Oh Londoners, Londoners – gather round, kids. I’ve got a fan at my desk, you see. No – not a worshipping chap hysterically holding out paper printouts of The London Bluebird blogs desperate for me to add a flourishing signature to them – but a fan to circulate air over our molten, stagnating third floor office. Outside, smokers bluster about in dry heat, battling for shade under the awnings of EAT. I haven’t smoked for nearly nine years, but still when I am writing an essay I feel the old, familiar nicotine tug. I don’t get this at any other time – I gave up the Alan Carr Easy Way which reprogrammes your neurological pathways and self-hypnotises you into thinking that you aren’t a smoker, which is utterly mad. In other words, it has a strange, divine lunacy that encourages you to think you are not yourself but someone else. Someone puritan, whose nasal passages have never known a Marlboro Lights Menthol. It worked, which was somewhat startling. Other attempts to quit had lasted an average term of three and a half weeks, and would be ended with a flourish of a Chianti bottle in a local Italian restaurant run by Swiss Cottage Germans which I used to patronise, with an illicit smoke with a coffee. The moment would be divine but, needless to say, you’d hate yourself by morning. This happened repeatedly throughout my twenties. Eventually, the self-hate generated by the weakness for Mr Cigarette overwhelmed any pleasure derived from the act of smoking and if you’ll pardon the pun, my smoking gradually got filtered out. Also, I used to have my moustache removed by a formidable lady in the beauty department of Harrods. After one trip, smarting and hair free, I realised I could fully see my upper lip and it had LINES around it. All those years of sitting on concrete floors outside college drawing in smoke had aged me. This was inexcusable. Never mind the fear of the tumour. It was more about vanity in the end. I was furious that smoking had dared to take on my youthful good looks in this impertinent manner.
Smoking was one of my great talents. I was extraordinarily brilliant at it – not least because I used to spend ages in front of the mirror in my first flat practising the French inhale. This was a rather vile thing in retrospect, but it was about letting a small greyish balloon of smoke fold out from your mouth before slowing sucking it back in again, preferably before it made your eyes water. You were sort of creating a Gallic, oddly-shaped, cancer-esque balloon. I once had tea with Christopher Cazenove who had a decidedly creepy French inhale featuring an ominous glottal sound in the back of his throat each time he slowly inhaled. This made him seem like an evil dictator. I was a Silk Cut smoker for a long while, then someone gave me a Marlboro Light in my early twenties and it was like discovering crack. I became hooked on them, before I discovered the deliriously fresh Marlboro Lights Menthol, which were like having a really cold cigarette in your mouth that tasted strongly of Trebor mints. The filters were white, which added to the drama. At seventeen I came home from a Florida holiday with a dark, wooden cigarette holder which I thought made me look quite the business.
“Do you think you’re in a Noel Coward play, or something?” said my brother in the Lansdowne pub in Primrose Hill.
“Yes,” I said, and sparked up a white-filtered Cartier in a regal manner.
Cigarettes were an excellent prop for the aspiring actress. With me, the practicalities were in the way. I had to devise a plan to develop a nonchalant actor’s smoking habit whilst in a house full of non-smokers as a teenager, and the plan was tiresome to say the least. It involved a whole new outfit, comprising of gloves and a bathhat, to conceal the smell of smoke. I would then have to climb out on a window, stand on a (probably unsafe) roof that extended below my bedroom window for a cigarette break during my A Level revision, but this was a system that was delivered a mighty blow one evening when a parent accidentally locked me out of my own bedroom, leaving me, banging on the window, resplendent in evening gloves and shaking a box of matches. Oh, how we laughed. No, of course I didn’t. I was reprimanded and felt almost guilty. Apparently parent went back to the marital bed, shared the news and the two of them laughed like drains, not that I knew. On leaving home, of course, the world was my ashtray, but even then cigarettes were pricey. As a student I realised you could get three roll-ups at least from one shop-bought filter pack. They also used to have these cigarettes called 100s – which were longer. A well known actor used to come round to our house and smoke them. He used to rakily extinguish them after smoking only a third of these eerily long tabs, so I’d usually relight them later in the evening when no one else was looking. Didn’t I say I was classy?
What set me to thinking about cigarettes last night was standing around outside waiting for the online shopping delivery. I realised the feeling was familiar – standing loitering outside a building, staring into the summer sky, thinking of nothing in particular and doing nothing in particular. I was revisiting the stance of the smoker, albeit sans cigarette. I was experiencing the life of the city flaneur, the observer who sort of potters about, strolling, watching, standing. It is a lazy predicament, that of the wondering flaneur. In our working lives we are too busy to let our minds breathe for a moment. Unless, of course, you are a smoker. Ironically, smokers, who do the most to prevent themselves from being able to breathe sufficiently, are the ones whose minds breathe in city mornings. Society has decreed that smokers are the new junkies, and totally banished them to the outside spaces. Only smokers have the time, it seems, for flaneur moments. Now me and most of my contemporaries are no longer smokers, we sit at our desks all morning with no little nicotine peak to look forward to and no time out to stare at the sky and do – well, nothing, actually.
From something that was merely casually disgusting, smoking has become absolutely filthy. We gaze, hypnotised at the curlicues of white smoke above Don Draper’s head, as HBO dares, rakishly and prettily, to make smoking sexy again. It is more verboten than ever. In Mad Men the pull of the cigarette has become more fraught with sexual tension than Roger Sterling’s sock-suspenders. We can flirt with an innocent time, draw a veil over the well-documented malignant dangers of the cancer stick, throw a retro-ironic gesture towards the days when doctors advertised the benefits of a nice cigarette after a lung operation. Sometimes there is a strange variety and look of longing fired at a party towards the only smoker. We did this ourselves, and we did this to our society. We made smoking so goddamn nasty people are practically having orgasms over it. The sight of a languid Lauren Bacall doing something as extraordinary as setting fire to some rolled leaves and then putting it in her mouth still has men salivating after seventy years. In 1942, it was filthy, due to the clunking overtones of oral sex, now it’s really sexy because it’s so goddamn naughty. The image is still charged, not only with sexual tension but with a hint of dark, social depravity.
No one did it better than Lauren Bacall, obviously. I certainly didn’t. I was one of the few schoolchildren at my school who actually set fire to her own homework during a post-breakfast gasper. But there’s something afoot in the cultural landscape. Mad Men encapsulates this zeitgeist moment for nostalgia and retro-tastic hemlines, but it is not the catalyst. Something intensely backward looking is going on in our current fashion and culture (one only has to look at the Diamond Jubilee themed artwork and street parties, which radiate 1950s characteristics in a way The Silver Jubilee in 1977 did not) which perhaps is about grasping on to something in the past for reassurance and comfort in times of economic difficulty. Smoking is coming in on this tide, this pre-Pill, halterneck, cocktail hour, filled with tinkling glasses and soundtracked by bossa-nova on Verve, which has been swinging in ever since the credit crunch. If we had allowed smokers to cower in pub corners we probably wouldn’t have thought about it much. If we had taken the Victorians advice, and had a saloon bar and a public bar in one public house as they did, we could have one room for the smokers and one for the non-smokers. We could have all been happy. But we had to fetishise them, didn’t we? The draconian smoking laws have had the unintentional result of making the smoker a rare and exotic beast in television and film culture. Actors have difficulty getting laws passed where characters can smoke cigarettes on stage. This is stupid. I’m not saying we should shove Rothmans King Size into the mouths of five year old children on the way out from school, but we have failed to be sensible and created a retrotastic, dangerous daft taboo.
I’m not going to start again, don’t worry. When I gave up my singing voice improved dramatically. Suddenly it could do vocal gymnastics it couldn’t do before. It was going well, before the neighbours complained. So that’s a plus. Oh, and I still have no wrinkles (tick) don’t have to spend what appears to be about a tenner these days for 20 cigarettes (tick) and have not hankered for a smoke since 2003. See? I’ve given up for eight years, ten months, two weeks and four days 45 minutes – and I haven’t thought about it once.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. I’m off for a fag now, but if you’re interested this blog is updated every Thursday.