Out for prudes and prejudice

The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry Hutchinson $180 THERE are no sacred cows in Stephen Fry's writing. Journalists, poets, psychologists, sociologists, feminists, moralists, representatives of religion, all are treated with an equally healthy dose of disdain. Poisoned darts are thrown and always hit their mark. Taboos are bumped off like vicars in a whodunit story: sex, death, homosexuality.

No one, not even Fry, would claim this book is a tasteful one. The language is deep blue and the subject matter not for those with a closed mind. Masturbation, lechery, degrees of sexual perversion. But then Fry's very point is that there should be no taboos. The Mary Whitehouses of this world are dismissed as charlatans.

At a dinner party the aristocratic Mrs Purdom - admonishes the media for showing ''it'' on television. ''It is so unnecessary.'' Tea-drinking is also unnecessary, she is told, but they show a lot of that on television.

The Hippopotamus' honesty is like fresh air. Fry is not laughing exclusively at others but also at himself, at all of us. He has never hidden his views on sex and he is, among other things, Rector of Dundee University. He cannot be accused of throwing stones from a glass house.

The Hippopotamus of the title is Ted Wallace, a womanising, whisky-sodden failed poet and drama critic. His nickname is from the T S Eliot poem: The broad-backed hippopotamus Rests on his belly in the mud; Although he seems so firm to us He is merely flesh and blood.

Ted has been sacked from his job at a paper for shouting insults from the stalls on an opening night. But as he points out, every halfway decent human being has been sacked from something in his time: sports team, club, political party, satanic abuse group.

Ted's god-daughter has leukaemia. The sick are not exempt. She wants him to investigate strange goings-on at Swafford Hall, the country mansion of Ted's old friend Logan, a Jewish businessman. There have been healings, miracles.

He accepts her offer, lured by a large pecuniary inducement, and finds himself enjoying a few months of repose and drink.

Other guests arrive. The beautiful Patricia, the buck-toothed Clara and, to his horror, Ted's ex-wife, the She-Beast of Phillimore Gardens.

Many might find The Hippopotamus a distasteful book. Those who do are exactly those in whose direction its vitriol is aimed.

It is cynical, rude and shocking. But it sweeps away barriers with great panache and an enviable sense of right, of wrong, of hypocrisy and of humanity.

Fry's philosophy has great range. The Hippopotamus deals unpretentiously with ageing, death, religion, poetry and Art.

Romantic poets, Ted tells his serious teenage nephew, are not writing about dandelions and daisies but about themselves. ''I wandered lonely as a cloud'', ''My heart aches'', ''My heart leaps up''.

Fry's unblinking eye for comedy makes every page a delight waiting to be discovered. ''My body, on the move,'' writes Ted in a letter to his god-daughter, ''resembles in sight and sound nothing so much as a bin-liner full of yoghurt.'' Of therapy one character says: ''It has always struck me that if someone believed they were Napoleon I'd send them to someone who believed they were the Duke of Wellington.'' Ted the Hippopotamus, is an evil old cynic but he is right about everything - or as right as anyone has been - and that, in the end, is this book's greatest joy. ''Never tell a man he is cynical,'' he says. ''Cynical is the name we give to those we fear might be laughing at us.''