John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Cigarettes have always been in my life. It's almost like the Seven Ages of Man, starting with the Infant...'
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The Independent Online

The other night a historic dinner was held at the Savoy Hotel - one of the very last occasions at which people could eat, drink and smoke as much as they liked before the portcullis comes down for good. It was called Revolt in Style: A Freedom Dinner, hosted by those nice libertarian chaps from Forest, and the cigar-friendly Boisdale restaurant in Victoria. There was live jazz from the Boisdale Blue Rhythm Band, who played "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette" (but not, significantly, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and speeches from Andrew Neil. The restaurateur Anthony Worrall-Thompson was there, as was the great David Hockney, whose return to artistic pre-eminence with his massive paintings of trees at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has been slightly eclipsed by his role as an anti-smoking ban ranter and one-man fighting force against the "dreary" health lobby. (Don't you just love Hockney? One of his arguments against the smoking ban is that, "Two million anti-smoking signs are going up on July 1st, including inside Westminster Abbey. The uglification of England is under way by people with no vision.")

It was a marvellous gathering, thumbing a collective nose at the puritans and social engineers who want to change the nature of English pubs, and English people's enjoyment patterns, forever. Of course it was already too late:from this Sunday we won't be able to smoke in bars any more, and we'll all be forced to give up. But it was a rousing yelp of defiance - and it makes you take stock of the role that cigarettes have played in your life. They've always been there for me. Why, it's almost like the Seven Ages of Man...

The Infant. My father smoked a brand called Guards, which, like him, aren't around any more. He was a south London GP who smoked all his life. His jackets reeked of Virginia tobacco. I loved the way he exhaled from the corner of his mouth, like George Raft issuing instructions. Amazingly, his patients weren't allowed to smoke in the waiting-room, but that may have been an NHS diktat. When we played chess together every Tuesday evening, he rested his fag on an ochre marble ashtray, which now sits on the desk in my study. And no, since you ask, he didn't die of lung cancer.

The Schoolboy. When you started smoking at 15, No 6 were the cheapest brand around (apart from Park Drive which came in packets of five and tore at your throat like a mad dog.) I'd conceal them, two at a time, in the hollow legs of an Airfix model of Napoleon on the mantlepiece of my bedroom, and smoke them on the train home at the end of term (and also consuming large quantities of Gold Spot breath freshener, which didn't work.)

The Student. At Oxford, in glam rock days, we flourished Sobranie Cocktail fags in acid green and powder pink, or Black Russians in their black and gold livery. Then we got tired of posing, and took to manly roll-ups with Old Holborn tobacco and liquorice paper Rizlas. They tasted chocolatey and faintly decadent, and were popular with girls in pubs.

The Lover. You had to admit -- girls who smoked fags always seemed just slightly sexier and more up-for-it than their wholesome friends. It's all that strenuous orality, and the constant courtship of fag-lighting and hand-steadying. Lighting two at once and placing one in her mouth (Now Voyager-style) was a sneaky way of smuggling a trace of your saliva between her lips...

The Soldier.You learned from the silver screen how to express toughness through fag-manipulation. How many ciggies does the frustrated John Wayne, inflamed by the virginal harpie Maureen O'Hara, toss away half-smoked in The Quiet Man? (About 15)

Is there a cooler moment in cinema than Clint Eastwood extracting a cheroot from his mouth and using it to light the cannon that starts the war in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

The Writer. God knows where the correlation between smoking and creativity came from (like a metaphor about thoughts emerging from a fog) but it takes hold in your forties. Keyboard, glass of wine and packet of Marlboro Lights become essential raw materials for the writer. Catching a glimpse of your reflection in a darkened window, fag dangling moodily from your lip, doesn't hurt either. Soon, you have to restrict yourself to one every 400 words, or your lungs would pack up.

The Lean and Slippered Pantaloon. You are now old enough to know better. You know it's bad for you and a bad influence on the children (who are themselves casting glances at the pink Sobranies). But dammit, you're here in a fashionable club in Kensington, and lots of friends are standing around, and someone's filled up your wine glass and just one little cigarette would make everything just, you know, perfect...

****

Tricky thing, the sporran. Effete non-Scotsmen are never quite sure about its function as part of the total Highlander ensemble. Is it a kind of handbag (containing keys, wallet, fags, lighter, Ian Rankin paperback, beard trimmer, moisturiser...)? Or a pouch in which you're hiding a deadly weapon (to supplement the sgian dubh in your sock)? Or is it a form of genital bracer, like a codpiece? And what's it made of?

Thanks to the latest round of EU regulations, we know that - it's made of leather and fur. We know because, henceforth, sporran-wearers will have to carry a licence proving that the animal from which it came was lawfully killed. It's a sub-section of a law designed to protect endangered species and failure to comply could land you in the nick. Stand by for some action when police at the Raith Rovers ground in Kirkaldy decide to check on the kilt-wearers on the terraces...

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