The Year of the Jouncer by Simon Gray

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The Year of the Jouncer by Simon Gray

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: The second volume of the acclaimed playwright's diary-cum-autobiography. Highly readable, entertaining and full of self-deprecating humour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 204 Date: November 2006
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 1862079072

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Experts have proved that many of us need regular doses of the musings of an elderly British playwright. The writer in question must be critically well-regarded, living in London, but with a country retreat, and be mildly, wittily grumpy about modern everyday life. Alan Bennett, of course, amply fulfils this role for many. But there is a more dissolute alternative: Simon Gray.

Gray's first stab at this form was The Smoking Diaries. The Year of The Jouncer is his second published volume of collected daily journals. The year in question is 2004, the Jouncer a family nickname for his childhood self. Jouncing describes the fidgeting in his pram which could propel it along the garden path. It eventually mutated into nocturnal humping and keening which drove his parents in the next bedroom to rage and violence.

We learn a lot about his parents in this book, as it switches between the daily doings of his 68-year old self, and recollections of his childhood. Gray grew up in Hayling Island, later moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia, his middle class existence a far cry from Bennett's Leeds backstreets. Gray's father was a pipe-smoking, philandering doctor; his mother's preferences were for cricket and cigarettes, habits she passed to her son. He portrays his parents oddly impersonally, calling them 'the mother' and 'the father', loving yet distant - as adults maybe were in post-war Britain.

Someone said that it's difficult to describe most writers' lives interestingly, because all they do is sit and write. And yes, much of The Year of The Jouncer is about Gray sitting scrawling in longhand on his yellow writing pads. But it is far from boring. For a start, he begins and ends the book in Barbados, where he holidays every winter with his wife Victoria Rothschild and his friends Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser.

He divides the rest of his year between Holland Park and his place in Suffolk, going to bed at 6am, waking at 2pm, pottering down to a local café every afternoon, watching the Sports Channel, and responding to every whim of his small menagerie of pets. Such routine aside, his year also encompasses the production of two of his plays - one a massive flop, the other a modest success - and, like Alan Bennett, the offer of an honour from 10 Downing Street (although, unlike his more principled colleague, he instantly accepts).

He undermines this comfortable routine with candid, scathing descriptions of himself and others. His self-image is the seedy reformed rogue, his style witty and rambling, most of the humour arising from despairing descriptions of his pendulous body parts, his chain-smoking, his scruffy appearance. He's not ashamed to portray himself sitting, puzzled in his raincoat, uncertain whether to take it off, unsure whether he's already been out of the house. Or there are the references to his years as an alcoholic, as offhandedly hilarious as they are bitterly honest.

His playwright's ear for dialogue and character is evident in his pointed descriptions of fellow hotel guests and theatrical colleagues. Childhood incidents become vivid dramatic cameos - such as himself and his brother fighting on the floor after a game of chess has degenerated into a brawl, their mother kicking the pair to separate them.

Apart from the statutory luvvyishness, Gray's thoughts on modern existence have rather less warmth than his reminiscences. He takes grumpy potshots at the disparities between civilised (Barbadian) and barbaric (British) societies. He snipes at government nannying, the postal service, organic crops and modern cinema. But he's equally at home pondering the shortcomings of Shakespeare's plots, or agonising about his putative homosexuality and homophobia. In short, anything that enters his mind.

That juxtaposition of the trivial and the profound provides another source of humour. In one passage he agonises that, unlike other playwrights, he cannot enjoy seeing his own work performed. He laments his "cringing, cowardly dog of a spirit that would rather be skulking in a dark alley with a goat - goat? What do I mean? What do I imagine myself doing in a dark alley with a goat?"

Such examples show his ability to seem spontaneous. When in full reminiscent flow, such as in his touching eulogy to his friend Alan Bates, he can go a whole page without a full stop, commas and dashes taking their place.

Yet Gray is clearly writing mainly for an audience. This means he can overdo the exposition (writing "My wife, Victoria" three times in one page for example). Then at other times, you need Google to work out who he's talking about, especially characters in his plays. And I never did conclusively determine which of his pets are dogs and which are cats...

But whether you're a pet-lover, or a theatre-goer or neither, Gray provides a deliciously witty, immensely readable, unashamedly learned account of his life and times. Let's hope he has more volumes of these diaries up his fag-burned sleeve.

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