The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray

Bitter laughter in the dark
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I have long been a devotee of Simon Gray's diaries, which he has been dictating, tapping into a computer, or scrawling by hand on yellow pads (often puncturing the paper in "an attempt to write a primal scream") since 1983. What began as records of the rehearsals for his own stage plays - problems of casting and first-night jitters - evolved into accounts of the fascinating, irritating minutiae of his daily life.

Or nocturnal life, to be more precise, because in addition to smoking and drinking on a heroic, self-destructive scale, Gray is an insomniac, made more miserable by the rose-fingered dawn than Count Dracula. His journals are truly, magnificently scabrous, an account of what he calls the "acid leaking out of the withered bladder of my spirit"; and while it cannot be denied that Gray is in a permanent and sulphuric bad mood ("belching, farting, dribbling, wheezing"), by some stroke of alchemical genius, his books are hysterically funny.

Like Tony Hancock, or Les Dawson, or all great comedians, the more morose he feels, the better his material. The volume dealing with Stephen Fry's shameful defection from Cell Mates, leaving the playwright and his cast adrift, is a triumph of hilariously sustained rage and incredulity; almost worth Fry's treachery for it to have inspired Fat Chance. Gray's fall from critical and commercial fashion provoked Enter a Fox, a diary-format memoir that will last for as long as people love great English prose.

Although Gray's diaries seem like unedited streams of consciousness (streams polluted with rusty old cans and frothing with insecticides), the prose is beautifully choreographed, swooping and rambling and grumbling, with digressions and second thoughts. What Gray calls this "conversation I have with myself" is crammed with qualifications, disagreements, contradictions - yet it always comes right. After these prose arabesques, he lands on his feet.

We are aware that these books are performances. Gray is quite conscious of how much (or little) he wants to give away. The reason the diaries are compulsive is that we can't get enough of this malcontent personality, one moment thinking about beards ("probably full of food and insects"), the next contemplating a treatise on the effect of piles on Gary Cooper's cowboy walk ("simultaneously cramped and bow-legged"). If you want to know what it is like to be snubbed by Richard Eyre ("Every time I met him he seemed to wince, in a noble and kindly sort of way") or forsworn by Sam Mendes ("He parted from me no doubt hoping our paths would never cross again"), Gray is at the mercy of his own experience.

The Smoking Diaries finds our hero at his lowest ebb. Though off the laughing-juice, he still has hallucinations that his skin is crawling with bees and maggots and sprouting foliage. He'd be happy to commit suicide, except "I didn't want to be dead." He can't lunch with friends "because I'm never up in time." Of these friends, Ian Hamilton, with whom in their glory days the post-lunch brandy would slide into the pre-dinner Scotch, has died of cancer and Harold Pinter has undergone chemotherapy. This reminds Gray that both his parents died prematurely of tobacco-induced carcinomas; and we flash back to Gray's childhood in Canada, where "I was a heavy smoker in Montreal by the time I was seven."

It sounds no worse than the standard hideous childhood that all writers are meant to have endured; psychic wounds (being caught masturbating); dark secrets (being caught pilfering). Gray cannot rid his mind of the day he was beaten by his grandpa; his mother cuffed and swore at him. Today, "Mummy would be spending a lot of time in the courts and jail even." His father, a distinguished pathologist, was an energetic adulterer with women identified as Little Miss Rolls and Bunty Marus. At school, Gray was molested by a pair of grotesques, Mr Brown and Mr Burns, a creepy duo possessed of splayed feet, asthma, broken yellow teeth, pale, powdery complexions and red lips.

Reminiscences of growing up are interwoven with present-day accounts of Gray on holiday, where, it goes without saying, he can never have a nice time. In Barbados, alone in the bar all night drinking Diet Cokes and smoking 65 cigarettes, he plots how best to stake out his territory among the sunbeds, even to the extent of deterring squatters by "scraping up monkey turds" and hiding them under lime-green towels. In Italy, the man at the next table drops dead and it's touch and go whether the ambulance crew will get the stretcher down the stairs without tipping the corpse into reception.

Back in London, Gray seems at a permanent loose end. He buys cinema tickets but doesn't go in - he doesn't want to see himself as "one of those sad old blokes who watch films in the mid-afternoon. The hopelessness and uselessness of it, the squalor and pathos, etc." He visits his younger brother's grave in Kensal Green. The academic Piers Gray "collapsed with a burst liver, burst kidneys, burst everything, really" as a result of chronic alcoholism and boredom.

Death and decay are all over the place, except on Sunday, when Gray and Victoria dine at Orsino's, and every evening, when they dine in Holland Park, usually with the Pinters. That sounds a cosy arrangement. Gray also has a second home near Stowmarket, but owing to an inability or disinclination to go by car with his wife, he sets off by himself in a first-class smoking carriage while Victoria trundles alongside the train in a hatchback piled high with pets and luggage.

This is an example of Gray, appearing so confessional, not telling us things. Victoria used to be a wife called Beryl, who was similarly shadowy and long-suffering - also, one surmises, indispensable to his lordship's getting through the day. When did that change of spouse come about? The Highgate house and study have shifted position to Holland Park. The beloved pet dog, Hazel, has become a similarly indulged pooch called George.

Gray used to whizz about by Concorde and take suites at the Algonquin. Now he's flying economy and has lost all his money through belly-up investments, a tax bill that multiplied through fines and penalties, and he was also apparently a Lloyd's "name". But details are scant, and Gray still eats out more often than in.

When he fails to answer his own question ("I get by, and in some comfort, possibly even with an appearance of dash - how do I do it?"), the reader is left to wonder: is Gray a drug dealer? A slave trader? I telephoned Gray's publisher, who explained that a sentence revealing that Victoria was a rich woman, authentically a Rothschild, was bafflingly deleted by the author at proof stage.

What is consistent across all the volumes is that Gray, rich and poor, youngish and old, has a spirit that nourishes itself on pain and disillusion, as he says admiringly of Thomas Hardy. The latest news is a squeaking prostate. So our chain-smoking, sleep-deprived, ex-alcoholic, near-bankrupt Quixote now has prostate cancer. Already he has said of his urologist, whom he met at a party, "a smoking urologist was bound to be my sort of urologist." I am longing to read how Gray will move wild laughter in the throat of death, in his next instalment.

Roger Lewis's biography of Anthony Burgess is published by Faber & Faber

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