On fresh air alone

If you want to go somewhere and enjoy an undisturbed smoke I suggest the Nineteen-Fifties. If you were actually around at the time, it’s no problem—wings of memory will take you and your membership remains free for life. Otherwise you need to be escorted as a guest. I’ll do my best to take you to that strange land before smoking was “an unfashionable and socially reprehensible thing to do”, with “myriads of ugly propaganda campaigns urging us smokers to quit*. For the de luxe leisurely cruise, I recommend Simon Gray and his four volumes of Smoking Diaries, which posterity may still cherish when his plays are long forgotten. He wrote them not as a paean to smoking, but to try and break his own habit, in the years between a deadly diagnosis and its inevitable conclusion. Instead of reaching for a cigarette, he would write—anything that came to mind: the scene in front of him, the never-ending saga of a working playwright coping with revivals of his work, friends getting ill and dying (including his better-known friend & colleague, Harold Pinter), reminiscences, wry comments on life. And there’s always the running sub-plot of a backsliding into smoking again.
The first time I gave up smoking myself was on New Year’s Day 1958, about 1.30 in the morning. I was walking back in the fog and frost from a party hosted by my mother’s school-friend Joy Townsend. I was not yet sixteen. We’d played various parlour games, including Consequences, which turned out rather adult and risqué in that company. There was a competition for the best effort at carving a large potato into the shape of an animal, which I won. I wasn’t used to alcohol, & by the end felt in sore need of some fresh air. But Joy’s niece, the same age as I, persuaded me, without my noticing, to stay till the other guests had left, so we were left alone on the sofa. This was a new thing for me, having spent most of my childhood at boys’ boarding schools with only hearsay experience. I’d thought it was supposed to be boys who chased girls; and if the movies showed otherwise, I wouldn’t have noticed, as those bits bored me. Why slow down the action with all those scenes which ended with a kiss? When we kissed on that sofa, I noticed pale hairs on her upper lip, halting any arousal of my dormant interest.

I was glad then of solitude & cold air as I walked home through the empty roads. Home? I must have been lodging at Katie Spencer’s, another of my mother’s school-friends from the Twenties. I didn’t actually have a home in the normal sense. I’d lived with my parents on the Isle of Wight but they had to move away. Going down Springfield Road, I remember frost sparkling on the sidewalk under each streetlamp, plumes of steam from my breath, a sense of purity and promise on this first day of the year. I might have recalled these words from Tennyson:

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes:
May my soul follow soon!

I was not like any other boy that I knew, that’s certain; nor any girl that I’d met, including Joy’s niece. On a sudden impulse, I took from my pocket the pipe I’d bought the week before, broke it in two and threw it across the sidewalk, scattered the freshly-bought ounce of tobacco, emptied my box of matches with reckless disregard for civic tidiness. I don’t remember why I bought the pipe, or how many times I had smoked it, only this dramatic New Year resolution, dedicated to the brand-new 1958 me.

As for cigarettes, I did have more familiarity. I was eight when I first bought some, with the intention of selling them on at a slightly higher price to tenants at my grandparents’ house. When they were not interested, I tried one myself. I didn’t really start till I joined the Cadet Force. It seemed inevitable, once given the uniforms and being encouraged to play at soldiers. On Field Days, we’d be transported to some remote spot on the Downs for manoeuvres—keeping out of sight, creeping up on the enemy, waiting endlessly in the chaotic “fog of war” for something to happen, anything at all. In short we were play-acting, heroes in our own war movies. Initiative was the thing, and a surreptitious smoke behind a hedge offered more excitement than most of our botched military exercises.

Later I joined the Air Force Section and for one of our annual “camps” we were posted to a station called Gütersloh, still at that time part of the post-war Allied Occupation of West Germany. Instead of the usual barrack rooms, we were billeted in the Officers’ Mess where you could obtain Lucky Strikes, Camels & other exotic cigarettes tax-free. I bought as many as I could carry on the flight back to England. We were taken in a DH Dove belonging to Transport Command, back to an English RAF station with no immigration or customs checks. When I got “home” I smoked them incessantly. I call it “home” in quotes because I hadn’t been to my parents’ new house before and they hadn’t offered me a bedroom to myself at this stage. So I camped on a couch in the lounge & considered myself an elegant young officer. It may have been then that the smoking really caught on.

Back at school, I had been moved to a different House. As a scholarship boy I was expected to earn my keep as required looking after younger boys but now I was billeted with boys only a year or two younger than I. One of them was John Perkins, who lived in Rhodesia, and had brought back large bags of partially cured leaves from his parent’s tobacco farm. The aroma was like nothing else, not pipe tobacco, cigar leaf or Virginia, but it was nice. We used to find a quiet place among the outbuildings and general wilderness around the House, in which to make roll-ups in thin brown paper.

I can’t remember any reason not to smoke in those days, though our Headmaster was very much against, for reasons of his own which you can read here. You could smoke upstairs in a bus, in railway carriages other than “no smoking” ones, upstairs in the cinema, at work, in pubs of course; but also in the home and in other people’s homes, unless they fussily said they would rather you didn’t. At least that is how I recall it. My eldest daughter was born at home in April 1970, and I used to have a photo of the newborn in bed with her mother, an open packet of cigarettes lying alongside on the table. They were “only” Churchmans No. 2, small like Woodbines and filter-tipped. We bought them in packs of 10 and considered this hardly smoking at all.
It was a few months later, in January 1971, that I gave up smoking again, in circumstances oddly reminiscent of the first time. It was a morning of frost and fog. I was working at County Hall, on the River Trent at Nottingham, near to the famous Trent Bridge Cricket Ground. Our programming team had been moved out to an annex. There was a meandering riverside path to the new offices, and it was still dark; but under the streetlamps, the frost sparkled, and my breath came out in plumes of steam. Again, I had this wonderful sense of a new beginning. I discovered a sacredness in the air itself. The sharp cold air entering my lungs was divinely intoxicating, and I saw that nicotine was a mere drug, one that was trying to rule my life, creating its own annoying ebbs and flows of desire and satisfaction, like ocean tides pulled by the Moon. With pure air, I would be free from those flows and liberated to serve my own goddess, whoever she might be. I don’t think by then I’d discovered Gerard Manley’s poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe”, but it expresses exactly what I felt:

This air which by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise
Minds me in many ways
Of her . . .
. . . Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
Let all God’s glory through,
. . .

I’m under no illusions that this, my recipe for giving up smoking, will immediately appeal to the general public, let alone my select band of readers. I’m not here to preach its virtues, especially as its fragile magic lasted for two weeks only, destroyed by a fatal interruption. This was when I became the guest of a hippy from America, with a long black pigtail. In ritual solemnity, he offered me a small square of wallpaper to chew. It was impregnated in LSD. My love-affair with “World-mothering air, air wild / Wound with thee, in thee isled,” was over. There followed a great drift into lostness which lasted the next thirty years, punctuated by always-guilty cigarettes.
It is of course pointless to smoke these days, amid the misery of mass condemnation. Smokers of old, that is to say till the late 20th century, were able to invest soul in it, tobacco being their drug of choice for contemplative moments. Furthermore, it was imbued with meaning socially, the focus of myriad complex behavioural codes. For good or bad it fuelled the century, all its wars, dramas, catastrophes, manias, French intellectuals, existentialists, lovers, soldiers, tramps, revolutionaries, starving artists in garrets.

Eventually it became clear that it hastens death, so it must (so the logic goes) be made extinct, like polio, tuberculosis, malaria, though none of these has yet. The logic must be pushed to its conclusion. One by one, every single cause of death must be eliminated, old age no exception. Every dangerous practice, such as climbing up ladders alone, must be forbidden. Only suicide, in theory, will declutter the world of surplus humanity, unless people become spontaneously murderous, for which purpose there is no shortage of weapons. And now we read:

Cancer is the best way to die and we should stop trying to cure it, says doctor

Dr Richard Smith said cancer gave sufferers time to say goodbye and pain could be endured through ‘love, morphine, and whisky’.

Meanwhile, the world is awash with do-gooders anxious to point out that the past, by and large, was intolerant, prejudiced and evil. Only the present day is enlightened, they would have us believe, blind to anything but their own mission to harass and hound everyone who thinks differently from themselves.

So I’ll end with this quote from Simon Gray’s The Last Cigarette:

I read in the papers the other day that they’re going to ban smoking in California prisons, including in the cells on death row. As all things Californian, except its weather, eventually spread round the world, there’s more than a good chance that smoking will also be banned in prisons near home, the ones in which if I am sent to prison, I am likely to be housed. I once spent almost a month in Los Angeles, but apart from a misunderstanding with an attractive Jewish lesbian stand-up comic, whose breasts seemed, from a drunken male heterosexual point of view, more Jewish than lesbian, I don’t believe I did anything in California for which I could still be extradited, although you never know, with new sex laws being introduced every day, no doubt all of them to be retroactive, I might conceivably end up in a prison there, perhaps even on death row. On the other hand, as I’m trying to give up smoking, that could be the sort of extreme solution I’m looking for.

This is not a good century in which to smoke. Tobacco’s glory days are over. Amen.
* See Bubo’s post about giving up smoking.


13 thoughts on “On fresh air alone

  1. “And there’s always the running sub-plot of a backsliding into smoking again.”

    Yeah, my life has a subplot like that too.

    So glad you reinstated this. I especially like the New Year's reminiscences, the scene on the sofa and the walk home in the cold. Reminds me of scenes from my own younger days, not the same scenes, but similar. I spent some time on sofas with girls and I know about walking home on those empty streets (always seems like I never had my hat on those occasions or at least didn't feel the need to wear it. I just felt wide-eyed and ready to take on anything.) I love how with a story like that, which it touches on some rich common thread of memory, even the details which differ seem to enhance that connection and draw out the vividness of the memory, rather than diminish it as one might expect. It's as though it broadens the horizon in which those experiences and feelings are possible. I love that sort of thing.


  2. I don't really know how to respond to this post, because I am aware of a fundamental contradiction in my thinking and feeling processes. Let me try to explain.

    I had my first cigarette when I was 16. I was hooked straightaway, and remained actively addicted until December 1990. The only reason I remember the date is because I have it noted in a personal file in which I keep all my interesting life steps. I had tried to stop on a number of occasions, unsuccessfully, displaying all the classic signs of addiction. When the moment came, mentioned above, I just felt that 'now is the right time'. I did not discard my pipe, matches or pipe-cleaning tool, but simply stopped buying tobacco. The driving force behind my determination to stop smoking (and I went through six months of hell) was that I was filled with such disgust with the whole idea of being at the mercy of a drug (and I had only two years previously parted company from an alcoholic) that I was determined that this at least I would not be powerless over. Occasionally, I still have dreams that I never really stopped smoking, and that my current contacts are well aware I still smoke. That seems to be a small price to pay for breaking free of the habit. It's been 24 years now.

    All my thinking is very pro stopping smoking and other drug usage, firstly out of compassion, but also to protect those who are vulnerable, such as children. On the other hand my feelings rebel against the kind of mob rule that goes under the name of public opinion. Who are these faceless people who set the shaming trends that we are supposed to follow? Unfortunately, smokers behave in notoriously selfish ways which tend to undercut any dispositions others may have towards allowing them the freedom to slowly kill themselves.

    So I find myself caught in a dilemma. I know what is the sensible, healthy option. I just thoroughly object to the ways in which people are bullied and harassed into doing the 'right' thing. I think I had better stop here, before this comment develops into a rant about controlling behaviour……and all the rest!


  3. Well said, Tom. The post was written for all those caught in the same dilemma, and as I said, the only safe place is the past, that is to say imagination, where public opinion isn't so oppressive. Or rather it is oppressive in a different way. In the First World War, which I'm living through my great-aunt's scrapbook, slowly being turned into a permanent public blog http://osdscrapbook.blogspot.co.uk/ , woe betide any young men who didn't do their patriotic duty and enlist, though this patriotic duty was perhaps a thousand times more lethal on average than a lifetime's smoking. Young women would cry “shame” and hand you a white feather. Fortunately this hasn't been described in the scrapbook. There all is heroic, God on their side and so on.

    Coming back to today, smokers are condemned by the medical profession (which is fair enough, I suppose) but everyone else too. If you look at it differently and acknowledge what a boon this drug called tobacco has been to man over the centuries, what solace it has brought to sailors and soldiers etc, you might allow that such a boon may bring with it certain side-effects, for example cancer, heart trouble, early death, all the rest. As you the say, the mob has determined against it.

    Meanwhile, other drugs, also boons, I believe, in their own right, have very frightening possible side-effects, as listed in the accompanying leaflet. Such a one is the statin, prescribed against cholesterol for everyone over a certain age. Several times I've stopped and been brow-beaten by doctors into starting again, because it is their policy and they couldn't therefore care less about the side-effects.

    Which obviously is not an argument to day that smoking is good for you. It's an argument to show that those in authority (the mob of public opinion being the most egregious example) will make life miserable for others if they get the chance.

    Human dignity dictates that you and I do what we do voluntarily, not in obedience to the mob. We must have the courage of King Charles I as he went to his public execution, still showing himself to be every inch a king.

    And if ever I have good reason to shorten my life, to avoid burdening others, I might in principle, start smoking again, ideally three packs a day, but I doubt if I could now. The addiction to good clean air in the lungs is too strong now. I'm too old to give that up. Sorry.

    Dignity. It's more precious than prolongation of life. That's the thing to remember.


  4. “It's as though it broadens the horizon in which those experiences and feelings are possible. I love that sort of thing.”

    Quite so, Bryan. And as I or we used to say, “The personal is the universal”. By which I've always meant how precious it is to be able to recognize oneself in the other, as a kind of alter ego living in a parallel universe.

    And it's even strange to delve back into one's own memories, because they come out as isolated vignettes, leaving you, as in my case after that party, wondering in retrospect how I got there & where I was going.

    And then, whilst we can recognize as you say “some rich common thread of memory”, much of what I hear on the radio for example, when someone talks about a favourite song and what it reminds them of from their teenage years, I feel it utterly alien from start to finish.

    Perhaps what it is, is to know one's zone of comfort, where one feels at home, one's own generation and class perhaps, where you can recognize such and such as being your own people, understand them, trust them, because they are like the people you have grown up with. The others, faceless people, the mob, as Tom calls them, perhaps in a slightly different context—they are like foreigners whose language we don't understand, whose motives we suspect.

    Sometimes I think that if I went North to Liverpool or Glasgow, to pick two cities I've never been, they might be hostile to this “soft Southerner”, and I'd think “who are these alien northerners? I cannot begin to understand their world.” In practice these strange notions tend to vanish when you meet someone face to face, and then the “rich common thread” comes to the surface.


  5. I suspect that smoking was that 'common thread' which helped many to feel less like outsiders. Eventually being an outsider becomes the class which gives one identity and security. Coercion may be a temporary measure provided until one can attain a greater liberty.

    A breath of fresh air is indeed precious.


  6. I believe you have a valid point here, Ellie. We could put a case together demonstrating behaviourally that the chemical effect of tobacco on the brain is to foster “belongingness”.

    We can go back to the origins of the tobacco-smoking ritual amongst Native Americans: the passing around of the “pipe of peace”.

    Or we can refer to one of the most notorious TV adverts in the history of that medium. Everyone liked it and it was made by Carol Reed, who also directed the famous film noir movie, “The Third Man”. Here it is. The problem was in the voice-over slogan: “You're never alone with a Strand,” which everyone soon picked up. It had the effect of killing the brand stone-dead.

    You will also note that my illustration, fourth from the bottom, is the original still used in the print version of the Strand advert.


  7. We just watched a movie on dvd which provided a warning against WAR, VIOLENCE AND HISTORICAL SMOKING. We can't be too careful.


  8. True, we can't be too careful. Do you think I should put a warning up at the top of this page?

    “The content you about to read may contain Historical Smoking, or references to Psychedelic Drugs.


    Cough! Cough! Get me out of here.”


  9. But really, the use of that adjective “historical” speaks of such a safe corporate mindset. “We're just including the smoking as a nod to historical accuracy. We're not advocating anything. We're not trying to make anyone look 'cool.' Please don't send us angry letters. Please!”

    Reminds me of back when writers would excuse the use of profanity in their stories by citing the fact that their characters were in the army. Thus seeking pardon on the grounds of verisimilitude.


  10. Yes, it's certainly worth thinking about the effect of one's words. The beauty of not speaking on behalf of a corporation is not having to follow the safe corporate mindset.

    All the same, here we are offering our words free to the world. We all know what can happen when someone gets offended. We all temper our heroic devotion to truth with a little self-interest, watching our back.

    I just finished watching “Night Falls Over Manhattan”, dir. Sidney Lumet, all about moral dilemmas & the foolishness of imagining that we can get by through simple-minded righteousness.

    This is obviously a digression from the points you made. I can't think of a sound reason for worrying about that.


  11. Well, thank you! Didn't I find your blog through Hannah Arendt? I saw the eponymous film the other day and loved the way she was never without a cigarette, especially when thinking, as if the one were an outward sign of the other.


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