“I’m quite used to giving various degrees of displeasure as I go through life, in my prime I was capable of dishing it out deliberately, nowadays it’s accidental, but perhaps i give off an atmosphere of long-accumulated, infantile resentments, thus having the same appeal, say, as a cheese at once over-ripe and immature. Anyway, it’s my contention […] that people are likely to respond unfavourably to me before they even know me (after they know me it’s not necessarily a different story by the way), in fact virtually on sight […]”
Quite an admission, that, but it comes early on (page 18) in Enter a Fox, Simon Gray’s journal-cum-memoir which ostensibly tries to sketch out the unfortunate history of his play The Late Middle-Classes to find a berth in the West End, despite solid reviews and being a solid production. However, like Gray’s other books of memoirs, it takes in far, far more than its purported subject and is really a day-to-day account of the slings and arrows that Gray has to contend with during the course of a given day, together with his musings on a myriad of other subjects.
Gray will continue to remain known as a playwright, but in the last decade of his life (he died in 2008) he became equally well known for his diary-memoirs published under the banner title of The Smoking Diaries. Prior to these books he published an equally funny memoir of two productions of his play The Common Pursuit (I reviewed them here), and Fat Chance, a tell-all account of his ill-fated mid-90’s play Cell Mates, a production that was famously and fatally holed below the waterline when Stephen Fry did an infamous runner to Belgium (as you do…) a mere three days into the play’s West End run.
Perhaps it’s experiences like the latter that convinced Gray that the Gods really did have the dice loaded against him. But neither could it have helped his lot in life that his “aggressive” drinking habit (champagne by day, before getting starred on the Glenfiddich by night) proved to be near fatal. There is, then, a general air of despondency and of a lack of confidence that hangs over Gray as self-depicted in these books. However, it’s to his credit that he uses himself as the raw material for his set pieces and jokes throughout. The resultant tone is always generally painful (in a comedy of embarrassment sense) but rarely if ever self-pitying. In fact I generally tend to find in these books that where the emotion is at its rawest it is genuinely touching and poignant.
I won’t try to summarise the book’s contents because really it consists of the day-to-day doings of an academic type of Englishman getting on in years. He gets out of breath a lot, smokes a lot, writes about his pets a lot, writes about friends (most notably Harold Pinter who directed many of his plays) and family and dwells humorously (for us) and painfully (for him) at far too much length on the slights (perceived and real) that are dealt out to him by others every once in a while. And he also writes insightfully about his art and craft of being a playwright, and of the unpredictable business of getting them staged.
If this appeals, then do try reading the Smoking Diaries, but don’t overlook Enter a Fox, a small gem of a book where Gray found his unusual and engaging voice as a memoirist.