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The Year of the Jouncer, by Simon Gray
Senior service with a sad smile
Friday 20 January 2006
Simon Gray is sick of interruptions when he's working. "Is it that people can't stand the sight of an elderly [man], 67, sitting at a shady table at the sea's edge on a sunny morning in Barbados, working - or not even working, just writing and not even writing to any particular purpose, merely moving his hand... across a yellow pad with long pages with lots and lots of lines on it with lots and lots of spaces between them... What else can I do in life but fill these spaces?" It's a typically reductive moan from a man who has, over 11 years and six books, turned literary complaint-cum-rumination into a one-man sub-genre. Neither diary nor memoir, essay collection or philosophical investigation, the book combines elements of all in long, swooping, apparently unedited paragraphs about anything that crossed his mind between January and December 2004.
As years go, for a distinguished British playwright of 67, it was an eventful one. We find him wintering (as usual) in Barbados with his wife Victoria, swimming, tourist-watching and being visited by their best friends, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, to whom Gray gives his new play The Old Masters to read. In England, Gray's The Holy Terror, starring Simon Callow, is touring in Brighton prior to its London opening even though (we learn) the cast is working from the wrong draft. The play is glacially received, but there's dancing on the tables at Kensington Place.
The Smoking Diaries is launched to acclaim, The Old Masters (directed by Pinter) is rehearsed and opens promisingly. Alan Yentob makes a BBC documentary of Gray at work. A letter arrives from Downing Street asking if he would accept "a jumble of letters with a B in it" in the New Year Honours.
Many subjects recur: childhood in Hayling Island and Nova Scotia, the lovableness of cats, the Labour government's determination to frighten the electorate over Islam, Gray's self-doubt (he worries that he may be autistic, gay and/or homophobic) and Hollywood actors.
But it's timor mortis that most invades his thoughts and suffuses these pages with melancholy. He cheerily describes "the days when the bladder seems to fill even as I'm emptying it, the wheeze and double whistle in the chest, the faintness that follows climbing stairs, but on the whole, apart from a developing sense of decay and imminent death, nothing much has changed."
Family recollections include the time he killed a bird with an air rifle and almost totalled a baby with a speeding rubber ball. Gray wonders how close he and his elder brother Nigel came to drowning themselves. A seemingly determined infanticide, he confesses how he once dropped his baby brother Piers and thought he'd killed him. The most moving pages are devoted to the decline of his friend, the actor Alan Bates.
He chides himself in Alice in Wonderland tones for fretting over the death of a loved schoolfriend: "Enough of this. This must stop. You have to cultivate a new ambition, which is to continue writing this without again mentioning death or dying, friends dead or dying... At your heart you are a merry man."
The odd thing is, it's true. There is a merriness in his grasshopper digressions and blithe engagement with the world. I liked his close-up inspection of the bag lady outside Tesco's, who flirts with him and says, "I like your hair that way." I enjoyed his aghast description of a disgusted playgoer slamming down the programme for The Holy Terror on the counter of Sheekey's. Or Gray's argument with Pinter about whether or not the Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was a masturbator.
I liked reading about his father ("an uxurious philanderer") despite his cruel tactic to stop the baby Simon "jouncing" at night (the title refers to his chronic restlessness in his pram) by tying a hairbrush through one of the buttons on his pyjama top. I loved the memory of his mother, smoking as she made the children's stew while singing selections from Oklahoma!
Reading the book must, you feel, be exactly like having your ear bent by Simon Gray for an evening. Fuelled by umpteen Diet Cokes and a hundred cigarettes, he'd surely regale you in just this way, complete with digressions, complaints and No-I-tell-a-lie-it-was-Thursdays.
Whether you like it depends on your taste for his style of meandering, self-contradictory prose. It has powerful literary ancestors - sometimes it reads like Beckett's Molloy, sometimes late Kingsley Amis - but its random, uncooked quality can become wearying. Do we care how many fag burns dot his shirt? Do we need half a page on how his new trainers go "Whoosh"? Whole pages are devoted to Gray's bewilderment, as he strives to recall how he got to a Notting Hill restaurant, or tries to work out (while sitting in his raincoat) whether he's been out for a walk or not. Now and then, you feel you're reading a sub-sub-genre - not so much stream-of-consciousness as stream-of-senior-moments.
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