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:
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.