Review: The Last Cigarette – Simon Gray

Note:  Since publishing this volume of his diaries, Simon Gray has now died.

The Last Cigarette is the third volume of playwright Simon Gray’s diaries which he began with The Smoking Diaries.back in 2004.  Its not easy to categorise these books – I’ve chosen “diaries”, for most of the time they record daily events over the course of a year or so, but also slip back to descriptions of events in the past.  The free-form, conversational style gives the reader the impression that he’s almost feel that you’re listening to Simon Gray while chatting in a bar – which is not surprising because apparently he writes his diaries on an A4 pad, whenever he finds himself alone in a café, bar or hotel room.

The diaries contain a wide range of topics – descriptions of holidays in Greece and Barbados, the period when his play Butley was being produced on Broadway, stories about student days at Cambridge and early girlfriends, and underlying it all, Gray’s love/hate relationship with cigarettes and his attempts to stop smoking.  Needless to say, we never actually reach the “last cigarette” by the end of the book, despite countless struggles during earlier chapters.

What is so appealing about the books is their extreme, almost painful truthfulness.  Gray makes no attempt to make himself seem a more attractive character.  He describes his weaknesses and his failings with complete candour, and many readers, certainly myself, will recognise their own behaviour in Gray’s diaries.  Sometimes this comes across as almost a confessional, the sort of thing St Augustine would have written (but Gray of course omits Augustine’s concluding prayer):

. . . with the cool sea gleaming in the darkness, when all appears to be right with the world as far as the eye can reach, I am still hateful, by which I mean full of hate, and its nothing to do with the memories of the beach, because between being down on the beach at midday and being here at midnight, on the terrace, there should be other memories – let them find me, the memories of some other day, let them be good and un-choke me from this hatred that comes on me like a sickness more and more.

(well, perhaps not quite omitting the prayer!).

This is not to say Gray’s diaries are all introspective – far from it.  There are many humerous sections, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the lost airline baggage, the Greek taxi-driver, the pest controller, and many other amusing episodes.

We also read of many of Gray’s literary and theatrical friends, and it is moving to read of dinners with Harold Pinter and his wife Antonia Fraser during Pinter’s illnesses.  Gray gives many insights into Pinter’s character, particularly his rages, which contrast with his general gentleness and tenderness.  I think many of Gray’s personal reminiscences of Pinter would provide useful material for future Pinter biographers.

A final section of the book is set in Broadway, where Gray’s play “Butley” was being revived, forty years after he wrote it.  We read of a telephone call Gray receives from the producer while on holiday in Greece, asking if Gray could re-write the final scene in order to accommodate the deficiencies of one of the actors, who is having difficulty in mastering the correct English tone to his part.  Gray knows in his gut that the real solution is to sack the deficient actor, but everyone on the cast speaks so warmly of him that he goes along with the re-write.  This proves to be far more difficult than expected: by changing one line, you affect others, and by changing one act, you have to make sure that earlier acts are consistent with it, and so on.  The re-write is typed on a tiny hand-held Blackberry in an hotel bed-room, and Gray rapidly sees that his initial compliance with the director’s wishes in not insisting that the actor be fired is escalating out of control.

By the time Gray and his wife get to Broadway to view the rehearsals he suffers even more through his indecisiveness and I won’t spoil the book by divulging the outcome – in any case, most readers will recognise occasions in their own lives when misguided concern for others led to great pain for everyone  which could have been avoided by an initial snap-decision.

I find these “Smoking Diaries” beguiling, mostly because of their candour which I find leads me to examine my own ways of covering up and avoiding the truth about myself.  The books almost give the reader permission to be “real”.  I seriously doubt that Gray had any outcome like this in mind when he wrote them, but by the end of each volume I have felt that one other person at least feels like I do sometimes and messes up in the same ways.

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