04/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Late Great Simon Gray

A couple of weeks ago I got talking to the actor and director Matthew (Harry) Burton at a party about websites, for which I have a knack. He mentioned that Victoria Gray, the widow of the playwright Simon Gray, was thinking of creating a website for her late husband, as an online resource for anyone interested in his work. I leapt at the chance. Can't think of anything nicer than working on a literary website for a change (instead of magazine ones, which is what I am doing at the moment).

I went to see Victoria in the house she shared with Simon in West London. We sat in the kitchen together and discussed URLs and formats. But also English Literature, and her husband generally. She is a lovely sympathetic person, with a kind of glow about her that people who have been tremendously well loved emit like warm coals.

Although always well known as a playwright (The Late Middle Classes, The Old Masters etc) produced in London's West End, as well as in the US, towards the end of his life his fame spread with the publication of three Smoking Diaries.

A smoker since his aunt and grandmother introduced him to the habit as a child during the war in Canada, he was obdurate and defiant in the face of all evidence. The books start quite a while after he had given up drinking, after it had nearly killed him and definitely killed his younger brother Piers. So the books are punctuated with Diet Cokes, and cigarettes. Victoria gave me all the volumes she could lay her hands on to go home and soak myself in Simon's memoirs, and I have been buried deep ever since. Breaking off for a few hours here and there to work, write myself, build my own author's website (coming soon) and ski for a couple of days, but the rest of the time has been total immersion. Bumping-into-lamp-posts compelling, the writing makes me laugh and cry and sigh with recognition.

Gray allows us to see him writing in biro on yellow pads, and reveals his physical self-disgust, his lack of certainty about anything, his low self-esteem, his humor, his honesty, his love for Victoria, and for their dogs and cats. For instance I am haunted by his thoughts on a boyhood friendship with a fellow Westminster schoolboy, Robert Symmonds (or Symonds, he can't remember which, and he died young). They were in love (Gray is not gay, but teenage boys have a habit of falling in love with each other in my experience), but Symmonds was ill and died young. Gray describes with excruciating honesty the fact that he could not face going to the hospital to say good bye and accuses himself of cowardice.

What made me cry was his memories of being loved by his parents, and how safe they made him feel - even though there were plenty of destructive secrets.

On Sunday evening, his friends and family put together an evening, directed by Matthew (Harry) Burton, of tributes to Gray in the Comedy Theater, scene of theatrical triumphs (although you would never know they were that from reading the memoirs). The stage was flooded with wave after wave of actors at the top of their game (Edward Fox, Peter Bowles, Toby Stephens, Felicity Kendal, Celia Imrie...), reading extracts or playing scenes, and a screen showed scenes from BBC plays, and feature films. It was dazzling - astonishing - I didn't know what to do with myself. It was an evening where so much talent was on display that it was almost uncomfortably rich, there was no dilution at all, but so utterly satisfying that I left the theater more delighted than ever that I may be able to pay tribute.

One thing that was really unusual about Gray, as far as I can tell from the books, was how much he loved and like women, and appreciated them, and wrote brilliantly for and about them. Englishmen never seem to me to like women much -- particularly of that class and type. I wish I had met him.