Like Black Coffee, Like Nicotine
It’s the smell. It is the smell that divides smokers from non-smokers. Smokers love the smell of cigarettes. Non-smokers hate it. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the stale smell that lingers around on clothes the morning. It is the actual smell of the smoke coming off the cigarette. This is a contentious and controversial issue, so many millions of people have died because of smoking, including my Grandfather. So why do smokers, both ex-smokers as well as current ones, love it so much?
I first smoked when I was 15 years old. For a while just occasionally and then a few months after my 16th birthday I took it up on a regular basis. I was a ‘proper’ smoker. For 25 years I smoked 20 to 30 cigarettes a day. And I loved it. For many people it would have been one of my defining features, “Simon? Oh he smokes like a chimney and drinks a lot of black coffee”. I only gave up when there was a scare that I may have developed Emphysema. It was the autumn of 2011 and we’d also just found out that Alison was pregnant with Nathaniel. I came home from the doctors, carefully smoked the rest of the pack I had with me and then that night I quit. I’ve not had a single cigarette since. I can’t. Some friends have been able to become social smokers. I can’t. I know that if I had even one cigarette then I would be straight back on 1 or 2 packs a day. I am the equivalent of an alcoholic. I will always be a smoker; it is just that at the moment, I am a smoker that doesn’t smoke. Like many alcoholics while there is an addiction element to smoking, there is also a love. Simply, I loved being a smoker.
There been various ages of smoking. Up until the 1960s the majority of people smoked. In 1962 80% of men in Britain smoked and 40% of women. Even by the mid-seventies over 40% of adults in both the UK and US were smokers. The fall over the next three decades was dramatic and by the time we reached the mid-noughties not only had those figures plummeted but smoking bans were being introduced across the world. I grew up as the start of that big fall away had already started. By the mid-eighties it was unusual to smoke, we were already the minority at school. You therefore needed a reason, a cause to pursue.
It is a cliché to say that smoking was cool, that it was something that all the cool kids did, that all of the interesting people were smokers. The eighties were probably the height of the pretentious cool of smoking. We told ourselves it was what all the cool kids did. Actually, it often wasn’t. Many of the smokers I know fall into a different category. Smokers were often the quiet rebels, not cool enough to run and hang out with the really cool kids. They didn’t need to smoke to be cool and popular. We did. It was the quiet rebellion for the geeks, the oddballs, the musicians and the book worms. It also gave us quiet rebels a sense of community, a sense of acceptance. Stood on a street corner in the mid-eighties, the 1950’s were only thirty years ago, but it seemed like a different universe. We saw the provocative black and white imagery of people in New York, Paris and Soho; an ubiquitous cigarette in hand. Just being in black and white made smoking appear cool. We might not have been listening to jazz but that was really what this was about. Intellectually, in a subconscious way, we were listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis and reading Dylan Thomas and the Beat poets. It had an air of French sophistication, we could stand in the cold, or around a table in a smoky bar. We were in a French Film Noir, in black and white of course. We were hanging with Anna Karina in a Jean-Luc Goddard movie. I am sure I am not alone in that I tried, in vain, to smoke Gauloises for a brief pretentious period. There is a great quote from Douglas Coupland about France and smoking;
“Smoking in France is a real eye-opener. All the real decisions seem to get made by smokers during their cigarette breaks. I think that in France smoking is a social filter, and if you don’t smoke you’ll only ever make it to two rungs from the top, never the top. A very strong memory of France for me is of being in people’s apartments and hearing Carla Bruni’s music, and playing with bowls of Ai Weiwei’s ceramic sunflower seeds stolen from the Tate’s Turbine Hall, all within a miasma of indoor smoking. Smoking indoors — it feels like listening to smuggled Beatles records in Kiev in 1965. It feels stolen”.
There was always a sense of community among smokers. This probably originates back to school and the look-out system that was inevitably deployed. It was like living The Great Escape two or three times a day; being David McCallum having to dispose of the earth from the tunnels. At school smoking was also a great leveler. It broke across the school ‘class’ divides. When you were loitering behind bike sheds, sports halls or sixth form blocks you were all one, irrespective of what form or year you were in. It is also probably why smokers didn’t object ‘that’ much to smoking bans. It was just like being back at school, being shoved outside into the cold and wet. It gave us back that sense of community. The funny thing is that this time we found that half of the Pub had followed us, everyone shivering outside on a cold February evening.
I started off smoking John Player Special. This is primarily because in the late seventies they used to sponsor Lotus’ Formula 1 cars. Mario Andretti won the F1 Championship in the coolest car on the circuit. Let no one, especially any tobacco company, tell you that advertising doesn’t influence brand choice. However, JPS were a pretty harsh introduction to smoking. They aren’t exactly the smoothest brand out there. From JPS I went full blown pretentious for a long-time, smoking Dunhill, even Dunhill International with its bizarre two packs of ten stuck together. As for my pipe period, the less said about that the better.
Non-smokers don’t appreciate how judgmental smokers can be about what brand people smoke. Marlboro got momentum in the UK and Ireland in the late eighties and early nineties and I eventually succumbed, but there initially was a snootiness about the weird American smell of Marlboro and Camel. The smokers of Silk Cut generally came in for a lot of abuse from the rest of us. Frankly, what was the point of smoking if you smoked Silk Cut? As for Silk Cut Light!! You’d damage your lungs solely through the effort required to draw on the cigarette. You’d do less damage smoking unfiltered Senior Service or Gauloises.
There were also the inside jokes and sideways looks, especially when it came to social smokers, even more so for when it came to those who’d moan no end about smoking until around 10pm when they’d quietly ask you for one. I was always a prepared smoker. I’d always ensure that I had enough cigarettes for the evening. The problem was that people gradually became aware of that and I therefore became known as a good port of call. Suddenly I’d have ten people ‘borrowing’ off me and I’d end up running out of supplies myself. But worse of all were actual smokers you never came out prepared. It’s not like they didn’t knew that they’d smoke.
I cannot separate out smoking from drinking. This is probably because Pubs and Bars were the one place I could smoke, and boy did I smoke. I was going to make up for lost time. To me the smoking was as important as the drinking. I find it hard to drink Whiskey anymore. To me I will always associate it with smoking; the smokiness of the drink, plus my black coffee, the bitterness of all three are indelibly linked.
In spirit at least, I hope that I will always be a smoker. Eight and a half years on I still miss it. In many respects it is a state of mind. Maybe I’ll be like Leonard Cohen and take it up again in my eighties, if you can still buy cigarettes by then, if I can still afford them then. To quote Guy Garvey; "I’m reaching the age when decisions are made on life and living and I’m sure last ditch that I’ll ask for more time, but Mother forgive me, I still want a bottle of good Irish Whiskey and a bundle of smokes in my grave".