thefilthycomma #54 | | DJS

thefilthycomma #54

The Life of Breath project has engagement with schoolchildren  as one of its stated aims, encouraging them to look after their lungs the same way they might look after their teeth. The public health approach towards smoking in teenagers in particular has been prevention rather than cure in recent years, because what one ex-smoker friend calls ‘getting the tobacco monkey off your back’ is so difficult.

Smoking is an addiction, often treated as a nicotine or tobacco habit, with patches and other forms of nicotine-replacement. However, any former smoker will tell you that physical routine is a strong element of the addiction, and that even simple things such as wanting something to put in one’s mouth or hold in one’s fingers can trigger the craving far more quickly than the smell of second-hand smoke. As so often happens in the phenomenon of the ‘Proustian rush’,[1] smells and other bodily sensations are powerful triggers of memories, both good and bad. Indeed, the smell of smoke can take on other psychological associations: many former smokers come to dislike it intensely, while others may miss it and find that their house no longer smells like ‘home’. In my own case as a former pipe-smoker, I missed the pleasant, patient ritual of filling, lighting, nursing and finally smoking the pipe; without it, I felt idle and fidgety and returned to much older bad habits, such as biting my fingernails. Even now, several years after the 2007 ban on smoking in public places, smoking lingers. It seems that the ban has achieved its goal of protecting non-smokers from passive smoking, and smoking has become marginalised and inconvenient.[2] Recently at a train station, I watched a fellow passenger (unlit cigarette in mouth) being moved along by the ticket officer, the hot-dog man and a customer of the nearby model railway shop, all of whom explained to him in turn that he was (as it were) invading their airspace. Obviously humiliated and cross, he persevered, eventually standing awkwardly in a patch of weeds and smoking in a way that suggested it gave him no pleasure.

In recent short years, smoking has changed from a rebellious act to something slightly shameful and pathetic. In my own smoking days (the 1990s), smoking still had something dirty and cool about it. However, whatever advantages pipe-smoking may have as a form of teenage rebellion in terms of originality are balanced out by considerable disadvantages in practical terms, particularly concealment. If caught in the act behind the proverbial bike sheds, a cigarette can be thrown away or crushed underfoot. What can one do with a meerschaum? Push it into one’s pocket, thereby smoking oneself from the outside like a kipper? Even if one were able to tap it out first, the resulting pile of smouldering tobacco remains easily detected with both eyes and nose. Moreover, even an empty pipe is not easy to conceal. One cannot simply quote Magritte and hope for the best. As teenage rebellion, smoking a pipe simply doesn’t work: it is too self-consciously weird, and too old. Cigar- and pipe-smokers are typically male and middle-aged, whether real (Churchill, Castro, Freud, Elgar, J.B. Priestley) or fictional (Gandalf, Nayland Smith, Sherlock Holmes).[3] By contrast, as Matthew Doyle suggests in his essay ‘Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette’, cigarettes have a youthfulness about them, a quality that he describes as ‘edge and elegance’:

The fascination emerges from … adolescent exposure to French films, junkie writers, and rock stars … Cigarettes, coffee, idle conversation became the fuel of independence.

Notice how, although Matthew Doyle is writing in 2013, his examples are from several decades earlier. As he implies, young smokers may experiment with smoking in the same way that they might experiment with anything that feels grown-up. It can be a sort of performance, for the benefit of those we know (or hope) to be watching us do something naughty or fashionable.  Simone Dennis quotes a conversation with a young smoker:

Megan pointed to the dissolving boundary between cigarette object and her own hands when she spoke of her attempts to ‘look sexy and elegant’ as she smoked. Megan said, ‘I always smoke long cigarettes, Super Kings, and lately, I have been considering using a cigarette holder.’ When I asked her why, she looked disapprovingly at her hands. ‘My hands are really pudgy, and my fingers are short and squat’, she complained. ‘When I hold a cigarette, like this’, she said, holding up her smoking fingers, ‘my whole arm looks longer, and I feel more elegant. It’s like wearing false eyelashes, for that illusion of length.’[4]

Megan also describes using smoke to interact with men, touching their cheeks with it encouragingly (a ‘caress’), or blowing it directly into their eyes (a ‘slap’). As Matthew Doyle notes, the link between smoking and sex is strong: one can find it everywhere from Rousseau’s views on both smoking and masturbation to Roddy Doyle’s novel about domestic violence, The Woman Who Walked into Doors. The woman of the title is Paula Spencer, who develops a dependence on alcohol (which she and others see as aberrant, destructive and isolating) running alongside her dependence on cigarettes (which she and others see as normal).[5] Paula describes seeing her husband Charlo for the first time as follows:

I suddenly knew that I had lungs because they were empty and collapsing … His hands in his pockets with the thumbs hooked over the denim and a fag hanging from his mouth. It got me then and it gets me now: cigarettes are sexy – they’re worth the stench and the cancer … He took the fag from his mouth – I could feel the lip coming part of the way before letting go – and blew a gorgeous jet of smoke up into the light. It pushed the old smoke out of its way and charged into the ceiling. Then he fitted the fag back onto his lip and the hand went back to his pocket. He was elegant; the word doesn’t seem to fit but that was what he was.[6]

It is striking how most smokers can list compelling reasons for giving up, and yet the addiction is so strong that the struggle to be free is more like a wrestling match than a clean, knock-out blow. Don’t teenagers want to smoke in the first place because they’ve been told they shouldn’t? It doesn’t seem surprising that smokers (particularly those who started as adolescents) might see the risks as part of the attraction. Paula is attracted to Charlo because he is dangerous (‘He was with a gang but all by himself’, which we might gloss as ‘he was a gang all by himself’), and she becomes addicted to their relationship, as well as to smoking and drinking. Again and again she fails to throw him out. When she finally does remove him from her life, it is with the same sense of time and youth being victoriously reclaimed that one finds in ex-smokers: ‘I’ll never forget that – the excitement and terror. It felt so good. It took years off me.’[7]

Like Paula Spencer, we all struggle to escape what is bad for us. Teenagers choosing to smoke is more complicated than a simple act of rebellion: tobacco companies cynically exploit this association between smoking and youth, freedom and rebellion, to target young people, in the hope that they will develop a lifelong addiction. Matthew Doyle writes that,

The legacy of the cigarette [is] … a harsh reminder of the relationship between the mind and body, spurring us towards self-reflection and a different understanding of disease and mortality.

Perhaps this self-reflection is what is needed for successful interventions. Watch this space.


[1] This term refers to an unexpectedly powerful memory, typically prompted by a smell or a flavour, named after the memories triggered in A la recherché du temps perdu by Proust’s now infamous ‘episode of the madeleines’. Proust himself suffered from severe asthma and other allergies and described himself as ‘allergic’ to cigar smoke. See Mark Jackson, Allergy: The history of a modern malady (London: Reaktion, 2006), pp. 67-68, for a summary of the various asthma treatments Proust experimented with.

[2] Recall the wintry, Soviet-era trek to the new smoking area in The IT Crowd.

[3] This can also be seen in popular adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Older actors playing Holmes (such as Jeremy Brett) can be seen smoking the Holmes’s iconic meerschaum; indeed, both the actors that played Watson opposite Jeremy Brett were also shown smoking pipes of their own. This is also true of Clive Merrison, who played Holmes in a large number of radio adaptations during his forties and fifties, and often refers to his pipe (tragically taking no advantage of Merrison’s striking resemblance to Sidney Paget’s well-known portrait of Holmes) and. There is no suggestion of pipe-smoking when younger actors playing Holmes, such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Roxborough.

[4] Simone Dennis (2006) ‘4 milligrams of phenomenology: an anthro-phenomenological exploration of smoking cigarettes’, Popular Culture Review 17(1), pp. 41-57.

[5] Smoking is taken as a given throughout the novel: everyone smokes, all the time, including around very small children, as in this treasured childhood memory from Paula: ‘[My father] blew his cigarette smoke so it look like it was coming out my ears’. Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked into Doors (London: Minerva, 1996), p. 9.

[6] Roddy Doyle, The Woman, pp. 3-4.

[7] Roddy Doyle, The Woman, p. 213.

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