The heartbreaking thing about Coda is that it is Simon Gray at his very best. It is the last thing he wrote before his death, and that fact is its subject. He had learnt that he had a cancerous tumour in a lung and one on his neck that might be secondary (it was), and had been told that he had about a year to live, so he set out to record that year in what would be the fourth of the ‘Smoking Diaries’ which have earned him so many devoted readers. In the third of the diaries, The Last Cigarette, there are moments – only a few, but some – when one thinks ‘here we go again’. In Coda this never happens. It is an effortlessly astonishing piece of writing that establishes Gray without a doubt among the great autobiographers, and in doing so takes one so close to his experience that one feels like a witness rather than a reader.
The darkest spells of fear and misery he acknowledges but does not describe. We are spared them because as soon as he feels able to write, writing engages him: he is doing the thing he loves and lives to do, and the occupation rises up between him and the prospect