PsychoGeography #88: Smoke gets in my eyes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When I used to hang out in pubs I would show people the front of my packet of Camel cigarettes.

When I used to hang out in pubs I would show people the front of my packet of Camel cigarettes. "If you were marooned here, in the desert, where would you sleep?" I'd ask them. "Under that palm tree, by that pyramid, or curled around the legs of that camel?" They would think for a while and pick one or other, whereupon I'd crow, "That's a foolish choice, because just around the corner ..." I'd turn the packet over to display the mini-Topkapi Palace on the back "... is an excellent hotel."

In Greece, Astor, with a picture of a bewigged Regency aristo on the pack, or Karelia, with elegant, cursive writing. In Italy, Toscanelli cheroots, flaring, penile, a moist patch on the veined leaf-for-a-glans; also NSU (or is that a venereal disease?) in a dull, monopolist's packet. In Spain, Ducados, white-out-of-blue lettering, and elegant exterior for a harsh, black tobacco kick. In Germany, Röthandel, inscribed with antiquated lettering and the red hand itself.

In India, Chandigarh, Le Corbusier's New Town on the cover of a pack of 10. Was it an anti-Modernist jibe that these were reminiscent of the Victory cigarettes Winston Smith smoked in 1984? Tip them up and the bone-dry, pulverised tobacco fell out of the end. In Morocco, Sport, sold in nifty paper packets with a stylised footballer on the cover. In Russia - not that I've ever been there, but a girlfriend once brought me some back - Papirossi, long cardboard tubes stoppered with a slug of coarse tobacco. This was the Brezhnev era and the large packets had beautiful Soviet Realist depictions of workers, or a Sputnik with its fiery trail.

In Australia, Temple Bar. Strange but true, an untipped Virginia cigarette in a yellow packet and on it a drawing of the Temple Bar that used to stand at the end of Fleet Street marking the western limit of the City of London. I never figured out why - but then I never asked. I switched to Log Cabin rolling tobacco, a circular tin with a drawing of said cabin on its lid, complete with pioneers and a mule.

In La Belle France, such artistry! The Gaullist helmet on the pack of Gauloise, M Ponty's mysterious, gypsy girl wavering on the pack of Gitanes. A state monopoly on tobacco manufacture may inhibit design differentiation, but can we not hypothesise that it's also helped to preserve the French smoking culture? For here the smoker still looks ineffably cool or smoulderingly sexy, while anywhere else in the world they simply look like unhealthy fools. In my twenties, when I drove regularly to France, I'd carom down the N roads overnight, then stagger out of the car in the violet morning light of the Midi, to drink Marc and coffee at a tabac while puffing on a jaundiced Boyards Mais.

In Canada, Players Filter, which as an adolescent I was amazed to see blazoned on the obverse "Players Filtre", a nice synecdoche for the nation's divided consciousness. In the States ... ah, in the States! Red Pall Mall, the coat of the royal house ... evil on him that thinks it ... and that maddening advertising slogan: "Wherever particular people congregate". Which people would they be exactly? Surely it could only mean those particular people who smoke Pall Mall. And, of course, Lucky Strike, with the proto-Op Art roundel, aiming the smoker at the bull's eye of the future. To paraphrase their slogan: "You're toasted."

And in Ireland, the stentorian green-and-white pack of Major, or the idiosyncrasy of Sweet Afton, with its portrait of the Robert Burns and a few of his verses - "Flow gently Sweet Afton & c ..." - although what he was doing having a fag on the banks of the Liffey is beyond me. And while discussing matters literary, let me observe that the cigarette pack was such a talisman for Ian Fleming - who died, natch, of lung cancer - that in Live and Let Die there is a complete seduction scheme involving Bond, a beautiful girl, and a lengthy narrative based on the old Player's Navy Cut packet.

Is it, I wonder, irresponsible or merely crazy of me to think of the world as a collage of cut-up cigarette packets? The very thought of all those midnight hours, just nipping out for a pack in Miami, Brisbane, Marrakech and Bognor. How many morning fitness regimes have begun with the short, melancholy jog to the ashtray? It was folly to sleep in the desert - so much better to stay in the hotel round the corner, where they have a machine in the lobby.