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Black Lamb


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A quick buzz

... and perhaps just a touch more occasionally

November 1st, 2006


My grandfather used to smoke one cigarette a year to round off his Christmas dinner. The whole event smacked of ritual, with a proper blend of anticipation, anxiety, and awe. From the moment the last bite of pudding had been put away, we waited tensely for my grandmother to fetch, with an air of long-suffering disapproval, a box of Lucifers from her kitchen. Who provided the lonely fag I cannot say, though in those days they could be purchased singly. My grandfather would strike the match with expert flair on the bottom of his shoe and light up. He smoked elegantly, without any of the coughing or puking one might associate with such an infrequent indulgence. At about the third puff, he would start to blow smoke rings of great concentricity and thick, blue intensity, through the middle of which we children would try to poke our fingers.

I suppose, looking back, that he must have smoked more frequently in his earlier years in order to acquire the necessary know-how. I’d guess that smoking was one of the few props that enabled young lads like him, who had volunteered at the tender age of fifteen (pretending to be older), to find a way through the terrible Great War. But that still doesn’t explain how he could keep his habit down to such an infinitesimal minimum, or why the annual inhalation didn’t cause him to blow chunks of turkey.

He gave up the practice for my sake. My snooping grandmother had found a packet of five Woodbines in my bedroom when I was about eighteen and off at University. Immediately he sent me a letter offering to stop if I did, and listing five reasons why smoking was a bad idea. It could annoy people sitting next to you on the train; it produced ash, which made everything dirty; it could make you cough; it made your clothes and hair smell; non-smokers didn’t like the taste when they kissed you. To me, the cough thing was irrelevant, as most of us in the Sixties oddly considered the raspy hack and “smoker’s voice” attractive. I couldn’t afford to travel by train and everybody on the bus smoked. The young men I kissed were smokers, too, and presumably smelled the same way I did. Dirt was something cleaned up by my gran, who I suspected as the ghost writer of the whole epistle, though the idea of my grandparents kissing was too ghastly to bear. Besides, I didn’t think giving up a once-yearly habit was all that much of a sacrifice, so, though he stopped anyway, I didn’t follow suit. I smoked on and off, never much, and never very competently, until we all discovered the truth about cancer and heart disease, at which point I gave up, first intermittently and then, unlike my grandfather, cold turkey. Like many others with similar histories, I am now paranoid about smoke and smokers and live in fear of my children taking even one puff and dying immediately.

Cold turkey or hot, my grandfather never drank. In fact, because we were Methodists in those days, nobody indulged in anything commercially described as alcohol. Most of the women — my gran and all my ancient great-aunts — were White Ribboners, teetotal ladies who had signed the pledge and sported a cute little brooch to prove it. My mother, always a rebel, had refused to follow in her elders’ footsteps, claiming that if ever she was stranded alone and freezing in the Alps and needed to drink brandy from the neck flask of a ranging St. Bernard, she wanted to be able to do so without breaking her word. As she didn’t set foot out of England until she was in her sixties and never did reach Switzerland, her brandy habit was even more infrequent than her father’s tobacco fix.

The lack of beer, wine, or spirits did not mean that Christmas wasn’t merry, or New Year happy, or all the other holidays, not to mention weekends and house-to-house visits, wildly jolly. Despite their fear and loathing of the demon drink, my elderly female relatives all had fruit bushes in their allotments, rhubarb plants in their gardens, apple, pear, and elder trees outside their kitchen windows. From the harvests of these, along with other harmless ingredients, namely sugar and water, they brewed (though they would never have used the term) potent concoctions that somehow made their speech slur and their noses turn red. The first of these defects was always remedied by time and a good night’s rest. The second they disguised by layering on vast quantities of talcum powder that wisped up from their faces whenever they laughed or used a handkerchief.

I truly believe that, their recipes never having called for the inclusion of anything called “alcohol,” which they all decried as an instrument of Satan, they had no idea what they had produced. For a start, they’d never have been so liberal handing the stuff out to us children, which they did with alacrity and exhortation to “sup up, it’ll do you good.” I remember my younger cousin taking his first sip of a rhubarb wine so strong he bit a hole out of a jam-jar-thick glass. Me, I preferred the elderflower champagne, so light and delicate, and with dizzying properties that came on quickly and just as quickly left.

I’ve enjoyed a quick buzz ever since. •

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


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