I have seen the last of the things that are gone, brooded the poet Padraic Colum. But then so have we all. We have seen them clustered outside the plate-glass doors of offices or under the flapping canvas awnings ouside pubs, these last irreconcilables inhaling in the wind and rain. And the crazy thing is that they are acquiring a tattered dignity, which presumably was the last thing the authorities and the doctors thought would result when they got their ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces.
But what happens when their ranks thin, when eventually just one is left, as the last old Jacobite was left in some Paris café? Will our descendants need footnotes to appreciate the touching little human drama of the night Princess Margaret stubbed her fag out in the Papal Nuncio’s steak? Will they puzzle over the post-coital smoke (which the American columnist Florence King said was the thing she missed most about sex), or the cigarette denied a Texas prisoner as his last request before execution, as this was considered bad for his health? Will they just accept that or see it as the blackest of black humour?
The young already need glossaries to understand coffin nails and gaspers; they need to have the kindness of Woodbine Willy explained, the vicar who moved through the Trenches distributing fags; and as for jokes involving the slogans ‘cool as a mountain stream’ or ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’, a campaign which failed as punters actually came to associate the brand with loneliness, they just look on blankly. For a whole sub-culture is disappearing, which provided us with metaphor, humour (and death), just as that around witchcraft and the sanitation of castles disappeared.
Which is why no academic library can afford to be without The Cigarette Book, compiled by Fletcher Watkins and Chris Harrald, two inspired anoraks who have braved politically correct attitudes to bring us, as all go into the dark, or light, everything there was to be known about smoking, its folklore, and what it once meant to so many. If only the evil Matthew Hopkins had left such a book, Witchfinding for Beginners, say, we should know a great deal more about the social history of the 17th century. This is a primer for the future.
What a dramatic prop cigarettes were once. They allowed actors to do something with their hands, also to show the inner turmoil of the characters they were playing, something that led an appreciative Bette Davies to record, ‘What emotions you can convey just by putting one out’, and the American Tobacco Institute to send her a telegram, thanking her for her contribution to the industry.
Cigarettes allowed actors to show they were bad eggs, being stubbed, not in a steak, but in a jar of cold cream (Rebecca) or in a fried egg (To Catch a Thief), also to suggest moments of burgeoning intimacy as a hero/heroine lights two then passes one to the love object, though Bob Hope gave this his own take by lighting eight at once. The irony is that in real life the ban has led to even shorter cuts to the emotions (a quarter of the Irish couples who now get together do so after meeting each other while smoking out of doors).
But if this book is guaranteed to do anything it is to make a lot of people feel much older. Where are they now, the cigarette cards of yesteryear, featuring, amongst others, the great C. B. Fry who is said to have set the world long-jump record while smoking a cigarette? And the sweet cigarettes with the red tips we held in our boyish mouths, eagerly anticipating the prospect of being told off by some passing old lady? Gone, all gone, along with some of the best TV ads ever made.
Scene, the Santa Maria. Columbus is lighting a Hamlet cigar as he assures a member of the crew that the earth is round. The next minute, the camera pulls back and you can see the ship plunging off the edge of the world and into infinity. As this happens, Columbus is happily puffing on his cigar.
There is an equivalent tunnel vision to this book. Figures from history make an appearance, but only for their smoking habits. Thus Hitler hated smoking, Stalin between pipes smoked 80 cigarettes a day, and neither programme of mass murder was affected in the least. History is a mere index, the Crimean War significant because the returning soldiers introduced the cigarette to Europe; the Latin motto, In hoc signo vinces, ‘under this sign you triumph’, what the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine saw written in the sky before his victory, is mentioned only because it was borrowed for Pall Mall cigarettes.
Culture, too, is a backcloth. In 1913, Njinsky dances The Rite of Spring, and Camel cigarettes are launched. In 1939, John Wayne stars in Stagecoach, cup-sizing for bras is introduced, nuclear fission discovered, and Pall Mall cigarettes appear. Oh yes, and very much as an after thought, ‘World War II’. Watkins and Harrald have observed the world from the behind the bike shed, and the main impression you are left with is of their lunatic industry, and of their even more lunatic decision to write such a book at such a time.
So what is its effect? Does it proseletyse? Not really. There is mischief, yes. ‘John Gielgud had a mellifluous, modulated voice nurtured by a daily ration of Turkish cigarette smoke. The fool persisted in this destructive habit until his early death at the age of 96.’ And there is a sense of distance that will infuriate some, as in this curious fact, that on cigarette packets in the West there is the health warning ‘Smoking Kills’, while on those of Japan a polite ‘Be sure not to smoke too much’.
But one piece of folklore they do not attribute. The Tony Blair Suite, a description of one of those tents precariously assembled outside pubs, and the former Prime Minister’s one lasting legacy, was coined by Tom O’Shea, formerly landlord of the Old Red Lion in Litchborough. I was there the night it was put up and heard him say it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 22, 2010