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The Last Cigarette is the third volume of playwright Simon Gray's diaries which he began with The Smoking Diaries.back in 2004. Its not easy to categorise these books - I've chosen "diaries", for most of the time they record daily events over the course of a year or so, but also slip back to descriptions of events in the past. The free-form, conversational style gives the reader the impression that he's almost feel that you're listening to Simon Gray while chatting in a bar - which is not surprising because apparently he writes his diaries on an A4 pad, whenever he finds himself alone in a café, bar or hotel room.

The diaries contain a wide range of topics - descriptions of holidays in Greece and Barbados, the period when his play Butley was being produced on Broadway, stories about student days at Cambridge and early girlfriends, and underlying it all, Gray's love/hate relationship with cigarettes and his attempts to stop smoking. Needless to say, we never actually reach the "last cigarette" by the end of the book, despite countless struggles during earlier chapters.

What is so appealing about the books are their extreme, almost painful truthfulness. Gray makes no attempt to make himself seem a more attractive character. He describes his weaknesses and his failings with complete candour, and many readers will recognise their own behaviour in Gray's diaries.

This is not to say Gray's diaries are all introspective - far from it. There are many humerous sections, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the lost airline baggage, the Greek taxi-driver, the pest controller, and many other amusing episodes.

We also read of many of Gray's literary and theatrical friends, and it is moving to read of dinners with Harold Pinter and his wife Antonia Fraser during Pinter's illnesses. Gray gives many insights into Pinter's character, particulary his rages, which contrast so greatly with his general gentleness and tenderness. I think many of Gray's personal reminiscences of Pinter would provide important material for future biographers.

A final section of the book is set in Broadway, where Gray's play "Butley" was being revived, forty years after he wrote it. We read of a telephone call Gray receives from the producer while on holiday in Greece, asking if Gray could re-write the final scene in order to accommodate the deficiencies of one of the actors, who is having difficulty in mastering the correct English tone to his part. Gray knows in his gut that the real solution is to sack the deficient actor, but everyone on the cast speaks so warmly of him that he goes along with the re-write. This proves to be far more difficult than expected: by changing one line, you affect others, and by changing one act, you have to make sure that earlier acts are consistent with it, and so on. The re-write is typed on a tiny hand-held Blackberry in an hotel bed-room, and Gray rapidly sees that his initial compliance with the director's wishes in not insisting that the actor be fired is escalating out of control.

I find these "Smoking Diaries" beguiling, mostly because of their candour. The books almost give the reader permission to be "real". I seriously doubt that Gray had any outcome like this in mind when he wrote them, but by the end of each volume you might feel that you have felt that one other person at least messes up in the same way as you.
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I've just finished this, the third volume of Simon Gray's Smoking Diaries, and it wasn't gloomy at all. I'm a bit surprised by this, as I had let myself infer from the title that it would be a final reckoning of a sort. Thankfully this proves not to be the case - here are the spontaneous musings of one of England's best wordsmiths; at times funny, at times rather self-pitying, but at all times very enjoyable.

The fact is, that SG gets better and better the further through these volumes one gets; he's grown so comfortable with the habit of putting his thoughts down onto paper that he hardy seems to bother editing them before they arrive - in fact, they don't get edited once they're on paper, so I can only assume that they're so easily read because somehow we as readers can sense the train of thought that Simon embarks upon, and ride it with him as it meanders across the little hills, troughs and valleys that make up the psychological landscape of his normal day-to-day existence.

In the previous two volumes, we've seen Simon on holiday and at home - even involved with a bit of rehearsals in the second volume - but here we follow him to New York as his play, Butley, makes it onto Broadway. He goes off on hilarious tangents at times, often terribly inappropriate ones; part of the reason they're funny is because we're used to it, and expecting it by now (this is the third volume, after all!)

He's doing better financially in this volume, I'm happy to say - and his way of getting to the nub of situations is just as developed as it always was. He spends a lot of his time contemplating giving up smoking, then distracting himself from the thought, or blaming something for making him have one (at one point he even blames the moon - a self-mockingly poetical excuse for the indulgence of one's nicotine habit, but a lovely one nevertheless).

It succeeds in being totally 'in the moment'; there's no false narrative, or unnecessary storyline to keep action moving along - we have Simon at his notepad, worrying about something small. or we have Simon at his notepad describing the view from his balcony in a hotel on an island in Greece, for example. Like all good writing, it feels effortless.

If you've read the first two volumes, this is more of the same (and obviously you'll enjoy it immensely); if you haven't, then start with The Smoking Diaries, progress onto The Year of the Jouncer (Smoking Diaries Volume 2), and end up here. It's a great ride, even if the destination is unclear.
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on 2 August 2010
Simon Gray wrote my favorite play, "Butley," as well as several other plays and books, some very good but none that ever matched that one, which echoed so much of his own life as a university lecturer in English literature--or his conflict and bitterness and intelligence that come through so clearly in his "Smoking Diary" memoirs. Once I had the opportunity to ask him to autograph my copy of "Butley," but I backed off because he was throwing a tantrum at what seemed to be a helpless woman who was in charge of his appearance at the 92nd Street Y; his temper was rather frightening. But he was a fascinating man who wrote about everything almost compulsively, with sharp wit and unique style, and his viewpoints, while not always agreeable or comfortable, are worth reading. And besides, in this book he also talks about my favorite actor, Alan Bates, as well as Nathan Lane, Harold Pinter, and other interesting characters, some of whom he doesn't name (but it's fun to guess).
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on 24 September 2009
a wonderful end to a most enjoyable trilogy. So happy to have read this lot.
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on 18 February 2009
One of the funniest (at the same time moving) books I have ever read.
I recommend any / all of Simon Gray's books. Sadly he died just before Christmas last year. Through his books I felt as though I knew him and I will miss him.
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on 29 August 2011
If you like diaries as I do you will love this, a bit ubconventional in that there are few dates and times but nevertheless an enthralling read.
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on 9 September 2013
All the smoking diaries are a delight, the sadness being that there will be no more. Victoria must have been a saint with his sleeping habits!
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on 8 June 2008
There is something similar about the Simon Gray diaries and Jeff Bernard's old Low Life column but this is if anything even more readable and it would be hard not to empathise with Gray. I love his observations and frank turn of phrase. His best installment yet. Hard not to love
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on 21 August 2014
Wonderful style. Gray never disappoint.
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on 31 August 2015
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