Life, death and cigarettes

The Smoking Diaries

Simon Gray <em>Granta Books, 240pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 186207688X

Simon Gray has written numerous plays for stage, television and radio, many of them brilliant, including Butley and my own favourite, Two Sundays. He has also, which I did not know, written five works of fiction. Now he has produced a diary, but this is definitely not a book you will want to read if, like me, you are one of those poor souls who recently gave up smoking.

I have been trying to think of a single writer who hasn't ever been a serious smoker or drinker - or both, though this was possibly in the days before the pres-ent mania for fitness and longevity took hold. I know J B Priestley smoked, as did what's-his-name Nabokov and the chap who wrote Treasure Island. Proust went for something a little stronger, but then he lay down a lot. Thousands more smoked, obviously, but one of the first things to go once inhaling has ceased is an ability to remember names. Or indeed anything else.

Gray's grasp of words is as firm as it always was: although he has apparently given up the booze he is still a smoker, a heavenly habit he says he contracted more than 60 years ago, when he was five years old. This should come as no surprise, seeing that his entire family - mother, father, grandparents, Aunt Gertrude - appears to have been dependent on both drink and nicotine. Some died early; mother and Gertie in their fifties, from diseases of the lungs or heart, grandma in her sixties from liver decay. Grandpa lasted 'til he was 86, which proves something or other.

What is life-enhancing about this book, which appears to have been begun while sitting on some beach abroad, is its humanity and sunniness, despite its references to death, disease and lack of money. This last complaint, in the unlikely event of the Smoking Diaries being read by a single parent desperately lighting up in a tower block, may be hard to understand. Sufficient to say that Gray's comparative poverty has to do with an unpaid tax bill, a past intake of four bottles of champagne a day, and a swindling accountant. There was also the matter of Stephen Fry, starring in his play Cell Mates, skipping the country one night and bringing down the curtain for good. Gray doesn't go on about this; any bitterness is directed at himself alone.

So here I am, two hours into my 66th year . . . The truth is that I'm nastier than when I was 64, for instance . . . when I was nastier than when I was 62 and so forth, back and back, always the less nasty the further back, until I get to the age when I was pre-nasty, at least consciously, when the only shame I knew was the shame of being found out, which was when I was . . . well . . . about eight, I suppose.

The thing is, he couldn't be nasty if he tried. Hilariously funny, yes, whether he is claiming that Auden was autistic on the grounds that he picked his nose, or else admiring Christopher Ricks's introduction to the Oxford Book of English Verse and remembering that the murderer Dennis Nilsen put heads in the fridge.

There is something curiously sweet about his train of thought. He attempts to portray himself as a red-faced old buffer, farting, wheezing, dribbling, a moral shit-heap, a chain-smoking teetotal ex-alcoholic wreck, and maybe he is, but he does not sound like one. Everything he writes about - his parents, his childhood, his friendship with Harold Pinter, the death of his friend Ian Hamilton, for whose death he can find no words of his own and quotes instead those of Tennyson ("no language but a cry") - is suffused with kindness and an ability to love.

I have seen a marvellous photograph of Simon Gray as a boy of perhaps nine, posing with his elder brother Nigel and little brother Piers. Nigel is balanced on the arm of the chair in which Simon is sitting with bald baby Piers on his knee. All three children look so well, so handsome and privileged, and there is not a hint of smoke in the room. Piers's grave is in Kensal Green Cemetery, north-west London. He died youngish, of alcoholism. The two elder brothers put a bench in front of his tombstone and they sometimes go and sit there.

Like most of us, Gray is preoccupied with death. He writes:

In the old days - when confronted by the idea of mortality - I'd have taken a drink, and then another drink, possibly eight or ten drinks in a row, enough anyway to take me to a state that resembled tranquillity, but was really passivity - inertia actually . . . Now, before I fall asleep I lie on my side, with my knees drawn up as close to my chin as stiff joints, weak muscles and a pendulous stomach permit, the classic foetal position adopted by a man 65 years away from the womb.

This is a very good book about life and death. It should be read with a cigarette in hand, though not necessarily lit.

Beryl Bainbridge's most recent novel is According to Queeney (Abacus)