I went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the other day and was a little startled by how much smoking there was in it. Then I remembered that it was an 18 certificate movie and therefore licensed for the display of transgressive behaviour, whether that took the form of a violent rectal assault on an abusive therapist or the oral inhalation of burning tobacco. As it happens, films in which people smoke don't yet automatically receive an 18 certificate, though after watching Timeshift: The Smoking Years you wouldn't bet against it happening one day because, among other things, Borja Cantera's film was a study of how quickly the universally acceptable can flip into the untolerated. Presented as the evolutionary history of the smoker, it began with the democratisation of the fag with the invention of the first cigarette-rolling machine in 1880 and closed with a hideous vista of extinguished stub-ends, smouldering gently like a post-apocalyptic landscape.
In between those two extremes the popularity of smoking described a perfect parabola, launched upwards by industrialisation and the First World War (there's nothing like shellfire for making a smoker of a man), and then given a second-stage boost by the sexual potential of what Dennis Potter once called "this lovely tube of delight". Distressed that social taboos were limiting the number of people they could poison, American tobacco companies retained Edward Bernays to break the taboo on women smoking in public in the US, a mission he brought off by arranging for flappers to march in parade down a Manhattan street flaunting their "torches of freedom". It didn't escape anyone's notice that the cigarette had an inherent sexiness too, not just because a woman who would might do other things too but because of all the oral play involved in smoking them. As one male contributor put it, describing the erotic power of the thing: "You just wanted to be where the cigarette was, didn't you?"
The evidence of smoking's near-universal adoption (it has been estimated that more than 80 per cent of British troops returned from the Second World War as smokers) is almost comical these days, viewed from a smoke-free perspective. As Stuart Maconie, Barry Cryer and others recalled the hazy days when virtually no public space was free of cigarette smoke, it was slightly startling to remember how ghastly it could be. Because, even if smokers obeyed the imaginary demarcations between smoking and non-smoking areas in public spaces, the smoke itself was usually less biddable. Curiously, it was ex-smokers, rather than cigarette virgins, who eventually proved the fiercest campaigners against the weed, including a Glasgow GP called Lennox Johnston and Cecilia Farren, who had the radical idea of asking restaurant diners whether they would prefer to have their food without fumes and was astonished to find that 80 per cent were in favour of no-smoking areas but had never thought to complain. Some aspects of the film were a little low-tar for my tastes (it lacked the back-of-the-throat rasp of libertarian rage the subject can inspire), but its compression offered an almost timelapse vision of social change. Smoke everywhere and then, almost magically, it had gone.
In How to Cook Like Heston, smoke unsurprisingly turned out to be one of the ingredients, a smouldering bed of wood chips adding a bonfire perfume to his chilli con carne. But the bottom line here is that this is actually a pretty useful cookery programme, delivering a high tip-to-packaging ratio and some intriguing kitchen demonstrations. Some idiot out there probably now thinks it is crucial to get a large man to stand on top of a steak before you serve it up, but for those of us paying attention it was a memorable demonstration of why you must always rest it for a few minutes first.
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