The Hippopotamus

The Hippopotamus

by Stephen Fry


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Stephen Fry's charmingly misanthropic send-up of the English mystery features an unlikely but necessary hero: Ted Wallace, AKA the Hippopotamus, a failed and disolute poet, recently fired theater critic, and muckraker of modern irrationality, whose war against the unreasonable finds sudden purpose investigating a series of supposed miracles at a mansion in the country.

"I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.” So begins the tale of Ted Wallace, unaffectionately known as the Hippopotamus. Failed poet, failed theater critic, failed father and husband, Ted is a shameless womanizer, drinks too much, and is at odds in his cranky but maddeningly logical way with most of modern life. Fired from his newspaper, Ted seeks a few months’ repose and free liquor at Swafford Hall, the country mansion of his old friend Michael Logan. This world of boozy dinners, hunting parties, and furtive liaisons has recently been turned on its head by miracles, healings, and phenomena beyond Ted’s comprehension. As the mysteries deepen, The Hippopotamus builds into “a deliciously wicked and amusing little fable” (The New York Times).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Praise for The Hippopotamus

"The Hippopotamus is animated by an antic sense of comedy and features a willfully feckless hero . . . Described in uproarious terms that suggest Wodehouse crossed with Waugh, Swafford emerges as a parody of every upper-class country house ever depicted in an English novel."
—The New York Times

"The literary godchild of British comic novelist Kingsley Amis . . . Perfectly funny."
USA Today

"[The Hippopotamus's] virtues are cynicism and ill will, directed energetically at all that is trendy and modern, and embodied in the blubbery, whiskified carcass of an out-of-date poet named Ted Wallace . . . He rages entertainingly at a glorious array of targets."
TIME Magazine

“This near-perfect book happens to be the most entertaining, worthwhile antidote to drear you’ll ever find.”
Entertainment Weekly

"Tootingly and tremendously funny."
—Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You for Smoking

"This novel is clevery, as we have come to expect from Stephen Fry, and witty, as we have come to expect from Stephen Fry. What is not so expected is that it looks like Fry's Brideshead. There seems to be a pattern in the carpet, there seems to be a theme of spiritual redemption and the operation of grace. But the carpet, being Fry's, has a twist in it and the pattern is not what it seems."
Sunday Times

"Imagine P.G. Wodehouse consumed with lust and suffering from a bad hangover, and you have a pretty good idea of the tone of Stephen Fry's very funny and wickedly irreverent second novel."
The Miami Herald

"My goodness, what fruity language Fry uses! You can feel his enjoyment, and also the huge force of high desire to please you, as you read this."
—Daily Mail

"Marvelous dialog enlivens a tale that is fraught with incest, bestiality, and English humor."
Library Journal

"One of the funniest people writing on either side of the Atlantic . . . like a combination of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, but funnier than either."
Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616954734
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 12/30/2014
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 887,712
Product dimensions: 5.49(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.83(d)

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Read an Excerpt


The fact is I had just been sacked from my paper, some frantic piffle about shouting insults from the stalls at a first night.

"Theatre criticism should be judgement recollected in tranquillity," my wet turd of an editor had shrilled, still trembling from the waves of squeal and whinge that actors, directors, producers and (wouldn't you just believe it) pompous, cowardly prigs of fellow- reviewers had unleashed upon him by fax and phone throughout the morning. "You know I support my staff, Ted. You know I venerate your work."

"I know no such bloody thing. I know that you have been told by people cleverer than you that I am a feather in your greasy cap."

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." I told him so and a full gill more.

A month's salary, deep regret, the telephone number of some foul rehab clinic and my lance was free.

If you're a halfway decent human being you've probably been sacked from something in your time ... school, seat on the board, sports team, honorary committee membership, club, satanic abuse group, political party ... something. You'll know that feeling of elation that surges up inside you as you flounce from the headmaster's study, clear your locker or sweep the pen-tidies from your desk. No use denying the fact, we all feel undervalued: to be told officially that we are off the case confirms our sense of not being fully appreciated by an insensitive world. This, in a curious fashion, increases what psychotherapists and assorted tripe-hounds of the media call our self-esteem, because it proves that we were right all along. It's a rare experience in this world to be proved right on anything and it does wonders for the amour propre, even when, paradoxically, what we are proved right about is our suspicion that everyone considers us a waste of skin in the first place.

I boarded the boat that plies its fatuous course between newspaperland and real London and watched the Sunday Shite building grow upwards in space as slow knots were put between self and dismal docklands and, far from feeling mopey or put upon, I was aware of a great swelling relief and a pumping end-of-term larkiness.

At such times, and such times only, a daughter can be a blessing. Leonora would by now have high-heeled her way, it being half past twelve, to the Harpo Club. You probably know the place I mean — can't use the real name, lawyers being lawyers — revolving doors, big bar, comfy chairs, restaurants, more or less acceptable art on the walls. By day, smart publishers and what used to be called the Mediahedin; by night, the last gasp of yesterday's Soho bohemians and washed-up drunks taking comfort from the privilege of being sucked up to by the first gasp of tomorrow's ration.

In the back brasserie Leonora (hardly my idea, a name that tells you all you need to know about the child's footling mother) hugged, snogged and squealed.

"Daddee! What brings you here in the daytime?"

"If you take that slithery tongue out of my ear, I'll tell you."

She probably imagined that a slightly famous daughter and her even more slightly famous father displaying easy affection for one another in such a manner would provoke envy and admiration in those of her tight-arsedly bourgeois generation who only ever saw their parents for tea in hotels and wouldn't think of swearing, smoking and drinking with them in public. Typical bloody Leonora; there are pubs all over the country where three generations of ordinary families drink and swear and smoke at each other every bloody night, without it ever crossing their minds that they are simply sensationally lucky to have such a just brilliantly fabulous relationship with their wonderful daddies.

I dropped the Rothmans and lighter on the table and let the banquette blow off like a Roman emperor as it took my weight. The usual dirt averted their eyes while I took in the room. Couple of actors, nameless knot of advertisers, that queen who presents architecture programmes on Channel Four, two raddled old messes I took to be rock stars, and four women at a table, one of whom was a publisher and all of whom I wanted to take upstairs and spear more or less fiercely with my cock.

Leonora, whom I had never wanted to spear, the gods be thanked in these unforgiving times, was looking thinner and more lustrous-eyed than ever. If I didn't know it was unfashionable I would have supposed her to be on drugs of some kind.

"What's all this?" I asked, picking up a portable tape-recorder on the table in front of her.

"I'm profiling Michael Lake at one," she said. "For Town & Around."

"That fraud? His dribble of three-act loose-stooled effluent is the reason I'm here."

"What can you mean?" I explained.

"Oh Daddy," she moaned, "you are the limit! I saw a preview on Monday. I think it's a perfectly brilliant play."

"Of course you do. And that's why you are a worthless key-basher who fills in time sicking out drivel for snob glossies until a rich, semiaristocratic queer comes to claim you for a brood-mare, while I, for all my faults, remain a writer."

"Well, you're not a writer now, are you?"

"A jessed eagle is still an eagle," I declared, with massive dignity.

"So what are you going to do? Wait for offers?"

"I don't know, my old love, but I do know this. I need your mother off my back until I'm sorted out. I'm two months behind as it is."

Leonora promised to do what she could and I skedaddled from the brasserie in case the Lake fake was early. Playwrights more than most are not above throwing good wine or bad fists when the valueless offal they have vomited up before a credulous public has been exposed for what it is.

I sat at the bar and kept an eye on the mirror dead ahead, which gave a full view of the influx from the entrance door behind me.

The lunch crowd twittered around the bar area awaiting their meal-tickets or their spongers; the daytime scent of the women and the sunlight pouring through the window created an interior atmosphere so distinct from the dark, flitting nimbus that hangs over the place at night that we might have been lapping in a different room in a different decade. In America, where boozers are often under the street, like the cutesy bar in that ghastly television series they repeat every day on Channel Four, a daytime atmosphere is positively banished. The punter, I suppose, is not to be reminded that there is a working world going on outside, lest he start to feel guilty about pissing it away. Like an increasing number of niminy-piminy Europeans, Americans bracket drinking with gambling and whoring, as deeds to be done in the dark. For myself, I have no shame and don't have to steal off to Tuscany or the Caribbean to be able to drink guiltlessly in the sunlight. This casts me as a freak in a lunch-time world where the fires of anything vinous are extinguished by spritzing sprays of mineral water and the blaze of anything hearty is drizzled in balsamic vinegar or damped down with blanketing weeds of radiccio, lollo rosso and rocket. Christ, we live in arse-paralysingly drear times.

Once, since we're on the subject of designer lettuce, at a luncheon for literary hacks, the novelist Weston Payne prepared a salad of dock, sycamore and other assorted foliage collected from the residents' garden in Gordon Square. He dressed these leaves in a vinaigrette and to universal applause served them up as cimabue, putana vera and lampedusa. One grotty little pill from the Sunday Times went so far as to claim that putana vera could be bought in his local Chelsea Waitrose. A bottle of London tap-water chilled and passed through a soda-stream was slurped with every evidence of delight under the name of Aqua Robinetto. Very fitting really. After all, for twenty years Weston's novels had been palmed off as literature to these same worthless husks without their ever noticing a thing. I sometimes think that London is the world's largest catwalk for emperors. Perhaps it always was, but in the old days we weren't afraid to shout out, "You're naked, you silly arse. You're stark bollock-naked." Today you only have to fart in the presence of a dark-haired girl from the Sunday Times, whose father is either a sacked politician or a minor poet like myself, and you'll be puffed and profiled as the new Thackeray.

You can't imagine, if you're younger than me, which statistically speaking you are bound to be, what it is like to have been born into the booze-and-smokes generation. It's one thing for a man to find, as he ages, that the generations below him are trashier, more promiscuous, less disciplined and a whole continent more pig-ignorant and shit-stupid than his own — every generation makes that discovery — but to sense all around you a creeping puritanism, to see noses wrinkle as you stumble by, to absorb the sympathetic disgust of the pink-lunged, clean-livered, clear-eyed young, to be made to feel as if you have missed a bus no one ever told you about that's going to a place you've never heard of, that can come a bit hard. All those pi, priggish Malvolios going about the place with "do you mind, some of us have got exams tomorrow, actually" expressions on their pale prefectorial little faces. Vomworthy.

It seems the popsy up on a stool next to mine read some of the off-pissedness in my face, for she gave me a long sideways stare, unaware that I was inspecting her inspection by way of the mirror. She slipped her bony but appetising buns off the stool and made for a chair in the corner, leaving me the sole occupant of the bar pasture, to graze the gherkins and crop the cashews alone. Knew her from somewhere. Five got you two that she was a diarist for the Standard. Leonora would know.

The great dramatist was ten minutes late, naturally, and strode through to the dining area without seeing me. The smirk on his face indicated that he had either fooled the generality of my erstwhile colleagues, no difficult thing, and been praised for his abominations, or he had heard the delightful news of my dismissal. Probably both. He wouldn't remember, of course, because they never do, but it was I who discovered the little prick in the first place. That was back in the days when I used to shuttle around the fringe nightly and sit through performances by companies with names like Open Stock and Shared Space; a time when my nod could guarantee transfer from an upstairs pub in Battersea to a plush drama-brothel in the West End. Michael Lake had written what in a better world would have been a perfectly ordinary play, but which was rendered extraordinary by the banality, illiteracy and po-faced sulkiness of just about every other new work that had been written that year and for the last five years before it. In a dung heap, even a plastic bead can gleam like a sapphire. Nineteen seventy-three that must have been or, at a pinch, four. Now, of course, it wasn't possible for the man to write a note to his milkman without it being lavishly mounted to universal praise at the National Theatre ... the Royal National Theatre, I beg its creepy, arse-licking pardon. The few fires of good anger and proper passion that had flickered in his early work had been pissed out by an insufferably pompous state-of-the-nation gravity and a complete indifference to the audience or awareness of the theatre. He, of course, as one of the generation that disdains the definite article, would have said "a complete indifference to audience or awareness of theatre," as if Audience was a formless notion, instead of a live tangle of coughing, shuffling humanity, and Theatre an intellectual concept entirely divorced from actors, scenery, lighting-rigs and wooden boards. Never mind that Theatre transformed his humourless texts as best it could into just about bearable evenings and Audience funded his Suffolk watermill and lurid collection of Bratbys ... they shouldn't expect his thanks for it. On the contrary, the general scheme was that we should be grateful to him. Cocky little arse-wipe.

"More of the same," I said to the barman.

"Let me get this ..." a voice, female, at my elbow.

"One of the finest phrases in our language," said I, without turning round. I could see in the mirror that it was the bony-bunned creature, levering herself back up on to her stool. Absolutely love small women, they make my dick look so much bigger.

"And a Maker's Mark for me," she added, pointing to a bottle high on the bar shelf.

A proper drinker, I noted with approval. Your experienced lapper knows that barmen always initially mishear the name of whatever brand you specify. "Not Glenlivet, Glen fiddich! No, you oaf, not a lager shandy, a large brandy ..." Always find the bottle with your eye first and point at it when ordering. Saves time.

A hint of something Floris-ish, or at a pinch Penhaligony, wafted up as she settled herself. Adequate breastage and a slim white throat. Something neurotic in her bearing, you get to spot that quickly in female bar-flies, most of whom are usually on the brink of the kind of hysteria that smashes glassware or slaps innocently by-standing faces.

Roddy poured a large measure into a highball glass and she watched him closely. Another good sign. I was a close chum for a time of Gordon Fell the painter, before he got knighted and began to think himself too high for low company; we went out on the nasty together fairly regularly throughout the sixties. Gordon always drank Old Fashioneds, had done for thirty years. Never took his eyes off the barman for a second while they were being prepared, like a blackjack player eyeing the deal. One afternoon Mim Gunter, the old witch who wielded the optics at the Dominion Club in Frith Street, a favourite pissery, was off sick and her son Col had to take her stand at the bar. Well, Col was only sixteen, poor lad didn't have the first clue what an Old Fashioned was, and bugger me if Gordon hadn't the foggiest either. I tried later to calculate how many hours of his life Gordon had spent watching while they had been assembled before his unblinking eyes, but ran out of napkins to do the sums on. I knew that Angostura bitters came into the formula somewhere, but that was all I knew. In the end we had to ring Mim in hospital where she was all gowned up and ready to be wheeled into the theatre to have the cancer cut from her throat. Our SOS tickled her pink, of course. Ten feet from the phone, the other side of the bar we were, but we could still hear her screeching the foulest insults at the hapless Col down the line and telling the doctors to bugger off, "this was business." She died under the knife two hours later, Gordon Fell's Proxy Old Fashioned taking its place in history as the last drink she ever mixed.

The point is, we watch the barman, but we don't take it in. It's the reassuring movement of the hands, the pleasing fitness of bar stock and cocktail apparatus, the colours, the noises, the rich, speaking scents. I've known non-drivers unable, in the same way, to recall routes they have taken daily in taxis for years.

The placing of the glass on its paper coaster, the discreet pushing forward of the ashtray and Roddy's quiet withdrawal having been accomplished, we were free to talk.

"Good health, madam."

"And yours."

"Have I a feeling," I wondered, "that we've met?"

"That's what I was asking myself when I was here before. I decided you were too forbidding to ask, so I disappeared to the corner seat."

"Forbidding?" I've heard this tosh before. Something to do with jowls, eyebrows and a pugnacious, Bernard Ingham–like set to the lower lip. "As it happens," I said, "I'm a lamb."

"And then, sitting there, I realised you were Ted Wallace."

"The same."

"You may not remember, but ..."

"Oh hell, we haven't done the deed, have we?"

She smiled. "Certainly not. I'm Jane Swann."

Said as if the name was a reason for my never having sauced her.

"Jane Swann. And I know you, do I?"

"Cast your mind back to a small font in Suffolk twenty-six years ago. A baby and a rising poet. The baby cried a great deal and the rising poet made a promise to turn his back on the world, the flesh and the devil. A promise that even the baby didn't believe."

"Well, fuck my best boots! Jane ... Jane Burrell!"

"That's me. Though in fact it's Swann now."

"I must owe you any number of silver napkin rings. And a library's worth of moral guidance."

She shrugged as if to say that she didn't believe me to be the kind of person whose taste in silver napkin rings or moral guidance coincided with her own. Now that I looked there was that in her cast of features which recalled her ghastly parents.


Excerpted from "The Hippopotamus"
by .
Copyright © 1994 Stephen Fry.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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