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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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An on-off affair

November 1st, 2006

BY GILLIAN WILCE

When I was a child I thought that smoking was very glamorous. It wasn’t just the lazy smoke drifting from the lips of the heroine in the black-and-white movies on TV. It was that our house smelled smoky only at Christmas, and only on those Christmases when our uncle and aunt and cousins came to visit. So the scent of tobacco loitering in a room meant something different from the humdrum, the everyday: festivity, more games (charades with four was, after all, a bit sad), more talk, more fun.

When I was teenager, about sixteen and all done up in seamed stockings and full cotton skirt, I tasted my first cigarette at a party in my small home town. And I liked it, I really liked it: no feeling sick, no pretending it was OK, just a delightful feeling of slightly woozy lightheadedness.

When I was a student we didn’t smoke much. I don’t remember anyone in my college smoking heavily (I don’t think we could afford it), but there were cigarettes around. Gauloises or Gitanes were particularly sophisticated and there was even the occasional super-glamorous Black Russian. That time, I have to confess, was also the beginning, for me, of an “other people’s” habit. My friend P, who, ensconced in his all-male college, was actually well on his way to becoming a champion smoker, later said rather bitterly that at the end of each term I used to produce with a flourish a repayment pack of ten when I had probably smoked more than double that amount of his. But at least each of those, for me, had been a treat.

When I was in my twenties and first in London, I fell wholeheartedly in love with a pipe-smoking vicar, so the smell of pipe tobacco became, first, pure romance and, later, if I caught an unexpected waft of it, pure grief, longing and nostalgia for the good times. Also, now that I was working and able to afford it, like everyone I knew I smoked somewhat more regularly. Mine were always Kensitas in a red-and-white pack — when, that is, I wasn’t on a temporary cooling Consulate jag. I may have smoked at work — I expect so but I don’t remember — but I certainly smoked on pleasurable occasions. What come to mind are assorted convivial packs of ciggies on table tops: after-dinner tables, bridge tables, outdoor café tables in Italy or Greece or Spain on our first foreign holidays. I even had a pretty flower-painted lighter, a gift, so little were we yet aware of the real dangers, from my mother. Most of us smoked in unspoken agreement on when and when not to, except, that is, for P, whose smoking had now reached the epic proportions that required a cigarette before he opened his eyes in the morning, a cigarette in bed at night, between every course at a meal, and at almost any time when his hands were not otherwise occupied.

When I was in my thirties, the great giving up began. My brother-in-law had a notice pinned to his kitchen board promising to stop forever on his thirtieth birthday (which he did). Even P — for the sake of his non-smoking partner — went through what was for him the great agony of nicotine cold turkey. After which, predictably, he became the most fanatical of anti-weed campaigners, frowning on every flick of a lighter or strike of a match. Perversely, I was smoking more than ever; I’d starting working at the New Statesman and almost everyone there did. The blue haze in the office was a part of the alluring world of journalism — not to mention its continuation in the pubs and wine bars where we spent so much time after work. And yet the information about the effects of smoking was getting more and more unequivocal, more and more people outside work were stopping, and I was beginning to realize that the cigarette you found in your hand every time you had to make a tricky phone call was no treat at all.

So when I was in my forties I gave up — often. The secretary in our department poured scorn on my initial efforts. Someone whose maximum was ten or so a day simply wasn’t a real smoker, was her view, so why bother to stop? The truth is that it wasn’t that hard for me not to smoke. So why didn’t I just stop altogether once and for all? Perhaps precisely because since I could have one or two without going on to a pack a day, it didn’t seem necessary, but also because, once I wasn’t smoking regularly, the occasional cigarette began to be enticing again. Once I moved on from the magazine I just wasn’t around cigarettes much anymore, but when I was with someone who smoked, resuming my “other people’s” habit, I would cadge one or two.

Since then there have been long, long, long times when I have not smoked at all. The stale smell, no longer enchanting, became unwelcome in a small flat which was workplace, too. The knowledge that it was a deadly habit prevailed over any regular dalliance with nicotine. And yet, even then, for quite some time there were two or three friends with whom it was a part of what we did companionably together; share a one-off pack once in a while on special occasions. Those friends too have now stopped completely. And me? Mostly I don’t smoke at all; mostly I am a non-smoker.

I walked upriver today (in a vain quest for a copy of The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray, which I suddenly thought that I just had to have to help with writing this piece) and noticed all the exiled inhaling figures in alleyways and doorways, one of the features of daytime London now. I tried very hard to tell myself how sad this was, to think intently about death and disease and stench and sleaze, to remember what it was like to be kissed by a smoker if you weren’t smoking, to visualize the way the floors of tube trains used to look. But then I saw someone leaning on the embankment wall in the sunshine smoking a reflective cigarette while he gazed at the river — and if I’d had one I would’ve joined him.

A world in which people smoked the way we used to would be a nauseating place to live. And yet it is hard to shake that ancient association between cigarettes and good times. When I first moved to my house five years ago, I celebrated the new freedom of outdoor space of my own by having a cigarette outside — just one — each evening all that first summer. Since then, while I have very seldom bought cigarettes, I’ve rather resumed my occasional on-off adulterous affair with other people’s. And yet I am also delighted for them that none of the young people of my acquaintance associates nicotine with anything but unpleasantness and ill-health. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue, Wilce | Link to this Entry

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