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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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Twenty-one!

November 1st, 2006

BY ANDREW DARREL

People talk a lot of nonsense, if you ask me, about the supposed differences between men and women, and one of the principal sources of muddle, as far as I can judge from what I see on morning television, is that too few people understand what a generalization is. “The people in group A are on average taller than the people in group B” is regularly interpreted as meaning that every member of group A is taller than any member of B. Until recently the Italian government was capable of concluding that since men, on the whole, in psychological tests, demonstrate themselves to be more strongly predisposed to use violence than women are, then all Italian men should do military service — unless they know someone who could pull strings to get them out of it — and no women may. I wonder if they need to spend more time teaching statistics in high school.

My boss at the bookshop where occasionally I help out nevertheless thinks that he has spotted an area of behavior where the difference between men and women is absolute, clear-cut, and without any overlap. Declan knows perfectly well that there are lots of women who punch people they don’t like, even though men do that more often. He concedes that there are men who are prepared to dedicate hours and hours of their life every week to keeping their houses clean and tidy, absurd as he himself thinks the sacrifice is. But looking back over a long and sociable life, he cannot remember ever coming across any men who insist on smoking in other people’s homes when asked not to by their hosts — but he can think of innumerable women who do, even when that means that they will never be invited back.

The most vivid example of this type of woman is his predecessor in the bookshop, Awful Carol the Canadian. I once invited Carol to dinner in my flat, soon after I moved in. Foreseeably, she lit up as soon as she was inside the door, sending me scurrying for something that could function as an ashtray, because otherwise she would have flicked ash on the floor. She insisted on giving me a Feng Shui consultation — she had brought her compass — and therefore managed to smoke in every room of the house, including my bedroom. In the course of a visit of three hours she smoked twenty-one cigarettes. I counted the butts after she left. I remember the figure as thirty-one actually, but can’t believe that she could have got through them at that rate: over ten an hour. I admit I never asked her not to smoke, but she knew that I was asthmatic and a keen non-smoker. The other guests that evening, both smokers, ostentatiously refrained from smoking, even when she offered them her own cigarettes.

I began telling other friends about this visit as soon as I could, rather boastfully in fact, proud to have a friend — in a sense — as outrageously rude and inconsiderate as Carol. All of them were shocked and outraged, and assumed I would immediately break off relations with her. I had to explain that anyone who invites Carol over should know what he is letting himself in for, and I had been prepared for her. It would have provoked a fight even to suggest that she might think of not smoking in my house. Anyway it was mid-October, and so I could keep all the doors and windows open all through the meal, and I can’t say that I really suffered at all from the smoke. If I never invited her back, it was more because she wouldn’t use public transport, didn’t have a car, and therefore had to be invited at the same time as someone who could give her a lift to and from. I thought this was a bit insulting to the car driver who might think he or she had been invited only in order to be Carol’s chauffeur.

Then, about four months later, one Sunday morning when I was working in the bookshop, Carol told me I was expected for lunch upstairs with her. Carol’s invitations could not usually be refused unless you had had time to think out a very good excuse. When I got there, I was poured my wine, and she then started in on how shocked and upset she had been by a visit she had had that week. Gianni her landlord was trying to sell the building she lived in and had passed by the afternoon before with a possible buyer. This man had lit a cigarette in Carol’s flat in her presence without asking permission, and since it was the last of the packet, he had crumpled up the packet and put it in the ashtray. She had never in her life, she said, been so taken aback. What kind of ignorant peasant behaved like that, she asked me, lighting up in someone else’s house without asking? She had been rendered so indignant by this that she had felt compelled to tell the man off and explain to him clearly and distinctly how he should have behaved. I kept saying, “Mmm,” and, “Absolutely,” and “I don’t know how you bore it,” and all that sort of stuff. I have an unfortunate compulsion at times to play devil’s advocate though, and I did suggest that since she was smoking herself and her ashtrays were full of cigarette ends, then the man might have felt she wouldn’t mind. No, apparently, even so, you need to ask. She went on for a full half hour on the topic before going off into the kitchen to start heating up the beans for lunch. Luckily the wine bottle was on the table, not in the kitchen. Gianni, incidentally, didn’t make the sale, or not that day anyway.

Quite soon after this I had my final falling out with Carol, but meanwhile Declan had turned up in Rome and taken over the shop from her. She was supposed to stay on for six months to train him but actually stayed at least a year-and-a-half, bullying him and sponging off him before he could get rid of her. Declan therefore had a lot more to bear from the foul-tempered harridan than I did, and it may be because of this that he has such a strong impression that only women go in for this type of selfish smoking. One example, I have told him, isn’t a big enough sample to base any type of reasonable generalization on.

Of course not, he agrees, but then Carol is hardly the only case he has come across. He had to pick up his sister once at Dublin airport, and on the way out of Dublin she lit up in the car. He asked her to put the cigarette out, but she screamed and whined, and their parents sitting in the back supported her, so she got to smoke non-stop from the outskirts of Dublin down to Kilkenny, in Declan’s car, and with all the windows closed because it was November. Then there was his boss in Kuwait, a lecturer at university, Carol’s friend Rose, and so on.

This handful of cases still doesn’t provide a statistically valid sample, but we could add to them my own experience, too. My mother once almost got herself thrown out of a hotel, and she is regularly involved in quite bitter fights with the other old biddies at the Women’s Institute, and all because of her smoking — and like Declan, I can think of other examples among friends and colleagues. None of the people who come to mind, however, are men, even though we both know enough male tobacco addicts, alas.

Carol, when she did finally go, went back to British Columbia. She turned sixty last June. She is still alive, in her way. She is not happy in B.C. The British Columbians, it turns out, are, to a man, rude, selfish and inconsiderate, we hear. •

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

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