It all started down the front of the Grange End at Ninian Park in the late 60s. It was a Player’s No.6 if I remember right. I inhaled, I coughed, I spluttered, I felt dizzy, I went white, I dry retched. I was hooked! Within nano-seconds of entering my blood-stream tobacco had altered reality. And, even back then in my teens, I reckoned reality needed a lot of alterations.
Both my parents were non-smokers in an era when most adults merrily smoked like chimneys and cut-glass ashtrays heaped with butt-ends were centrepiece design items taking pride of place on living room coffee tables. Non-smoking was not yet the bossy, precious, pious, joyless, hypocritical, devious, obligatory sophistry so prevalent today. Even my parents had ashtrays galore for when friends who smoked visited. They disapproved of smoking not for any specious “health” reasons, but simply because the pro-smoking imagery of Hollywood movies and cigarette advertising had entirely persuaded them that smoking equated to raffishness, loucheness, glamour and sexuality – to them, bad things. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, smoked like a Tommy in the trenches. She always had an Embassy Regal on the go, and when she wasn’t dragging on it she would lodge it in the corner of her mouth, where it smouldered away continuously. She did this for so many years an actual indentation developed on her bottom lip where her fag could be conveniently slotted. Half her hair was stained deep nicotine yellow-brown from the perpetual fumes, but Nan didn’t care: she made it a feature, upcombed and sprayed into a sweeping side-bob.
Similarly, her husband, my grandfather, was never without his pipe. If he wasn’t filling it, poking it, tapping it, cleaning it or gesticulating with it, he was drawing deep on its spittled, chewed end and generating more smoke in their Rumney sitting room than the Ilfracombe paddle-steamer. Of all my family, he was the easiest to buy a Christmas present for: pipe-cleaners at the Bear Shop year in, year out. I loved the smell in their house; that grown-up, heavy-duty essence of sociability, sophistication and sangfroid. And I loved the attitude, implicit in the very act of voluntarily devouring smoke, that hedonism comes before prudence and that living in the here and now comes before tight-arsed, pointless longevity.
There is something that is rarely said about tobacco: the reason people have been breathing it in for thousands of years is because it’s brilliant! Here we have a natural miracle with no practical human purpose other than pleasure. No other substance comes close to delivering its unique and instant hit: a simultaneous combination of stimulation and relaxation, unfailingly served up by every single toke. Long before smoking’s damaging impact on physical health was spelt out in warning notices and graphic images of lung tumours, everybody knew that it wasn’t “good for you” – the morning ritual of the racking, phlegm-discharging smoker’s cough made it clear to all that this wasn’t a health care product. But there is more to humans than mere bodies; we also have minds, and tobacco is marvellously beneficial to mental processes, encouraging flexibility, creativity and originality of thought – as witnessed by the disproportionate number of writers, artists and musicians who chained it like good ‘uns. So, as with all mood-modifying substances, you win on the swings and lose on the roundabouts. Speed is a great energiser – but that boost must be paid back with interest by days of total exhaustion. Heroin is a great anaesthetic – but pain killed only returns as pain doubled. Alcohol is a great disinhibitor – but that thrill comes with a price-tag of long-term personality disintegration. And fags certainly are coffin nails that shorten your life – but, by buggery, you know you’ve been alive!
From the drug-pusher’s perspective, nicotine’s properties of high addictiveness plus rapid toleration guarantee ever-rising consumption and dependence. Thus, in the early phases of consumer capitalism tobacco was more or less the perfect commodity. It’s still very profitable: market leader British American Tobacco (BAT), based in London, made £15 billion last year. The anti-baccy backlash, ostensibly motivated by concern for public health, has really been all about the privatisation of responsibility. If public health, air quality and the inflicting of unwanted secondary pollution were genuine concerns then the private motor car would be banned tomorrow. Stand on Newport Road outside Roath Court for half an hour and you’ve inhaled the equivalent of a packet of Capstan Full Strength. Oh, but that would bring the global economic model to it’s knees, so health can go hang. And if tobacco is such a lethal product then it surely should be outlawed with all the other “dangerous drugs”. Oh, but that would deny the Treasury billions in tax and confront powerful corporate interests, so forget it. No; the sustained anti-smoking legislation of the last 20 years, emanating from the litigation-happy compensation culture of the USA, has been cynical tokenism of the very worst kind – regulating individuals rather than big business and, as a bonus, allowing spiteful, authoritarian attacks on one of the great consoling crutches of working-class life.
Confirmation that smoking bans in public places are just box-ticking distractions and nanny-state digs at personal freedom came when the normally lethargic Welsh government burst into life to get the ban on the statute books three months ahead of England in 2007; soft-option gesture politics being all the Labour Party in Wales intends to do with its permanent control of the Senedd. Six years on, there have been predictably disastrous effects on working-class institutions like the pub, the club and the bingo hall without any of the promised compensatory gains in healthiness (smoking suppresses appetite; addictive personalities with oral issues just eat more when they give up). However, there have been some unexpected beneficial effects too. Firstly, the phenomenon of the ‘smoking area’ is proving a marvellous social sphere that opens up new possibilities of interaction between people who would never have spoken otherwise – I met my current best mate and naughty sidekick in precisely such circumstances. And secondly, there has been a massive increase in the purchase of contraband rolling tobacco from the EU. Everyone I know has switched from cigarettes to rolling their own – and nobody is buying their pouches at the corner shop. The UK’s revenues from tobacco tax have consequently gone through the floor, while people are spending less on smoking than before the ban while increasing their consumption! Both are excellent outcomes.
40 years on, I still smoke. I’m a loyal follower of the Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968) philosophical outlook. When asked whether she was a cocaine addict, Tallulah replied: “Cocaine’s not addictive, I’ve given it up thousands of times!”
The “Bear Shop”? Is that the tobacconist that used to be on the corner as you came round from the station? If, so, it’s where I used to buy my Gauloises when I came up to Cardiff for a weekend of naughty where I wasn’t known. Ah! Gauloises, now there was a smoke.
With the added advantage that being French you could leave the packet on the bar, or on your table, and virtually guarantee that some bird would be attracted enough to ask about them. And being soft packets you could pretend you’d just stepped out of a film noir by holding the packet in one hand and casually flicking a ciggie up to your mouth.
Though I do recall that after a skinful the fag was more likely to go over your left shoulder or stab you in the eye. It was at times like this that one needed to exhibit sangfroid and remember what Robert Mitchum would have done.