I read the early diaries by Simon Gray in July 2010. This post is an adapted version of a review I put online at the time elsewhere.
One of the bonuses of being a nation where people have been busy with writing for so long is that you get great writers in all forms. So in the United Kingdom we’ve obviously got a lot of playwrights, novelists and poets to choose from. But it means there are plenty of other fine writers who mastered less obvious literary forms. One of these is the diary.
The late Simon Gray is something of a ‘double first’. A prolific playwright from the 60’s until his death in the early nineties, towards the end of his life he gained a critical and commercial success with his “Smoking Diaries” series. They proved not only that he was a great prose writer with something to say, but also showed that he was something of an innovator. These aren’t conventional diaries giving a blow-by-blow account of the deeds of a particular day. Instead they’re written in continuous prose, and are only loosely based around what he’s doing on a particular day. Gray skilfully blends his observations of what is happening in the here and now, and uses these as springboards to muse on his past, his present, his work, life in general, his friends, modern Britain, the state of the world, cricket and so on and so on. Even if you don’t know his plays and don’t really read diaries, they’re still a great read.
However, they were not Gray’s first foray into diary writing. In 2010 Faber and Faber reissued Gray’s earlier 80’s diaries, “An Unnatural Pursuit” and “How’s That For Telling ’em Fat Lady?” Overall, these are slightly different works to Gray’s later Diaries. Both of these earlier 80’s works take us through Gray’s experiences as a playwright collaborating first with Harold Pinter in the original London production of the play “The Common Pursuit” and, in the second part, assisting a colourful American crew with a Los Angeles revival of the same work.
Gray depicted himself in his later Smoking Diaries as an enforcedly teetotal, ruminative character. They are very different in tone to these earlier works, which are blow by blow accounts of projects in progress, and give us a glimpse of Gray the working playwright, at a time when his writing was in as full flow as the booze (at this time he would regularly drink three bottles of champagne a day, before starting on the Glenfiddich at nighttime. Yikes.).
This is quite a different Gray: sometimes combative, sometimes conciliatory; endlessly rewriting in pursuit of the right line in the right place; always swilling champagne or single malt. Stand out scenes in this book include an end-of-run meal intended as a celebration, but which soon sees Harold Pinter threaten to hit Gray with an ashtray in response to something the latter had said in his cups. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, we are treated to numerous accounts of run-ins with shop staff and theatre colleagues. One constant source of irritation that he turns into a running joke concerns a VCR that won’t play and the annoying clerks he encounters at his hotel. Many of these scenes are added extra spice by their having first been spoken into a dictaphone in the early hours, when Gray was feeling either contrite, still angry or just plain hungover. If the Smoking Diaries were beautifully written and delicately constructed, then these Early Diaries have an equally distincitve charm in that they’re rather like having Gray talk to you directly.
What unites the earlier and later Grays are cigarettes (at one stage he describes himself as chewing on nicorette gum while a cig burns away in his hand) and restaurants (clearly he was a very loyal patron, always going to the same place which gets mentioned again and again in his diaries, even if in the case of Musso and Franks in LA he largely takes a dim view of the place), not to mention his unflinchingly self-critical stance (the short essay ‘My Cambridge’ paints a particularly unflattering but illuminating pen portrait of the kind of figure he cut there as a student).
And then there’s the paranoia. In all his prose memoirs there are moments of happiness, but overall I get the impression that Gray finds his best material in things going wrong for him. He revels in telling a tale of woe, and the prose sparks as a result. At times he comes across as a man for whom the glass is not only half empty, but is in fact lying on its side, the contents already running off the table and into his lap. Luckily for us, this ability to weave the trials and tribulations of his life into a good yarn makes for entertaining and genuinely funny reading, and as a narrator it’s what makes him such great company. In my view it’s also what makes him one of the great english diarists.
If this book sounds interesting, you may also like a similar work of Gray’s from the 1990’s called Fat Chance. This book chronicles the saga of his play Cellmates, a piece which seemed sert fair to be a critical and commercial West End success, until co-headliner Stephen Fry mysteriously disappeared…
Gray wrote the following at the end of An Unnatural Pursuit: “perhaps the problem with keeping a diary, and the reason I’ll never keep another, is that one records only the things that one would prefer to forget. At least if one has a temperament like mine”. Luckily for us he never kept his word.
Quick post script: How’s That for Telling Them Fat Lady? is also the title of a television play Gray wrote for the BBC in the early 90’s and is well worth watching if you ever get the chance. Starring Gray’s good friend Alan Bates doing his best impression of the author, the play essentially follows the action as described in the book.