Why We Smoked
Tuesday, 1 November 2005
Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, that was the case: you could smoke cigarettes openly and indoors. Heck, I can remember visiting my GP — I sat in the surgery waiting room reading a magazine and smoking (like everyone else) — and when I was called in, the doctor lit-up and offered me a cigarette from a lovely cigarette box he kept on his desk. Hard to imagine today!
Witnesses and Judges smoked. Teachers smoked, policemen smoked. People smoked at their desks at work. People on ‘Parkinson’ smoked during their interview — yes… PEOPLE SMOKED ON TV! They smoked on stage and in movies too.
It’s true to say that anyone would feel awkward and edgy sitting down or standing around doing nothing. Yet somehow you could stop dead in the street to light up or just hang around and smoke; smoking permitted relaxation. On the other hand, fathers-to-be were portrayed as chain smoking outside the delivery room, stressed about childbirth. But when the baby arrives — he’s down to the pub handing out cigars!
As children we were used to running errands, and we often bought cigarettes for our elders. As a result it was pretty easy to buy cigarettes — not only was it acceptable for a child to buy cigarettes, but cigarettes were cheap and you could even buy them individually or in packs of five, ten or twenty. Cigarette vending machines catered for when the shop was shut in the evening.
- Cigarettes were very easy to come by
We kids would smoke to look ‘grown up’ — but then blow smoke-rings and spoil the illusion. We wanted first of all to be taken seriously, to be considered as valid members of society and to have respect. Ciggies were a social device that provided the key — this was much more important initially than mere image.
This was because smoking was everyday reality and normality; it was entangled in every sociological group, every age, every class, gender, creed and colour. From working class and earthy (matches and roll-ups) through pretentious and artistic (cigarette holder, gold gas lighter) to rich (cigar, jewelled gas lighter, massive ashtray), it didn’t matter; you passed around your packet, offering a cigarette to the whole group in your company. It was understood that you could always ‘bum’ a cigarette or a light from a stranger.
Cigarette coupons were also part of family life — you got them in the cigarette packets and you collected them to cash in for ‘gifts’, but they became a currency of their own. I fondly remember helping my parents with counting the coupons and looking through the catalogue for what we could get. Happy days.
Bilko was the reason I switched to Camel. Chesterfield, Marlboro and Lucky Strike were too hard to come by, but for some reason we could get a pack of Camels. It was enough of a statement to smoke an American cigarette, as opposed to ‘proper’ British fags like Regal and Embassy Tipped or Number Six or Woodbine.
The taglines were about “pleasure” and “flavor”, but also about being “kind to your throat”. These were pretty irrelevant to us; we wanted an image, and this became inextricably linked to growing up and finding an individual identity within a society framework and culture. It helped to have what-was-called a “role model”, and it was easy to see your heroes and heroines smoking in photographs, television and while doing their jobs on stage or in movies.
‘Lighting up’ bought time before answering a question — this was even more true for pipe smokers such as the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. This extended delay meant that you appeared thoughtful and your replies would be understood to have been carefully considered (whether true or not) — as a result, people tried to appear intellectual simply by smoking a pipe. Sherlock Holmes, Einstein, and Van Gogh are pipe-smoking role models.
Pipe smoking is a serious business for a certain type of person who knows what they want and how to get it. Pipe smokers do not seem to need or want company; the strong aroma and great amounts of smoke section pipe-smokers off as a certain kind of person.
Like a pipe, cigars are smelly and manly. They do not have the same fuss as a pipe, pipe cleaner, pipe rack, and so forth. A big fat cigar can be very serious and testosterone-filled or laughably ridiculous. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ had a cheroot constantly in his mouth — except when he was lighting the fuse to some dynamite.
Perhaps the biggest influences were stars like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Dean — they looked COOL when they smoked. The way Bogart cupped his hands around a cigarette was incredibly influential — as was protecting the lighting-up procedure from the wind and snipers!
You see, back then men did not wear jewellery. The US American idea of male wedding rings had not been thought up, and men certainly did not wear earrings or have piercings. All a man had was a watch, his cigarette lighter or cigarette brand/ packet, and his clothes and hat. A car was a luxury item afforded by only a few.
It was about clues — how a person was (or wanted to be). It was a social statement to use a Zippo or a Dunhill — or even a match or book of matches. What you smoked — roll-ups, untipped, filter-tipped, cigar, cheroot, panatella, pipe, holder — all made a statement about the smoker. Then there were cool ways to strike a light — a match to the sole of the shoe, along the trouser leg, a stubbly chin, the flick of a thumbnail. There were tricks with Zippos and books of matches.Cigarette smoking was about stuff and gestures: identity and personality. Sure, you had to offer a cigarette to people, and you had to light them up too — so why not offer a special brand from a nice packet, and use a nice lighter or do a trick with a book of matches? Within the group dynamic there were a lot of choices and options.
The “atmosphere” of a nightclub was dependent upon smoke. A smoky atmosphere was cosy and implied relaxation (rather than dancing or other exertions). It implied intimacy and created a common bond as everyone smoked together. A smoky club came to epitomise Jazz and being cool.
This continued with rebellious guitarists who would wedge a cigarette between the strings and the headstock of the electric guitar, or let the butt hang from their lip.
People scribbled down notes and phone numbers on cigarette packets and match books. Books of matches played a HUGE role in advertising pubs and restaurants — and were usually given away freely. As a result they featured a lot in detective novels — along with the discovery of butts with lipstick on them!
Apart from being respected and developing your self-image, there was the matter of the opposite gender. They had to be impressed. I knew many men who smoked Embassy Regal with a cupped hand until they were out chatting up women, whereupon they would place their Gold plated lighter atop their gold coloured Benson & Hedges packet on the pub table, and they would hold the cigarette completely differently: instead of cupping, the cigarette would be held between between the scissors of the index and second finger. Gestures and behaviours could be consciously changed to good effect.
This is because they were aware that women judged men by their choice of smoke, brand, ways and means of lighting up and by the culture of manners surrounding these things — from the contemptuous rejection of blowing smoke in your face, to the dominating posing with a cigarette holder like Audrey Hepburn (or any material girl) — waiting for the subservient male admirer to provide the light.
Smoking was also an opportunity for women to be sexy and engage men on an extremely intimate level; lighting a cigarette implies closeness and intimacy, it is face-to-face, it involves the lips, eye-contact, hands, and possibly touching.
However, the initial seduction-smoking would soon develop into a cosy, share-and-care married, comfortable type of relationship, filled with lighting each other’s cigarettes. However, it was also possible to be highly sexually charged, the seduction becoming post-coital, or edging sexuality with a hint of danger.
The strange fact is that a lot of men found (and still do find) the idea of women smoking to be very arousing, and this is naturally exploited in movies even today. Of course the Internet has a lot of smoking adult sites (wonders will never cease).
When Hippies arrived, smoking pot became sociable and involved gestures and stuff and identity. Cannabis is mixed with the tobacco from a cigarette to make a joint. This joint is then passed around the group. It is a faux pas to hold onto the joint for too long — you would be accused of ‘Bogarting the Joint’ — a cultural cross-reference to the fact that Humphrey Bogart used to leave his cigarette hanging from his lip while he talked and went about his business. One should NEVER ‘Bogart’ a joint.
I don’t know, back then, maybe people did not expect to live very long — there was a war every decade or so, so perhaps there was something of a ‘live today’ approach? Maybe people were more used to being in crowds, or more relaxed about things in general.
In fact it was understood that it would be the very last thing you would do; if a man was going to the electric chair, he’d be allowed a last cigarette. A cigarette would be placed to the lips of the man in front of the firing squad. A cowboy shot down by a gunslinger would be given a last few puffs before expiring. A last smoke was compulsory, the last kindness, a good thing to do — especially if you took the cigarette from your own lips and placed it into the mouth of the dying person… that was like a kiss only better.
Smoking was punctuation. I suppose that was the biggest thing about smoking and tobacco — it marked the end of things: the end of a meal, the end of a task, the end of a tea break, the post-coital cigarette, the one before you left.
Perhaps I have jogged some memory or informed the youth about smoking and society. Sure it’s in decline now, and it is certainly not acceptable to most people anymore — even I have given up!
Perhaps we live in a healthier, longer-living society. Perhaps we live in a less tolerant and more complex society. People with mobile telephones and jewellery are self-obsessed compared with the more social and sociable person of the past — who offered you a smoke, a light and a drink.