bjowi says:

    Excellent, and putting some thoughts into words that I can really agree to.

    Also, I learnt at least ten new words. Love it.

  10. chumley says:

    A well-tailored discerning lecture. I enjoyed it very much. My bleary sunday-morning eyes found it to be very percipient, appercipient, apperceptive, wait I think there are a few more words in this thesaurus….yes, here we are, funny. How much more enjoyable it would have been to have heard your voice evoke each nuance out of the wonderful, dear I repeat, wonderful, syllabic variety found in this wonderful lecture.

    Would love to hear your views on Canada.
    Love your work, Cheers.

  11. longyear44 says:

    Interesting to hear your struggle/juggle(!) with identities, what am I, what could I have been in national terms? Currently reading the following book: The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World by Dominique Moisi. A man of a certain age, highlighting some of the dynamics of the world we currently face. Not all to be agreed with but a good frame of reference.

  12. Robert Fiore says:

    On behalf of the United States I wish to thank you for all the unsweetened learning, language and literature you’ve been sending across the Atlantic. Please accept our heartfelt gratitude for Pop Idol and [Your Country Here]‘s Got Talent, for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor and Big Brother all the other glories of reality television, for Maxim and the rest of the lad mags, for Rupert Murdoch and the chav Doctor Who. Mr. Fry, you are being far too modest. The truth is that for the last 20 years there has been no greater vector of pure crap than the United Kingdom. These days when it comes to taking the lowest common denominator and dragging it lower than anyone ever deemed possible, Hollywood comes to London to sit at the feet of the masters and become wise. Mr. Fry, you have got a lot of fucking nerve.

    Oh, and here’s a bit of bad news: When the United States relinquishes its place at center of the world stage, as all civilizations must, it’s not Europe that’s going to take its place. It’s China.

  13. lexid523 says:

    Wonderful as always, Colonel Fry. Having lived in England for an (all too) brief period, I always love reading anything that takes on the cultural exchanges and contrasts between our two countries.

    However, I do have one point of contention, humbly submitted for your consideration. Had African-Americans, in the early part of last century, not condensed the pain and degradation they had endured for centuries on our continent, combined it with the spirituals they sang as they toiled on plantations, added sugar, and sold it, the world would never have had the blues.

    America had never been much for the arts– we have a few novels we’re proud of and that’s about it. But we do have the blues, and that’s got to be one point in favor of sugar.

  14. Momgoth says:

    Fantastic stuff. Some of it’s hard to see, but as somebody from the more bitter-ish end of the American spectrum, I’d say it’s pretty accurate.

    Your analysis of battles over water is pretty accurate too. In fact, that’s happening in the Southwest part of the US right now. People who buy land in New Mexico are finding out the hard way that one must buy the water as well as the land rights – from whoever happens to own them. If they don’t, they will be very, very sad. In Colorado, our state government has just given us the right to put up a rain barrel and collect the rainwater – which previously belonged to the state and the local water district. Hard to believe, but it’s true.

  15. bgryphon says:

    Thank you. As a Canadian/’Murican mix now living in central Ohio I share your fascination with this great sugar-enriched society.

    Sadly the printed word can only hint at the full glory of your address; oh to hear it spoken. To hear all the undercurrents, the emphasis and the occasional suggestive change in timber.

    I close wishing you a great summer; only as hot as you might enjoy.

  16. dboreham says:

    Stephen, I have recently become a US citizen and am now too lazy to read more than a paragraph. We need your lecture on YouTube!

  17. mrsthing says:

    Loved your description of the movies and the old Bell & Howell projector–what memories it brought back! I laughed so hard I had tears running down my face, remembering the silly, stilted language of those horrid, boring movies.

    Personally, being a fully-fledged American somewhere in the middle of the cynical to gullible scale, I think it’s in the American character not to lead, but to tell everyone else where they should go and make sure they do it, damn it. Or to go off in a random direction and tell everyone it’s the only one, even though we have no clue where we’re going or what we’re trying to achieve. “Follow the shoe! Cast off the shoe; follow the gourd!”

    Water battles are unknown in New England, where I live. Our most recent water-related battle was fighting the installation of an underground natural gas pipe that would stretch from the CT coast across Long Island Sound.

    But I think if anything succeeds in dividing and conquering America, it will be not over natural resources or religion or politics. It will be over a fabricated issue devised by marketing strategists to polarize the country. We came very close to that during the Bush (43) administration, and it could easily be done again, and more effectively.

  18. JohnnyW says:

    What a delightful lecture, thanks for sharing it with us.

    Being British, and having lived in America for a bit, I came back with a sense that, yes, there is a general lack of lack of scepticism in America, but, as you rightly point out, everything requires a balance. We British can often take our scepticism too far and, at its worst, let it be taken as a replacement for wisdom.

    America’s opposite trait, while sometimes maddeningly confusing to a British visitor, allows for an for openness towards, not only new ideas, but also their fellow man (both of which are terribly lacking in the UK).

    I know it’s not a competition, but I can’t help myself wondering:
    In the end, would it be better to be the wiser man who has little faith in humanity, or the more gullible one who treats those around him with a more open heart? Surely it is more important to be a better parent, son/daughter, friend, neighbour… *person*, than to be always “right” about everything.

    It’s nice to think that both sides of the Atlantic could learn from each other (on reading this back: we British really do have an inflated sense of our nation’s importance, don’t we?), but then it does make you wonder if a sceptical American would still have all the traits we admire.

  19. Fryphile says:

    Couldn’t you fit this into a tweet?

    You’ve hit an soooo many erudite observations that I’m bedeviled and bedazzled to know where to begin. Probably shouldn’t begin anywhere, but simply say that I never grow weary of your writing. You may not be a Rock Star, but you are a Word Star. You Jimi Hendrix language and ideas and intellect into a purple haze of humor, excitement, and (with the help of a weighty dictionary) understanding.

    BTW, you’re quintessentially English. *braces for bludgeoning*

    BTW2, it’s been a while since I saw “The Ninth Gate”, but I remember chuckling at that scene you described, not because he merely nuked his dinner, but because he casually tossed the ENTIRE box in the microwave without removing the frozen foodstuffs and properly perforating the package.

    BTW3, you did use “comprised of” at one point which I know you know is a pedantic no-no.

    BTW4, Um . . . that’s it, I think.

    BMW5 Series Gran Turismo combines the stylish elegance of a luxury limousine with the flexibility of a station wagon and the versatility of an SAV.

  20. crystal041282 says:

    How tedious grammar lectures are…

    From one Atheist Southern American to an honorary Atheist Southern American: these are beautiful and highly respectable insights. It is the amalgamation of American belief, optimism and opinion that makes me love and loathe my country simultaneously. I couldn’t leave it for all the money in the world…and boy, am I broke.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  21. risalynn80 says:

    A very insightful lecture, Mr. Fry. I love your command of the language and your reinterpretation of the lemonade cliche. The final sentences especially made me chortle–is that the milkman’s cheery whistle I hear? ;)

    It’s always interesting to hear the U. S. described by an outsider (though I hardly dare call you “an outsider” as you have seen more of my country than I have). One of the themes you picked up was Americans’ anti-intellectual bent, on which so many scholars and analysts within the country have also expatiated. Maggie Jackson in _Distracted_, Mark Bauerlein in _The Dumbest Generation_, Susan Jacoby in _The Age of American Unreason_, John Taylor Gatto in nearly everything he has ever written, and The National Endowment for the Arts’ massive study on Americans’ reading non-habits, to name a few.

    Yet the problem of American anti-intellectualism remains and worsens. And it’s not for a lack of proposed solutions–or even implemented solutions–or a failure to recognize the underlying causes. All of these have been noted.

    So why does the problem remain? It sounds a cliche, but I think that to some extent, lack of awareness is one reason. Whenever I give my university students an article to read in which the author points out Americans’ anti-intellectual bent, and I do this frequently, I literally hear my students say things like “Shoot….I never realized this was a problem.” And then they want to change, and they almost instantly become more serious about the development of their own minds. So we proceed one person at a time, I guess.

    By the way, if you’re ever curious to hear Christian intellectuals (no, really, they exist!) grappling with complex cultural, philosophical, scientific, legal, historical, artistic, and linguistic issues, check out the Mars Hill Audio Journal ( You might find them Quite Interesting, or you might laugh or recoil in disgust. I’m not sure how you’d react. But for myself, I appreciate their contributions to ongoing conversations, as I appreciate yours.

    Thank you! I enjoyed reading your reflections!

  22. gwayneco says:

    One thing that must be said is that Barack and Michelle Obama share a European disdain for the American people. Like almost all liberal American elites, they loathe the country that they now govern.

    Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine Europe sending 400,000 young men to die defending America. Imagine Europe then spending 40% of its defense budget defending America for 4o years. Bet you can’t do it.

    At any rate, you won’t have America to kick around much longer after Obama finishes his term. Hope you like the emerging Chinese hegemony.

  23. Ossian says:

    Robert Fiore – did you even read the lecture at all?

    Incidentally I think Big Brother is Dutch (unless you’re having a pop at Orwell). Rupert Murdoch is Australian.

  24. Juliette says:

    I discovered, aged about 24, that my parents had tried to emigrate to Australia when I was about 4, but were just short of the required points to be allowed to go. I became instantly convinced that I would somehow have been better off if this had happened and wondered what my accent would have sounded like. I still feel a bit of a pang about it, and still feel somehow cheated of this imaginary life I never had. I’m so glad to find out that I am not the only person to have had such an experience!

  25. Tony Fisk says:

    “I believe it is not in our character, American character, to follow — but to lead. ”

    To me, Obama’s words hark back to that smarting remark by Kevin Conrad (the PNG delegate at the 2007 Bali summit). Speaking of the US administration’s reluctance to promote or even acknowledge the need to tackle climate change he told them “If you don’t want to lead, then get out of the way!”

  26. Tony Fisk says:

    …Which, in line with Stephen’s conclusion about following, they did!

  27. jonnyxx says:

    # KTDP says:
    July 5th, 2009 at 9:38 am

    A very pleasant read. Thank you for helping me kill 40 minutes between patients.

    Dear KTPD, As a patient waiting for an operation, I can only hope and pray you got that sentence the right way around. :)

  28. Johnny H says:

    They try so hard to be, ‘The land of the free’ and in most part I think they succeed…..
    The world would be a much less colorful (sorry colourful) place without their rich tapestry of wide and varied contributions to music,visual media, sport, fashion et al

  29. msm007 says:

    Nothing like a little honest straight forward personal truth to wake up to in the morning. English breakfest vs American breakfast. Good on you!

  30. treefroggirl says:

    Really apt (as usual) observations. As an American living in London for the last four years I totally agree.

    And you are spot on about the water. I grew up in Las Vegas and lived in LA before I moved here and the rate of water consumption is no where near sustainable.

  31. syule says:

    “It is a land of opportunity and yet there are more seventeen year old black youths in prison than in college.”

    Here’s a great entry for a General Ignorance sequel! Putting aside the fact that most 17-year-old American students of all races would be in high school, The Washington Post, among others, has debunked this myth. There are far more young African-American men in college than prison.

  32. Tikhon says:

    Excuse Mr. Fry for an off-beat topic. We decided to watch Jeeves & Wooster yesterday and I noticed something interesting… Did you ever thought of Wooster and Jeeves as of Oblomov and Schtolz? To me there’s a certain analogy but some particular differences. I’m under such impression from the latter book.
    You revere Chekhov but what about Goncharov? In this romance he’s all over so much and effortlessly deep in all everything as well.

  33. Marty says:

    You have indeed sweetened your essay Mr. Fry. “They left their miserable. peasant hovel.….and blighted potato fields and sailed the Atlantic.…restless desire to move on and make something of their lives”. How very clean and tidy. You conveniently forgot to mention the forced Clearances in Scotland (to make room for sheep!), or the mass immigration of the Irish due to starvation, eviction, disease and failure of the government to feed it’s people while grain was exported. They boarded the ‘nasty’ coffin ships because the British rulers considered them disposable and wanted them gone, out of sight – out of mind. The choice was not “chose to move or chose to stay”, but rather “chose to live or chose to die”. Almost 35 million Americans are of Irish ancestry, and 20-25 are of Scottish. I am proud to claim both in my family tree. The croft “hovels” were Home in every sense of the word. Your excellent brain did an excellent job omitting the integral facts which led up to the immigration. Our “Ambition. Improbability. Belief” were born out of necessity and survival. The immigrant’s children carry the history and scars through time. In true American fashion we will always pick ourselves up from our boot straps but we will never, ever forget – nor let you forget either.

  34. LynxLuna says:

    You did it again, Mr. Fry. You concentrated every bit of genious and delight that there is and shaped them in the form of words. And I must say I enjoyed the result to the very last letter.

    Although I am Spanish I more or less share your point of view about the States. You can’t define a whole country with a few words anyway, as perfecly gathered together as they are, so your compilation of ideas is far more than acceptable. I loved every bit of it.

    Thank you very much for sharing this piece of joy with us.

    P.S: I laughed so much with the San Sebastián story. So Spanish to laugh to everyone else’s alimentary habits!! If only the rest of the world learnt how to eat, we could rest at last and let them alone. But that’s only a dream, I supose.

  35. GrahamS says:

    Just as it is ridiculous to define USA by generalisations the same applies to Britain, specifically England. Reading some of these comments and the lecture, I do not have a self important attitude, I know we are a little island in a big sea, I don’t and never have drank warm beer. I can quite proudly say I have never seen, smelt or hunted with dogs a cucumber sandwich.

    If you tell someone they are stupid for long enough they will believe it. If you recite banal generalisations people will believe them. This will undoubtedly keep hacks happy.

  36. Conkz says:

    As a miserable british person, I found this absolutely fascinating. I have gained a new perspective on Britain/America… Genius! To both ridicule and praise at once, it seems what makes us all so bloody useless is also our saving grace. Personally I hate coffee and adore 2.5 sugars in my tea, but I still cling to the belief that I am as adult and sophisticated as anyone! :D
    (The smiley face rather negates this sentiment I’m afraid)

  37. TomF says:

    Stephen must have missed seeing or hearing about North Dakota’s beautiful Badlands in the western part of the State near Medora. The Turtle Mountains near the Manitoba border are a beautiful part of the state, and so are the many river valleys: those of the Missouri River, the Sheyenne River, and the Des Lacs River are three examples.

  38. poloman says:

    Hi Steven,
    Just joined. Dont know where to say a general hello. I didn’t know you were gay till I saw you on Ferguson. Welcome to the club.
    I love you in Wooster and Jeeves. I bought the DVD boxed set and saw every episode. Yes you were excellent in Gosford Park too. I must admit thats the extent of your work that I am familiar with. Hope to learn more about you and this site.


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