Simon Gray Has Lung Cancer But Won't Stop Smoking
24 April 2008
The playwright Simon Gray, who has gained a new audience with his Smoking Diaries memoirs, explains why he has stopped trying to give up the weed, despite having cancer. Is he afraid? Well, he fears he may die laughing
The Last Cigarette, Simon Gray's memoir about giving up smoking - or, rather, musing about one day quitting since by page 243 his ashtray still overfloweth - ends with an arresting postscript. “I have a tumour in my lung... absolutely certainly, one way or another, I'm coming up to the last cigarette.” There is a burning inevitability, of course, that a habit begun aged 7, pursued tirelessly, heroically even, through past health horrors including aneurysms and prostate cancer, peaking at 65 fags a day, would get him in the end.
Still, those of us who loved Gray's previous two volumes of The Smoking Diaries for their comic shambling and twinkling self-deprecation had hoped that he might, after all, prove the fag packet warnings wrong. At least now after radiotherapy, with more next month for a secondary tumour on his neck, Gray has finally given up trying to give up.
“I don't think I'd survive long without smoking,” he says. “I think I'm an addictive personality. And that is my addiction. I don't think anything can replace smoking.” Besides, he now fears that quitting itself might kill him: a film director friend attributes a recent heart attack to packing in after a lifetime.
“And I'm not sure I want the tussle. I'm 71 and I have cancer, and I don't really want to spend the time I have left wrestling with smoking.” Has he inquired as to how long that is likely to be? “I prefer not to ponder that question,” Gray says. He Googled lung cancer once, saw the dire prognosis and now doesn't inquire as to what's going on in his body, the treatment that may lie ahead, protects himself from painful knowledge, just as long ago he stopped reading reviews of his plays.
His own mother didn't want to know she was dying of cancer either, right up to the very end: “There was a Catholic doctor, a woman, who was determined to tell her,” Gray recalls. “We almost had to beat her up to stop her, she kept surging for the door, absolutely determined. She thought it was a moral issue, so my mother could save her soul.” It is 45 minutes into our conversation before Gray reaches for his Silk Cut and presses one upon me. I am conscious that I'm not much of a smoker, like the modern movie stars Gray derides for their quick, shallow puffs and reluctance to inhale. Whereas Gray is a grand master; languid and insouciant, fingers moving slowly to lips, a boulevardier lost in a delicious thought. In almost two hours he smokes only two more, where once he'd have had eight, a small concession to his disease.
These days 71 is no age at all. But Gray's low voice has a wheezy crackle, he walks in a stiff-legged shuffle and fears that he might die laughing, since it triggers a cough that renders him breathless and faint. But it is still obvious that he was dashing in his pomp: very tall, posh, floppy-haired, drily funny, eloquent in a gruff, donnish fashion.
In his diaries he cultivates a bufferish exasperation with the modern world. But really he is less old fart than enthusiast, raving about Sky Plus or his newfangled Nespresso coffee machine, how he can buy espadrilles, the only shoes he wears, from a kung-fu website. His house in Holland Park is full of light and life; elegantly knackered furniture, upper-class clutter and, stuck all over the fridge, funny cuttings and snaps of new babies. His half-Westie terriers Toto and George - his memoirs reveal him to be daffily anthropomorphic - pop in and out of the kitchen dog-flap as we talk.
A playwright's fame is ephemeral, since the work evaporates with a production, doesn't live on in libraries or video stores. Simon Gray has a vast and acclaimed output, including Butley, Unnatural Pursuits, Quartermaine's Terms and Cell Mates (from which Stephen Fry famously fled to Bruges), many directed by his close friend Harold Pinter. But through The Smoking Diaries he has acquired a broader new fan-base. Does he worry that he might be remembered best for his vices? “Well, I hope I'm not just remembered as someone who smokes,” he grumps.
But then the diaries, while digressing on teenage masturbation or killing wasps, will endure as a profound memoir of growing old, the tiny humiliations, poignancies and regrets. Gray, always quoting Larkin's stark poem The Old Fools, feels his years acutely. “The sadness of age is recalling when one could walk twice as fast, trying to simulate yourself as a younger man,” he says. “And you can't believe you can't.” Since much of his infirmity is self-inflicted, as Gray was also a mighty boozer, does he look at wiry marathon-running oldsters and wish he'd had a more abstemious life? “Yes,” he says, “but I might not have had anything to write about.” Gray was a Scotch drinker who thought switching to three daily bottles of champagne was cutting down. Then, just after receiving an urgent fax from his doctor telling him to stop, he collapsed in a restaurant over lunch, was admitted to intensive care and emerged three weeks later minus several feet of intestine.
This nil-by-mouth involuntary detox worked where AA meetings failed: “I thought they were great fun. Trouble is that you began to hear the same stories, even if they were told by different people. The violent ones, the vomiting-in-the-gutter ones, the sex-with-strangers ones.” He gave his own story once. “I don't know what I said, I just remember the nodding heads. I came out desperate for a drink.” Although in his dreams he is often sipping single malt, in life he detests even the smell. But sobriety has sucked pleasure from socialising: “You don't change but everyone else does. They become friendlier, easier, more loquacious, belligerent. And you don't. You can't shed your responsibilities for an hour or two.” But the consequences of his addiction live on in his bizarre body clock.
Every day he rises at 2pm and has breakfast while his wife Victoria eats lunch. They dine out most nights and, after she has gone to bed, he retreats to his study to write or read. Then he melts down and drinks a bar of Green & Blacks white chocolate - like many former alcoholics he craves the sugar in booze - takes a few pills and at 5am finally sleeps.
Alone at night he composes his journals and I note that The Last Cigarette is less waspish, more wistful: “I'm anxious these days not to write from hatred,” he writes. And, given that all of his five closest male friends, except Pinter, have died recently, it is a far sadder book: “As my life has emptied of friends over these past years, I shouldn't find it strange that I frequently feel lonely.” He tells me that when the poet Ian Hamilton died he would phone his number “just because his voice was still on the answer machine. And then one day it wasn't...”
After his cancer was diagnosed he read poetry all night - T.S.Eliot, Donne, Wordsworth - besides the bleak Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I ask if they gave him solace and he pauses so long that I wonder if I'm upsetting him with all my death talk, but he says, unexpectedly: “Actually, I've just written a book about it.” What, another one? “Yes. It's coming out in the autumn. About what I really think about having cancer. It was written to come to terms with what had happened. It was an act of desperation. And having written about it, I feel better. I don't mean healthier but easier. It's called Coda...” Then he asks me not to write much about Coda because it might damage the sales of The Last Cigarette, since it isn't - as advertised - the last part after all. So he wasn't being squeamish about discussing his disease, the old dog, just ever the writer anxious to shift product! But after Coda, he says, there will be no more volumes.
In the midst of his supposed dying, he is as productive as ever, has just completed a play of The Smoking Diaries, which is about to be staged in London. So who might take his part? He can't begin to think, since he still mourns his beloved friend Alan Bates who played him on stage many times. And revivals of his old plays Quartermaine's Terms and The Common Pursuit are to begin in Windsor and London. He says that if he did know how long he had left he wouldn't rush around trying to fulfil his dreams: “I like what I do. I'd just continue until I'm stopped.”
I expect him to eulogise about cigarettes, the rituals and paraphernalia. Instead Gray sees smoking as as much a weakness as a pleasure. He can understand the smoking ban, just wishes it was less authoritarian, permitted, perhaps, at certain fag-friendly restaurants. But he has controlled his own habit enough to get through dinner without sparking up on pavements. “At times I'm very grateful for cigarettes. It means one's life is run on a system of small rewards. You feel that you've earned a cigarette.”
He regrets, however, that he has passed his habit down to his two children, both in their forties, by his first wife. He traces the curse back to his chain-smoking grandfather. Addiction clearly infests the Gray genes. He does a wicked impression of his mother, a great sportswoman, squinting, fag jammed in jaw while playing hockey. And his younger brother Piers died aged 49 from the consequences of alcoholism.
Then Gray points to a baby picture on the fridge. “He won't smoke,” he says of a newborn, Eli, his godson, the child of actor Toby Stephens. “His parents have given up.” That thought clearly pleases him.
At that moment Toto scampers back in and Gray, stroking him, reflects
that when his pets get ill and old, he inevitably keeps them alive for
six months too long, unable to part with them, although he knows that
it is cruel. “And I've seen friends who've suffered so much more
because of treatment, endless chemotherapy, just to prolong their lives
by a few months,” he says. “Terrible, terrible...”
He recalls Alan Bates dying of cancer, hair gone, skeletal, “but
somehow,” says Gray, “rather beautiful”. Then, in
his signature gesture, Gray pushes back from his brow his own thick,
dark forelock, which I realise bears so much of his sense of self, his
defiant vanity. And I suppose you don't want to lose your lovely hair,
I say gently. “No,” he replies, his eyes very lost. “But
don't hold me to that.”
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