Ashes To Ashes

It's bad for your health, and now the Government wants to ban it. But for Michael Bywater, smoking is more than just a dirty habit. Here, he laments the last gasp of a pleasure that is an essential part of the social fabric
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It was its own damnatio memoriae, a self-cremating companion scattering its own ashes to the winds and leaving nothing behind except, perhaps, a faint, soothing perfume in the air and a light crackle in the lungs. No memorial; and nowhere to go to mourn.

It was its own damnatio memoriae, a self-cremating companion scattering its own ashes to the winds and leaving nothing behind except, perhaps, a faint, soothing perfume in the air and a light crackle in the lungs. No memorial; and nowhere to go to mourn.

Except for me. By pure bad judgment, being inadequately informed, I now have my own cigarette graveyard. Three Park Drive lie for all eternity, buried beneath a nice executive housing estate in West Bridgford, erected above them when I was twelve, in the space of six months between my burying the packet and subsequently feeling like a fag. On the day when it finally becomes illegal to smoke in public in this once free, proud, bronchitic country of ours, I shall take myself there and, perhaps under the gaze of some harmless middle manager startled out of his armchair, conduct a requiem for a dear, dead friend.

The cigarette was Wilde's perfect pleasure, but tobacco had its poets long before - and after - Oscar. Byron called it "sublime"; the aged J R R Tolkien said once that what got him out of bed in the morning was the prospect of another day's smoking. And the great Bach - a man so wedded to his tobacco that, it is said, when he once appeared in the house without his pipe in his mouth, one of his many children failed to recognise him and burst into tears - set his feelings down in song, in the "Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco-Smoker":

Whene'er I take my pipe and stuff it

And smoke to pass the time away

My thoughts, as I sit there and puff it,

Dwell on a picture sad and grey:

It teaches me that very like

Am I myself unto my pipe.

Sad and grey it now is; sad and grey the smokers, as sad and grey as our lungs. Our day is over, and we are done for by the forces of good sense and reason who are leading us into a safer, cleaner but, oh, how much sadder and greyer world. The horribly positive and bouncy stop-smoking maven Allen Carr tells us that there is no pleasure in a cigarette; that all it does is temporarily still the craving it itself inspires. It is, then, the perfect instrument of consumerism, encapsulating the mechanism of artificially provoked and transiently satisfied desire which lies at the heart of our frantic world. Beauty, love, fashion, money, possessions, houses, cars, expensive fountain pens which fall apart, expensive watches which don't keep the time, ugly music which palls in the listening, frenzied, jittery television ... what are these but a lesser, more elaborate form of cigarette? What good, what actual good, do they do you? And how much harm?

The cigarette was different. The cigarette was stylish, sensual, an icon of our great achievement, the taming of fire. A cigarette made a man god-like, producing the triple perfection of the cigarette (straight, circular, white) from a precious-metal case like an inflammable host from its pyx; commanding yet containing flame with the click of his Dunhill, his Dupont or his Colibri; drawing the element of fire into his very depths, then wreathing himself with transsubstantiated incense. The cigarette allowed him to gesture, to pause, to crinkle his eyes through the smoke, to blow rings or exhale plumes through his nostrils like a warhorse on some ancient plain; when he spoke as he exhaled, his words were made, if not flesh, at least visible, his pneuma marking the air around him.

And women? Women, we were told, responded viscerally to the cigaretted man. They studied the confident, manly movements of his wrist, judged him by how he held his gasper, found their eyes drawn to his lips as he drew on the glowing cylinder and, inevitably, speculated on other matters just as intimately, and pyrophorically, bound up with hands and mouths and breath. A woman, it was said, responded without thought or choice to the suggestive blowing of cigarette-smoke into her face when a coarser pass would have provoked a slap or the calling of a policeman; now, of course, things are utterly reversed.

And a woman who smoked? A woman who smoked was laying her cards - and quite possibly herself - on the table. Only a fool would mutter, as the cork tip came away bearing the carmine print of her lips, "Of course you know it's full of carbon monoxide. Of course you know it only suppresses the craving it sets up. Of course you know smoking harms you and those around you." No, one watched, hypnotised, as the semiotic peepshow - something on account - unfolded in front of you, a peepshow you had perhaps set in motion yourself ("Cigarette?"). The offer and acceptance of a cigarette could begin a friendship or a seduction, mark a reconciliation or a parting, indicate a temporary truce or the beginning of a war. How it was lit, smoked, extinguished, disposed of: all these were components of a silent language by which smokers could subtly negotiate the intricacies of the social - and the sexual - life. German pipe-smokers in the 19th century had an entire code of puffs and draws - the Puff Contemplative, the Puff Sceptical, the Puff Denunciatory - in which an entire philosophical debate could be wordlessly conducted; but the more urban, urbane language of the cigarette was equally eloquent, and you knew that a man who held his cigarette poised at 90° to the perpendicular and squarely in the centre of his mouth would never get along with one whose tab drooped artistically from the corner; while both would find a gulf separating them from the man who never held his cigarette between his lips at all, but concealed it in the Private's Grip, tucked between finger and thumb and concealed in the palm.

The cigarette itself, too, was a calling card packing more data than the smartest of biometric smart-cards. The untipped Navy Cut ("Players Please") denoted the dependable, tough chap beneath the suave exterior; the oval Virginian Passing Clouds declared a certain esotericism held firmly in check, while oval Turkish - Sullivan Powell, of course, Khedive Moyenne by preference, Sub Rosa if slightly unsure of himself - denoted the man who could combine aestheticism with the ability to coin it in. Metropolitan Reform rabbis smoked Three Castles, while Orthodox rabbis smoked Players' Weights, as did Roman Catholic priests, the former because they were maintaining vast families, the latter because they were maintaining equally vast whisky habits. Very young men smoked Sobranie Black Russian (gold-tipped) to give an intimation of their exotic tastes, and very old men smoked Sobranie Black Russian to give the very young men a hint; men who smoked Sobranie Cocktail watched their waistlines, had the loveliest little flats, and knew Binkie Beaumont terribly well, you must meet him, dear I know he'd absolutely love you. Sailors smoked Woodbines unless they were officers, in which case they smoked Senior Service. Airline pilots and operators of provincial petrol stations smoked Rothmans, and middle-aged women getting their second - and infinitely more gratifying - erotic wind smoked du Maurier with little frotting gestures, through potent clouds of Ma Griffe and Tio Pepe. Later, young women who probably would but hadn't made up their minds, quite, smoked More, while slightly older women, who had made up their minds and definitely wouldn't, smoked Gauloises Disque Bleu and the ones who had but now regretted it smoked Kent. Men who smoked filter-tipped cigarillos had Zapata moustaches and medallions, whether or not they had Zapata moustaches and medallions.

But the cigarette was more than a badge of office. It turned life into a performance. Whenever unease struck, it was there as a handy prop, a gesture as simple yet as eloquent as a lover's sigh or the swish of a cat's tail: "Here I am, and here you are too; here we all are - cigarette?" It simultaneously blurred and illuminated the mise-en-scène with its blue chiaroscuro, drawing attention to the shadows and ambiguities of life and softening the boundaries. The forgiving haze of cigarette-smoke settled like some visual condiment on our lives; could the Cold War have been conducted without cigarettes? Could the same deliberations have been carried on in smoke-free rooms? Could the code have been cracked, the plans snaffled, the campaign organised, the cold endured? And what earthly good is a Bogart fedora without a cigarette plume beneath it?

Nor was it just visual. The same blurring yet defining influence operated upon music, and one who can hear Gershwin without hearing Lucky Strike is incomplete, lacking in synaesthesia; operated, too, in the slaked intimacy of the newly shared bed: what do they do now, with no cigarettes to share, propped snuggling on the damp pillows? How do they break the silence? Or do they simply grunt and fall asleep, to dream of money and effective regulatory health policies?

The cigarette was the perfect pleasure, and could easily lead to other perfect pleasures. Is it just coincidence that the decline of smoking has been matched with the increase in volume of music in clubs? Could it be that, without the cigarette to offer and accept, people no longer know how to open a conversation with strangers, so turn up the music to avoid the silence which must follow? Without the cigarette, too, men must learn to hug and weep and show feelings and communicate our emotions, all of which we used to be able to do, swiftly and effectively, in the simple proffering of a packet of Player's No. 3 or the offer of a light. Have the blessed whores fled to the nastiness of the internet because they can no longer issue the sultry, heavily-laden invitation of their calling: have you got a light? And how can a man cup a woman's hand in his own to light her cigarette, if he can no longer light her cigarette? You cannot simply say, "Would you mind if I came very close to you for no apparent reason, then cupped your hand in mine and, actually, shone this little torch upwards on to my face to illuminate my features in a slightly eerie yet somehow compelling glow? Would you? And then we could wonder whether or not I was going to kiss you? Couldn't we? Perhaps?"

And that, maybe, is the word which most encapsulates the glamour and delight of the cigarette: perhaps ... Each new perfect cylinder, awaiting sacrifice, was a question which hung upon the air in a drift of smoke: perhaps. The answer was usually actually, "No". But, all the same, the potential was there of a successful sacrifice to the aleatorical gods of possibility. Self-deluding? Yes. But self-delusion is, after all, what we do: possessing, alone of all the animals, the foreknowledge of our own deaths, we could not go on were it not for self-delusion.

Bach, contemplating the ashes of his pipe, saw himself therein: like him, it was made of clay; like him, it would presently break and cease and blacken in the earth; like him, it produced nothing but smoke and ashes. And in that, he found not despair but consolation upon which he could ...

Indulge in fruitful meditation,

And so, puffing contentedly,

On land, at sea, at home, abroad,

I smoke my pipe and worship God

His great contemporary Handel, a more worldly man but equally wedded to his tobacco, considered the question of life's equilibrium in L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato: passion, melancholy and the balanced life. It ends with a sublime duet, the soprano and tenor drifting and coiling around each other like ... smoke.

As steals the morn upon the night,

And melts the shades away:

So truth does fancy's charm dissolve,

And melts the shades away:

The fumes that did the mind involve,

Restoring intellectual day.

The blue fragrant fumes have not simply been melted away by truth and reason, but banned by the implacable righteousness of moderation. L'Allegro's final lines are these, sung by the (healthy, smoke-free and pink-lunged) Chorus:

Thy pleasures, Moderation, give,

In them alone we truly live.

And what a cold, bright world it is without fancy's charm, the shades all melted away. Soon it will be time to go to West Bridgford and sit shiva over my three Park Drive. It is all, of course, in a good cause; "Mens sana in corpore sano", as Juvenal said a couple of thousand years ago. But Juvenal was a satirist and not to be taken at face value. What did he mean? I don't know; but I do know, for certain, that he'd have been a Capstan Full Strength man. Cigarette?