The history of popular culture

7 The Cigarette
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The Independent Culture
If you are trying to give up smoking, there is one pop song you must on no account listen to. It is a glorious post-coital hymn by Otis Redding, one of his achingly beautiful best, called "Cigarettes and Coffee".

First, some angelic brass, then Otis moans: "It's early in the mo-o-o-rnin', About a quarter to three, I'm sittin' here talkin' with my baby, Over cigarettes and coffee, I tell you darlin', I've been so satisfied..." And that's it really. It's not so much a song as a doodle, fading away after three and a half minutes or so like a smoke ring floating up to the ceiling. "Help me smoke this one more cigarette, Help me to enjoy this good time we're havin'..." invites Otis over the fade.

As an alternative text, let us take John Lennon's "I'm So Tired" from The Beatles' White Album. Again, it is the early hours of the morning but John's is a solitary cigarette. The girl on whom his mind is set has rejected him and he hasn't slept a wink... "I'm so tired, I'm feeling so upset, Although I'm So Tired, I'll have another cigarette..." Goodness, The Beatles knew how to speak to the depths in their largely adolescent followers. For those too young or gauche to empathise with all-round love god Otis, John offers the cigarette not as afters but as the main event, and - always popular with an audience of young slackers - a chance to feel poetic without actually writing any poetry.

Only a non-smoker and a chump would try to deny the poetic potential of the cigarette. Jean Cocteau was neither. He wrote: "The pack of cigarettes, the ceremony that extracts them, lights the lighter, and that strange cloud which penetrates us and which our nostrils puff, have with powerful charms seduced and conquered the world."

It took a few centuries for the strange cloud to conquer the world. Bartholome de Las Casas, who accompanied Columbus in 1498 and 1502, wrote of Indians smoking dried weeds enveloped in leaves "with which they put flesh to sleep and almost get drunk", John Lennon-style; but it was not until factories in the American south started mass- producing cigarettes towards the end of the last century that the habit caught on. By the time of the First World War, the cigarette had become invested with an importance that belied its humble beginnings.

As Richard Klein writes in his brilliant monograph, Cigarettes Are Sublime, "Cigarette smoking during wartime and depressions was not merely approved as a pleasure but viewed almost as a duty that owed to the principle of camaraderie and to the requirements of consolation in the face of tragedy." The scene in All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) in which the American soldier shares a gasper with a dying German, is a nifty cinema moment, yes, but one with a sound basis in reality.

Casablanca is the Second World War smokers' classic; a film in which everybody except Ingrid Bergman smokes furiously throughout. The cigarette is almost like an extra character in the movie. Try and imagine Rick's cafe as a non-smoker. Impossible.

The anti-cigarette lobby may have rightly won their argument on health grounds, but when it comes to culture the smokers have it. Otis Redding, The Beatles, Bogie, pretty well any 1950s French black and white photograph, not to mention Paul Henreid and Bette Davis ("We have the stars..."). And ranked against these gorgeous, sexually charged images, what can the non- smokers produce as an image of the dirty useless weed? Andy Capp.