An utterly wonderful cogitation upon life, love, family, disease, infidelity, friendship, writing and aging. Gray (1930-2008) was a prolific and highly esteemed playwright and novelist. He was never a household name like his friend Harold Pinter, but then who was? The Smoking Diaries (2004) (and its sequels The Year of the Jouncer (2006) and The Last Cigarette (2008)), written towards the end of his life, may actually be his best-known work.
Smoking doesn’t really get much of a look-in, in fact. The Diaries are more of an erratic collage of memories – his family, his schooldays (inevitably, given Gray’s age and class – and didn’t my brother get kicked out of Glengyle Prep school in Putney? must ask him), his literary life and loves, etc. etc – from the elevated retrospective of an imminent (and semi-eminent) pensioner. It is very funny, thought-provoking, moving, occasionally irritating. But the most remarkable thing is the style.
Let’s begin at the beginning, literally.
Happy Birthday Sweetheart
‘So here I am, two hours into my sixty-sixth year. From tomorrow on I’m entitled to various benefits, or so I gather – a state pension of so many pounds a week, free travel on public transport, reduced fees on the railways. I assume I’m also entitled to subsidiary benefits – a respectful attention when I speak, unfailing assistance when I stumble or lurch, an absence of registration when I do the things I’ve been doing more and more frequently recently, but have struggled to keep under wraps – belching, farting, dribbling, wheezing. I can do all these things openly and publicly now, in a spirit of mutual acceptance. Thus am I, at sixty-five, a farter, a belcher, a dribbler and a what else did I say I did, farting, belching, dribbling, oh yes, wheezing. But then as I smoke something like sixty-five cigarettes a day people are likely to continue with their inevitable ‘Well, if you insist on getting through three packets, etc.’ to which I will reply, as always – actually, I can’t remember what I always reply, and how could I, when I don’t believe anyone, even my doctors, ever says anything like, ‘Well, if you will insist, etc.’ In fact, I’m merely reporting a conversation I have with myself, quite often, when I find myself wheezing my way not only up but down the stairs, and when I recover from dizzy spells after pulling on my socks, tying up my shoelaces, two very distinct acts.’ And so on.
See what I mean? Maybe the greatest joy of Gray’s interior monologue is the cascade of interminable sentences that swirl and curl (perhaps that should be ‘wreath and writhe’) like the smoke from a cigarette neglected in an ashtray. Apparently he dictated the text into a tape-recorder. The (half-) paragraph above is merely a limbering up. The very next page is almost entirely taken up with a sentence that trips, stumbles and pirouettes from ‘I have a dread of policemen…’ to ‘and saw, as we entered, the Pinters, Harold and Antonia seated at a table facing the door, in the second room.’ Somehow we never lose the thread, even as he pretends to.
Intoxicating and, as you will have noticed, infectious. You might say ‘addictive’.
The easy way to stop smoking
Civic duty – and a sense of justice – compels me to link The Smoking Diaries with Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smoking (1985). For me, at least, this book did what it promised. It is clear, concise, precise and persuasive. It is the only ‘self-help’ book that has ever delivered as far as I am concerned. And you don’t have to take my word for it: according to our recent Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, interviewed in The Guardian, this was the book that ‘changed my life’. Carr deserved a Nobel Prize and a knighthood.