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Social outlaw

7 January 2006

12:00 AM

7 January 2006

12:00 AM

It’s the morning of 2 January as I write, and I’m gloomily contemplating my New Year’s resolutions. Actually, gloomily is hardly the mot juste. I’m having a complete jelly-livered panic attack about them.

It’s our family custom to go to the Pilot Boat pub in Lyme Regis for lunch on New Year’s Eve, and to discuss the coming 12 months. It was at the Pilot Boat that we first decided to get a cat, and I now can’t imagine life without Nelson. He’s just greeted me on my solo return from Dorset with a combination of excitement, purring affection and just a suspicion of reproach in his eyes that moved me to tears. Ever since Nelson came into our lives, I’ve wanted to get a dog, too, and each year at the Pilot Boat my wife and son firmly veto the suggestion on the grounds that it’s impractical, Nelson would be furious and Mrs S. would end up doing all the walking. Yet I ache for a dog as I once ached for a drink.

But our individual resolutions are the main items on the agenda, and this year we came up with about half a dozen each. The two that are giving me so much grief are, firstly, to stop smoking before my 51st birthday on 4 March and, secondly, to spend less on CDs.

I had my first cigarette when I was eight, became a confirmed addict by the age of 14, gave up briefly when I left university, but became a 40-a-day man when I got my first job on Fleet Street. Then, in 1997, I somehow managed to quit and I stayed stopped for more than three years.

The problem was that at least partly as a result of giving up smoking, my already heavy binge-drinking crossed the line into full-blown alcoholism, as drink came to replace many of the little rewards and consolations previously afforded by cigarettes. In the autumn of 2000, I was admitted to the Priory, and on my second day there I sent out for a packet of Benson & Hedges (you weren’t allowed off the premises for the first ten days). It was so long since I’d had a fag, and I smoked so many, so quickly, that I had to leave a group therapy session in a hurry in order to throw up in the lavatory. The counsellors thought it was the secondary phase of alcoholic withdrawal and sent me to bed for the afternoon, but it was merely nicotine poisoning.

I persevered, however — it’s amazing what discomfort addicts will endure in order to achieve a passing pleasure — and soon got the knack of it again, especially when I’d ditched the horrid Bensons in favour of lovely Golden Virginia roll-ups. The idea of facing life without them now seems every bit as terrifying as learning to live without the booze.

There are so many things I love about smoking — the satisfying little burn at the back of the throat; the craftsmanship required to make the perfect roll-up; the feeling that you are part of a defiant gang of social outlaws. Indeed, one of my chief regrets about giving up is that it will also stub out the little warm glow of defiance that comes with each cigarette, when every delightful drag feels like a brave blow against the Blairite nanny state. And I’m terrified that writing will seem even harder, indeed downright impossible, without the regular punctuation of fags.

But I’m sick of being addicted to tobacco. I hate stumbling out of bed as soon as I wake up because I’ve got to get into my study (the one room in the house where my smoking is reluctantly tolerated) to have that vital first fix. I don’t enjoy feeling like death if I have to run 100 yards. I panic about incipient lung cancer, emphysema or a heart attack. And I owe it to Nicki and Ed to quit, who both hate my smoking with a passion.

I know it will be hell at first, but surely it can’t be impossible with the help of patches and nicotine chewing gum? The trouble is that if I do manage to stop — and there will be hell to pay in our house if I don’t — I’m going to want to reward myself with loads of lovely new CDs, and those, too, are proscribed on the New Year’s list. And I’ve just thought of another bloody resolution. I really must try to write more about old pop music in this column. But how can I do that if I’m not allowed the occasional binge in HMV? God, life’s complicated. Perhaps it would be easier with a dog. I’d better put on Brownsville Station’s gloriously raucous ‘Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room’ and have another cigarette while I think about it.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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