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Addiction as muse

Book>> Coda by Simon Gray, Faber and Faber London 2008-11-24

By Robi Chowdhury
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015


Simon Gray passed away in August this year. The playwright believed that The Last Cigarette, the sequel to the critically-acclaimed The Smoking Diaries, would be his last bow. But Gray lived to complete the trilogy, though the publication of Coda is posthumous by about two months. For those uninitiated with Simon Gray, these last offerings of the English playwright--that won him a new set of admirers--were on his battles with a 60-a-day tobacco habit.

Coda like The Smoking Diaries and The Last Cigarette is a remarkably honest work. There is no self-pity. Gray admits his own cowardice, his reluctance to sit down before his notepad and address, even to himself, what was going on even though lung cancer had already passed its death sentence on him.

Readers who have been moved by the volumes of this trilogy will find this one every bit as compelling it is not as funny, despite frequent shafts of wit, but considerably more moving. Gray refuses to give way. He still finds pleasure in swimming, reading and remembering. He often calls himself a mess, regrets the mistakes he has made, his addiction which he calls "social clumsiness", and yet there is a certain grace in everything he writes, a grace that comes from a willingness to look reality in the face, and not be daunted.

Gray is particularly wise on the musings that many might have on suicide. "I wish there was a way of just dissolving in the sea, without having to go through the business of drowning first," he writes. The playwright's writings throw a lot of light on what it is like to be a tobacco-addict. "I think I'm an addictive personality. And that is my addiction. I don't think anything can replace smoking," he says. Besides, he now fears that quitting itself might kill him.

He did have a brief sojourn with de-addiction groups. "I thought they were great fun. Trouble is that you began to hear the same stories, even if they were told by different people." 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."

There is also the characteristic Gray combination of steel and yelp-out-loud laughter--particularly when it comes to doctors. One, investigating the tumour on Gray's neck, insists that finding no cancer in his throat is "good news". Gray shakes his hand, but doesn't flinch from pointing out that, surely, this is bad news had there been a new little cancer in his throat or nose that was causing the lump on his neck that would surely have meant it wasn't a secondary from the main lung tumour and that both could thus be separately operable.

   Down to Earth
I don't think I'd survive long without smoking. I think I'm an addictive personality. And that is my addiction. I don't think anything can replace smoking  - SIMON GRAY
Photograph by Virginia Tech

Near the end, Gray takes part in a church service, a christening ceremony where he and his wife Victoria have been asked to be godparents. Gray is not really a believer, in fact he was a Marxist in his early days. Nevertheless, conscious that his cancer has almost certainly been caused by his 60-cigarettes-a-day habit, he has notions of the original sin; something in him respects the idea of consequences and punishment. He reminds himself that he is "not only a great-great-grandchild of the Enlight-enment, which was itself the father of chaos, but also that I'm descended on my father's side from a long line of Scots Presbyterians, on my mother's from a long line of Welsh Anglicans who... believed in sin, original sin and sin ever since. What a mess."

About this time, Gray's mastery of structure deserts him--who knows, he would have rewritten this bit had he lived. The book becomes an assemblage of anecdotes.

Robi Chowdhury is a playwright. He quit smoking a year ago

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