In Competition No. 2370 you were asked for a poem expressing either approval or disapproval of the habit of smoking. About smoking, as about many things, I am in two minds. On the one hand I smoke three small cigars a day after meals and would never go to dinner with hosts who didn’t offer a smoking room; on the other, I dislike the smell of Virginia tobacco and would never allow anyone to smoke at my table. So I was a pretty impartial judge this week. Given the fact that the Victorian temperance hymns are pale ghosts compared to their red-blooded rivals, traditional drinking songs, I was expecting the Devil to have all the best tunes, but that wasn’t so. The prizewinners — three anti and three pro — get £25 each, and the Cobra Premium beer goes to G.M. Davis for his grim cautionary verses.
Tobacco breeds a foul disease
That racks the chronic smoker.
Observe his metronomic wheeze,
His fingertips of ochre.
His breath and hair and clothing smell
Like ashtrays left unemptied.
He knows he’s on the road to Hell,
Yet still the fool is tempted.
His health and wealth alike are lost
To feed the addict’s craving.
How flippantly he blanks the cost
Till everything’s past saving.
Compelled to gasp for every breath,
Lungs blackened and deflated,
He may expect to meet his death
The fur on your tongue,
The blur of your face,
That shadowy lung,
Your raddled embrace,
The growl of your talk,
The snag in your breath,
The phlegm that you hawk
On the highway to death,
Your urinous teeth,
The twitch of your thumbs,
The scum underneath
Your tastebuds, your gums
Not much in the pink:
Is it any surprise
That I can’t stand the stink
Of the smoke in your eyes?
A bloke buys, for conspicuous cash,
A suggestively mummified turd:
Is he classy and clever, flamboyant and flash,
When he passes it under his nose
Like a magical wand to be waved,
Are his senses aesthetic, or do we suppose
When he closes around it his lips
With no shame for the fact we have seen,
Do we choke, call the cops, look away, check our zips,
Or turn green?
If our habits define what we are —
Whether friendly or prone to do harm —
Then the setting on fire of a phallic cigar
Uneasy on the stage the actor stands,
And at his sides there twitch two empty hands;
Upon his forehead glisten beads of sweat.
Won’t someone give the man a cigarette?
A wealth of business dwells in that one prop:
You make as if to light it, then you stop;
You flick your lighter, flaunt your silver case,
Inhale… exhale… and set a measured pace.
The manner of your smoking can express
A charm, a social ease, or nervous stress;
You can be elegant, be suave, be hip,
Or let it dangle from your lower lip,
Puff on a pipe, or chomp a fat cigar:
The way you smoke announces who you are.
So take your pick, light up, indulge your choice,
And thrill us with your husky, sexy voice.
Seductive: from the silken cellophane,
The flip-top flick, the embossing on the pack,
To hands’ play, rustle, the urbane
And fluent teasing out, the practised knack
Of tasting on one’s lips the cigarette
While feeling for a lighter, the quick flame,
The first long inhalation, and the fret
Of smoke and smoke rings in an airy game.
At least, that’s how it was in films. OK,
It’s not the same outside, in rain, in sleet,
Hunched by the fire escape or loading bay
Or deep in dog-ends on a gritty street.
Office pariahs, addicts, outcasts who
Are always sneaking off to have a drag,
We keep the faith, we few, we happy few,
Making a stand for freedom — and a fag.
When the herring cried, ‘Let us ban smoking!’
The kipper said, ‘You must be joking.
Tanned and bronzed like a crab
I shall lie on that slab.
Who cares if my gills need decoking?
‘Don’t let smoking cause any dismay.
We kippers sleep sound night and day.
While herrings, queer fish!
Are nobody’s dish.
Red herrings just lead you astray.’
Then up spoke a school of young bloaters,
The posh kind, who love sporting boaters,
‘Hey, chaps, give a soaking
To all who hate smoking,
For which we are firm floating voters.’
No. 2373: Hard work
‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one,’ wrote W.S. Gilbert. You are invited to supply a poem beginning with this line but substituting some other worker for ‘policeman’ and (if you like) using ‘lot’ (again) for ‘one’. Maximum 16 lines. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2373’ by 30 December.