»  The Straggler, No. 53

April 16th, 2007

  Keep Hope Alight!


Champagne with the sweet  … Napoleon with coffee. And cigarettes. I had been thinking about cigarettes all day. These were Benson & Hedges No. 5 … and I had been smoking those black French things to save money.
                    — From Glory Road, by Robert A. Heinlein

Not a bad choice. Not very surprising, either, that Heinlein, an American, used a British brand of smokes to emphasize the unexpected classiness of that dinner in the middle of nowhere.

When first getting acquainted with cigarettes, I took the opposite view. A classy smoke in provincial England circa 1960 was a Chesterfield or a Tareyton — anything American. Our fathers smoked Senior Service or Players. Since smoking was not yet a sign of rebellion in itself, to differentiate oneself from one's boring elders one had to go for the exotic.

That was back in the Cigarette Age, which had begun a half century or so before. Cigarettes were part of the everyday world back then. The whole business of smoking was knitted in to the fabric of life. Your brand of cigarette was a social marker, from the workingman's Woodbine ("No Frills. No Fuss. Like Woodbine. Like You," promised the ad) all the way up to the "Morland Specials" that James Bond had hand-made to his own recipe by a bespoke tobacconist in St. James. There were specialty stores, like the House of Bewlay chain, founded by the father of actor Patrick Allen. There was paraphernalia — lighters, ashtrays, holders, cases, boxes, roll-your-own kits and devices. There were national prejudices, like the one — widely shared in the Anglosphere — against "those black French things." On the London Underground, just one car in four was set aside for those odd people who did not smoke. Men had their portraits painted holding a cigarette — the great operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, for example, in the 1918 Styka portrait.

Cigarette smoking was a world, a subculture, an economy, a study. Now, of course, all that has been swept away, leaving only pathetic huddles of three or four smokers on the sidewalk outside office buildings, and some fringe activity of the "lifestyle statement" type, mainly associated with cigars. The age of promiscuous smoking has passed.

Like Heinlein's hero, I have been thinking about cigarettes. This is in reaction to the news that Senator Barack Obama, one of our current candidates in the 2008 presidential race, is a cigarette smoker. In his 60 Minutes interview Senator Obama claimed to have kicked the habit, but that is a claim any smoker or ex-smoker will smile at. Just as there are no ex-Marines, there are no ex-smokers. You may retire from active service, but if you ever smoked, you are a smoker, and always will be. Semper fi.

Should President Obama lapse under the pressures of office, I suppose he will maintain the Oval Office as a smoke-free zone, slipping out onto the Truman Balcony for a quick puff, as Laura Bush is said to do. The last president to smoke cigarettes in the White House was Lyndon Johnson, I believe. In an odd return to how it all started a hundred years ago, when cigarettes were a mainly feminine accessory, it is the presidential wives — Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush — who have kept the weed alight. Possibly this is some sort of cosmic compensation for "Lemonade Lucy," the wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, a fierce opponent of both alcohol and tobacco, who banned both from the White House during her husband's mediocre presidency.

Senator Obama smokes — or (ha!) smoked — Marlboros, I believe. Laura Bush favors Kent. My own last brands of choice, before I reluctantly quit in the cause of domestic harmony at the birth of my first child, were Belair in the U.S.A., Silk Cut in the U.K. The first of these is a menthol brand, the second not; I cannot explain this. Long before that, in the remote bohemian past, I rolled my own, like George Orwell. It was an affectation, but a very satisfying one — a skill, actually, and an extra occupation for the hands during conversation.

How I miss smoking! The appeal of the habit goes very deep. Chimps, our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, will smoke if given the chance. Ex-smokers (but see above) experience occasional smoking dreams to the end of their lives. Testimonials to the benefits of smoking were once common, and phrased in the loftiest terms. Lin Yutang, in The Importance of Living, argued that the protests of nonsmokers should be ignored, since the discomfort inflicted on them by smokers was merely physical, while the discomfort inflicted on smokers by smoking bans was spiritual. (A popular brand of cigarettes in Taiwan during the 1970s was Chang Shou, which means "long life.")

Dr. Lin's disdain for the merely physical disadvantages of cigarette smoking was widely shared. Who wants to live for ever? Orwell, who smoked the coarsest shag he could find, had suffered from TB since childhood. The British socialist politician Michael Foot was, I learn from Kenneth Morgan's new biography, a lifelong asthmatic, yet maintained a three-packs-a-day habit — and is still with us at age 93. Giants walked the earth in those days.

Nonsmokers were in any case poor role models. Their leading representative was Adolf Hitler, who naturally saw the whole thing in racial terms. Tobacco was, he said, "the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man for having been given liquor." Chiang Kai-shek was of the same kidney (or lung). At his first meeting with Mao Tse-tung in 1945, Chiang noted Mao's chainsmoking, and took it as a sign of a weak personality — a serious, perhaps fatal, underestimation. Also on the allied side, there was Field Marshal Montgomery, who did not permit smoking in his presence, and once made Ike stub out his Lucky Strike.

The tabagophobia of Hitler, Chiang, and Monty is now routine, the received wisdom of our age. So much the worse for us. This life is a vale of tears, and if you think you can get through it without some occasional self-medication, you are kidding yourself. A pharmacist friend recently grumbled to me about the difficulty of filling prescriptions for Wellbutrin, a mild anti-depressant. "The warehouse keeps running out …" Are a lot of people taking this drug then? I asked. "You kidding? The whole [expletive] town's taking it!" Oh, dear. Citizens, follow Nature's way! Warehouses never run out of cigarettes.