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Simon Gray, smoker and playwright, dies aged 71

Simon Gray, the playwright who found renewed fame in later life as author of the autobiographical Smoking Diaries, has died at the age of 71 after a long battle with cancer.

In the third and last instalment of the curmudgeonly Diaries, The Last Cigarette, he confessed he was "in short, afraid" of death, but adopted a stoical tone. "One way or another, I'm coming up to the last cigarette," he wrote. The work was being cast for the stage at the time of his death. The writer, who had suffered from aneurysms and prostate cancer, began smoking at the age of seven.

The Diaries, described as a masterpiece of grim humour, led to renewed interest in his work as a playwright. As author of over 30 plays and five novels he had fallen out of favour in the 1980s with some critics viewing his work as too cool, too articulate. However in recent years his work returned to the stage to critical acclaim in Britain and America.

The writer Howard Jacobson said he had been told the sad news yesterday by Gray's wife, Victoria. "He was the very best of writers, as good as writers get," said Jacobson. "I almost stopped reading, because I was busy but he got me reading again."

Jacobson, who met Gray while they were both at Cambridge University, said Gray was able to write about love in a way that would sound mawkish from others, partly because of the contrast with his sharp wit. Gray, who counted the actor Alan Bates and playwright Harold Pinter among his friends, wrote more than 30 plays and five novels, including Little Portia and Breaking Hearts.

Rik Mayall, who appeared in two of Gray's plays, Cell Mates and Common Pursuit, paid tribute last night, saying: "Simon was such a strong and powerful writer, director and friend. It's a great loss."

Michael Palin recently made a return to acting to play the teacher, Quartermaine, in a Radio 4 revival of one of Gray's best-known plays, Quartermaine's Terms. His plays also include Melon (1987), Butley (1971), and Otherwise Engaged (1975).

Gray wrote Cell Mates (1995), from which Stephen Fry vanished after a nervous breakdown. His plays for TV included After Pilkington (1987), They Never Slept (1991) and Running Late (1992).

Jacobson said: "His plays are being rediscovered. We're relishing the language."

Gray, who was born in Hayling Island, attended Westminster School, where he was a keen cricketer and sportsman, Dalhousie University in Canada, and Trinity College, Cambridge.

He lived in London with his wife, Victoria, daughter of Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild. He was a made a CBE for services to drama and literature in the New Year's honours list for 2005.