Simon Gray: On the ropes

Bankruptcy, alcoholism, cancer, loss - the playwright Simon Gray has suffered them all, says Paul Taylor. But he still lives in style and churns out the hits. So what's his secret?
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Simon Gray has two small dogs bustling round his feet when he opens the door of his Holland Park home. But George and Toto (for it is they) kick up no fuss at my entrance. "That's odd. They usually make quite a noise," says Gray, prolific playwright, master of several unputdownable (and putdown-packed) journals and one of the most constructive of our self-destruction artists. "I wonder why they don't for you?" he adds, with a sly twinkle. My hunch is that these dogs have had media-training in tactical Trappism, whenever they find themselves in the presence of an obvious journalist.

Simon Gray has two small dogs bustling round his feet when he opens the door of his Holland Park home. But George and Toto (for it is they) kick up no fuss at my entrance. "That's odd. They usually make quite a noise," says Gray, prolific playwright, master of several unputdownable (and putdown-packed) journals and one of the most constructive of our self-destruction artists. "I wonder why they don't for you?" he adds, with a sly twinkle. My hunch is that these dogs have had media-training in tactical Trappism, whenever they find themselves in the presence of an obvious journalist.

Happily, the bark and bite of Simon Gray are showing no sign of fading, despite the fact that his health and general well-being have suffered a series of blows in the past decade that would have mellowed many a literary hell-raiser into abject Christianity. A beloved younger brother, Piers, died of alcoholism. A year later, Simon narrowly avoided the same fate in the same hospital. (A yard of wrecked intestine had to be surgically removed.) He went bankrupt. He had to go on the wagon. His great friend Harold Pinter was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus (and recovered). He himself is now coping with cancer of the prostate (recovery not yet absolute). In retrospect, Stephen Fry's infamous bunk to Bruges from Gray's play Cell Mates (disastrous for the box office) looks like a mercy dash.

Yet here is Gray, now 68, with the remains of the tan from a recent holiday in Barbados, looking surprisingly hale. And with three separate works to promote, he's a heartening object lesson in the truth that to be up against the ropes is not necessarily the same as to be up against the finishing tape. This coming week, Simon Callow will open in The Holy Terror, the West End premiere of Gray's complete overhaul of an earlier play Melon, which follows a publisher in and out of a nervous breakdown. June sees the premiere of The Old Masters, a fresh-off-the-press stage drama, directed by Harold Pinter, which homes in on the complex relationship between the great art historian Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen, the larger-than-life art dealer with whom he entered a dubious, financially rewarding yet ethically compromising pact.

And published by Granta next week is The Smoking Diaries - a compulsively readable autobiography which manages to reach into the furthest recesses of the author's life, while losing none of the hilarious present-tense irritability and hapless fending-off of chaos that characterise his classic journals An Unnatural Pursuit; How's That for Tellin' 'Em, Fat Lady; and Fat Chance (the masterpiece on the Fry débâcle). The title teases with the prospect of sensationalism - and indeed in the new book you can learn, among other things, by what strange route the London Underground came to fund Gray's masturbation practices when he was a pupil at Westminster School (more of which later) and how he was tied up, gagged, and turned into a kind of bondage exhibition, by a female teacher, as a punishment, in front of his schoolmates in Canada, where he and his older brother spent most of the war years with the parents of their pathologist father who remained in London.

But there's a witty, sober reason for the title, too. Gray is an addictive writer, in part because he has an addictive personality. And not even cancer is going to make Simon Gray give up the fags which he puffs throughout the various encounters we've had for this piece. In the book, he writes movingly about how he felt when Pinter first broke the news of his forthcoming ordeal, but he rather hustles us past how he felt when he received his own diagnosis. "I was more terrified at the thought of the treatment than of the thing itself," he amplifies now, between puffs on a cigarette. About cancer as a phenomenon, he seems pretty philosophical. One hears of people experiencing unaccountable cures: it may, he speculates, be gradually starting to give up on the human race. "We think of it as a death form, but perhaps we should think of it as another form of life, with its own needs and appetites, feeding off us as we feed off other animals, fish, vegetables etc. It might even make choices, preferring to live off this rather than that organism because it looks tastier, more nutritious, whatever."

Gray opens a bottle of Pouilly Fumé and sets it, with a glass at my elbow, at my entire disposal; and for my disposal in its entirety, I take it. But he's not one of those awful people who recovers from alcoholism for Britain, as it were, and makes you feel that you should be "drinking for two" on principle, just to even things up. Or one who drinks vicariously through you. "I hope my friends drink as much as they would normally drink when they're with me," says Gray. "I'd hate to be an inhibiting presence. All my once drinking-buddies are still my friends, with whom I am as I am - and who have to put up with my smoke in their faces, after all."

It looks as though the addiction gene descends to him impartially from both the male and female lines. His paternal grandmother in Canada always smelt of peppermints, for reasons that only became clear to him later on. His maternal aunt took to the bottle when his father was weaned away from her by her own sister, Gray's mother - a tall, brisk, handsome sportswoman of whom Harriet Walter performed a version (magnificently) in one of Gray's best plays, The Late Middle Classes. His brother Piers, a brilliant academic, rotted in the outpost of Hong Kong University. As a very young graduate, I was myself sounded out about taking a post there by the eminent American critic, Harry Levin, but I had decided before the meeting that I didn't want to go because of the inevitable, job-jeopardising hand-over to China. I am rather haunted by what might (and might not) have happened, had Piers (who wrote plays that were performed in Hong Kong) and I become colleagues and friends. "I thought he was talented in everything he wrote," says Gray, "I liked several of his plays very much, but I couldn't get anybody interested. When I told people I wanted them to read a play by my brother and that I thought it very good, the word they heard was 'brother'. Really, he needed to have been here himself." A decade older, Simon was a paternal presence in his brother's life, but also (as the play Japes indicated) the comparative success who was a bit of a liability as life progressed or didn't. I wondered in what guise he thinks he featured in Piers's dreams: "Lovingly, protectively, admiringly, I hope. And sometimes dependently."

The Smoking Diaries recounts another less deadly compulsive craving. It is the reason why I find myself in the bizarre situation of sitting in Gray's kitchen subjecting him to a quiz with questions like - "Which do you think has sold more copies in America: Skirts Bring Sorrow or Women Hate Till Death?" and "On the lists which do you reckon charts higher - Torment or Some Look Better Dead?" To put you out of suspense: these are titillating novels by Hank Janson of a soft-porn bondage-fantasising nature, with once arousing but now touchingly innocent covers of wannabe Jane Russells. Though I have never read, or held, a Janson novel, I have the stats at my fingertips because I visited websites devoted to him for this interview. "If I went on that website, I don't think I'd ever come off again," laughs Gray, who opts out of my quiz on the author "who gave me what I had for a sex life when I was 12 years old."

He was able to purchase and squirrel away these volumes because of a lucrative schoolboy scam whereby he and two Westminster chums defrauded London Underground each day with a clever operation involving Georgian coins. They were eventually caught and put on trial and, as he says in The Smoking Diaries, most other public schools would have sent them down forthwith. But he survived and being apprehended in what "was generally understood to be a clean, clear, healthy, unsexual and uncorrupt delinquency, a sort of innocent naughtiness of behaviour" merely added to his growing cachet as literary lion and (more briefly) star of football and cricket. "I still hope that one day I'll be a great sportsman," he declares, lighting up another fag, "open the batting for England, play in the football World Cup, run the 1,500 metres at the Olympics. All three, in fact. And with all these drugs and steroids: why not?"

Since those days, money has trickled through his fingers from hits like Butley and Otherwise Engaged. But the Lloyd's fiasco, bad investment advice, a four-bottles-of-Veuve-Clicquot-a-day habit and a general "hallucinatory" approach to economics have caused that fortune to shrink to nothing - a state seemingly unaltered by his wife's being of Rothschild stock. In the new book, Gray tantalises the reader with the prospect of revealing how he manages to maintain "a club-class lifestyle" (hence the tan from the Barbados holiday) in these circumstances. He claims that he could only bring himself to write about the solution to that conundrum in darkness. And maybe not even then - it would require a "deeper darkness". Having got us all sweated up with bug-eyed prurience, it's as though he then squirts a water pistol at us with violin accompaniment: "There's a sentence in between the last one and this one," we read. "It explains how I live quite stylishly, without having any money. Now I've written them, the words, in blue on yellow. I can look at them, cross them out and move on..."

Gray intended this rhetorical manoeuvre as a joke and is appalled when I tell him that it is liable to turn soft-boiled arts writers into hard-nosed investigative journalists. He'd already been grilled by a female interviewer and the experience, he says, "was like a two-hour visit from the tax inspector." But he does tell me the answer to the question and, if I may be tantalising in my turn, I will say that if you do yourself the favour of buying and reading closely The Smoking Diaries, that answer literally stares you in the face.

One had unworthily thought beforehand, from the cod-melodramatic way the issue was presented, that the continued plushness of the living was underwritten by some corrupt pact. The dramatist is, to be sure, astringently partial to professional scapegraces, gone-to-the-bad'uns whom you would not wish to reform. When I ask whether Berenson and Duveen, the duo at the centre of The Old Masters, which on the page strikes me as one of the best things Gray has written, are to be regarded in a similar light to Butley and the Hench (from his first big hit Butley), he demurs. "No, Berenson's self-disgust comes, I think, partly from his sense of having betrayed his work. His love of the painters remained undiminished. At the same time, he used that love to acquire both beauty and comfort in life - the villa I Tatti and his collections. He knows he's a fraud, but he also knows that the painters aren't frauds, and that his intellect isn't per se fraudulent. Duveen [the dealer] isn't really a fraud at all, just a natural entrepreneur who finds himself, through his inheritance, an entrepreneur in the art world. His behaviour would be seen as routine if he were dealing in used cars."

In the autobiography, Gray alleges that he becomes nastier the older he gets (or rather less nasty the further he looks back). But, for one reason and another - principally the theft of the bag containing the original tapes of our interview - he has had to be a model of patience and humour in cooperating with this piece. Despite popping in out and out of hospital for tests, he has been unswervingly nice about it all (nice, too, in the pouncing precision that's conveyed in the term "nice distinction"). He may not wish to know this, but he is that nicest of types: the slightly disreputable gentleman.

'The Holy Terror': Duke of York's, London WC2 (020 7836 5122), Weds to 7 Aug. 'The Smoking Diaries' (Granta £14) is published on 19 April