How went our ‘Last Smoke’ dinner on Thursday, hosted by the Spec’s Andrew Neil at London’s swish Four Seasons Hotel? If not so grand, there were doubtless other such tobacco requiems all around the country. Nicely apt, somehow, that Nanny Blair’s smoking ban coincides with her own cursing, unlamented departure from the nursery. All ‘final gasp’ mourners should have raised a timely toast for happily, poignantly, sport itself handsomely helped celebrate last rites only a week ago when the convivial chain-smoking Argentine, Angel Cabrera, won the US Open championship, leaving Tiger Woods and all the cold-eyed, humourless gym-junkies of professional golf in fretful conclave with their tight-lipped fitness trainers and ‘performance’ shrinks. Fifty-a-day Cabrera has not entered a health club in his life. Said the jovial 37-year-old one-man band: ‘Everyone else on the tour carry round obsessed personal nutritionists and psychologists. I eat steak, drink red wine, and I smoke. Plenty.’ Somewhere in the back of the field, I know, his Brit buddy Darren Clarke (who spends £25,000 a year on his classy Cuban stokies) was cheering. Here’s to Angel delighting Carnoustie three weekends hence at the Open Championship, 19–22 July.
So no chance of a last puff and pipeful of my St Bruno at Wimbledon this week. No turning back clocks at prim, puritan Wimbers, although doubtless it will turn a blind eye when the most useful of its fat cats light up after lunch in the top-whack inner sanctum of its corporate marquees. Only a decade or so ago just about every serious tennis tournament in Britain was a homage to tobacco, with sponsors Rothmans, Wills, Benson & Hedges or John Player twirling their uniformed pretty girls through the courtside crowds, Odeon usherettes doling out the freebie fags to all and sundry. I’ve still got an old Wimbledon programme which depicts Britain’s handsome champ mixed-doubles husband-and-wife team of the time smoking sensuously and sexily alongside the umpire’s chair between sets: ‘Between us, we smoke roughly 450 weekly. They do not affect our breathing and we come fresh off the courts. All athletes favour CRAVEN ‘A’ cigarettes because Craven ‘A’ do not Cut the Wind, nor do they affect the Throat or Breathing.’
The summer’s surprise bestseller is David Kynaston’s terrific Austerity Britain 1945–51. Of its 690 pages this column is mighty proud to have provided the historian with a single shaft of research — at the Old Trafford Test of 1949 when England’s 18-year-old debutant boy wonder Brian Close, ‘with greased-down, combed-back hair, complete with Frank Sinatra quiff-wave, signed young Frank Keating’s scorecard at teatime behind the pavilion after asking him to hold his smoking Woodbine’. Years later, desperate for a par for a book of my own, I asked the rest of that England cricket team what they would have been smoking that day: Denis Compton and Trevor Bailey reckoned they’d have each knocked off 30 or 40 Senior Service; Len Hutton was then advertising both Black Cat and Phillips’s ‘Sport Specials’, but said he’d always smoked Players Navy Cut. Of the pipe men: bucolic Freddie Brown crammed Gallacher’s Rich Dark Honeydew into his bowl; Bill Edrich liked St Julien Fine Leaf, Godfrey Evans Three Nuns Coiled, and rotund, rosy-cheeked Black Country tweaker Eric Hollies mixed Condor Strong and Afrikaaner Dark Shag. All dead now, except dear, good and great T.E. Bailey, 84 next winter. Obeying orders and giving up tomorrow, Trevor?