Happy Idleness

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Idleness is a word that encompasses a great deal of human activity. I suppose in today’s society it is a dirty word. We’re all supposed to be rushing around being proactive, inspiring change, making things happen – why we should do that is rarely questioned. Idleness is associated with those on benefits, people who don’t want to work, loafers, scroungers, drains on society.

But I don’t think of idleness as meaning that. Idleness can merely mean stopping to think. How many people actually stop to think about anything, free from the distractions of TV, the Internet, their phones, games – the constant babble of civilisation?

 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the essay An Apology For Idlers in 1876. He could not imagine the ways one can be idle today; just the welfare state and technology would have been unimaginable to him. But his points remain as true today as they were then; many, many things have changed, some things remain the same.

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Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formalities of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

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Ah, the mad pursuit of money for its own sake. I read today that Tony Blair insists that he is ONLY worth twenty million, not the one hundred million that some claim. Why does he want that much? What will he do with it? Apart from other obvious acts of his, isn’t it a little disturbing that a man who chases after money with such enthusiasm ran the country for ten years? Do the people who run after more and more money all their lives ever stop to think: What did I do with my life? Well, Tony Blair is a ‘Middle East peace envoy’. But that’s a joke, isn’t it?

Stevenson again:

Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last.

He continues:

While others (at school) are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week is out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or so to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.

I learnt very little at school. My education began while I was playing truant, but mostly after I left. I chose what I needed to learn. I don’t think anybody does learn much at school, apart from perhaps how to read and write, if they didn’t know how already. Most real learning comes from life. An uneducated person can be very wise, an educated person very stupid. But there is no place for the wise today.

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I suppose the best universities and some private schools provide something better for people. But our government was, and is, full of these people: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al – born privileged, they seem to be magnificently ignorant, have worked nowhere, apart from perhaps PR or the Law, have never fought, have never had to worry about paying a bill. No knowledge of history (unimportant), can’t do simple multiplication, completely out-of-touch with ordinary people – hardly a good advertisement for the education which produced them.

Stevenson continues:

Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the businessman some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living? Nay, and the idler has another and more important quality than these. I mean wisdom. He will have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions. If he finds no out-of-the-way truths, he identifies himself with no very burning falsehood.

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Politicians, leaders generally (not all), never stop to think; they are too busy. As are many in the mad rush for money, the only true gauge of worth today:

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Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.

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They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.

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Stevenson’s essay reminds me of my travels. The sheer happiness and joy of living one often witnesses in poor countries. I can vouch for the happiness of children in Cuba, India, Indonesia and parts of Africa. I have read about the amazing resilience of the untouchables in Bangladesh and Bhopal. I am not suggesting that we should copy their economies and become poor, but we have lost something here. Something is very wrong with our lives.

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There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. The other day, a ragged, barefoot boy ran down the street after a marble, with so jolly an air that he set everyone he passed into a good humour. A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.

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I’ll remember this on my next trip to Cuba, a poor country that has much wrong with it. But one of those wrongs is not the happiness of the children (or most of the adults, come to that). I have heard young Cubans crying very few times in years of visiting and staying (they laugh all the time). It is impossible in England to visit a supermarket or a cafe without hearing some spoilt child screaming its head off, its parents having no idea what to do with it, apart from perhaps buy it something else. The children have no shame; they don’t care who they disturb or who sees them. I would never have cried in front of other people when I was a child. I rarely cried at all. Today there are dozens of them, every day, everywhere.

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But back to idling and a last warning from Stevenson:

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They have dwarfed and narrowed their souls by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material amusement, and not one thought to rub together with another, while they wait for the train. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

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A marvellous essay, as true now as when it was written, 138 years ago.

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Still Reading in Bed…

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Below are two paragraphs from my December blog, Reading in Bed. I return, reluctantly, to it now.

Julian Barnes’ Booker winning novel is a beautiful object; I read it over a few nights, entirely from a prone, on my back, position. And it is not a practical object. For a very simple and infuriating reason: its inner margins are too narrow. The book requires an uncomfortable and impractical two hands to be able to see the whole of the text; in other words, without forcing the book wide open with two hands the inner text on both pages will disappear into the fold of the book; one is constantly tilting the book this way and that to read the end of the sentences on the left-hand page and their beginning on the right hand page. This is unusual with hardback books, but this is a small book.

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Although this fault is most noticeable in bed – I suppose publishers will protest that books are not designed to be read in bed (if not, they should be) – it is almost as annoying when reading anywhere in any way. If, like me, you love books as ‘physical’ objects then you will resent having to practically break their backs to read the central text. Apart from the discomfort and the detraction of pleasure, you are damaging the book, shortening its life – the act of doing this, bending the two halves of a paperback hard against its spine makes me angry; apart from the inconvenience which has been added to what should be a pleasure (depending on the book), I resent having to treat a book this way. It should never be necessary.

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When I wrote that I had also intended to include a survey of the books I owned: note the good ones and the bad ones, unmask the guilty publishers and provide some kind of guide. It proved too time-consuming and difficult and there was no consistency. The same publishers would provide both the readable and the unreadable. I was slightly disappointed that there was no pattern, nothing to complain about (except generally) to anyone.

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However I’ve recently bought two books that confirm absolutely the faults that I mention. So I’ll report on them. Perhaps others could do the same. Maybe a pattern will emerge.

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A while ago I purchased Far From The Tree from Amazon. Written by Andrew Solomon, it is about parents, children and the search for identity. The reviews were spectacular, far too many good reviews for them to have been an old-pals-act. It’s the sort of book I cannot resist, particularly as I believe there are very few decent books being published, or at least widely publicised.

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But when it arrived from Amazon, I first thought of returning it, then slotted it into my shelves, probably never to be read. It will be in a charity shop within the year. Why? 958 pages have been crammed into a too small paperback. The book measures 8.5” x 5.3” x 2” (215 x 135 x 50); its type is fairly small, but not quite too small with fairly narrow line spacing. But that is not the main problem. The problem is the inner margins and flexibility. The inner margins are never wider than a half inch and the book is not flexible enough to open flat, making it difficult at any time to view a whole page in comfort. In my view it would be impossible to read in bed; I won’t even try. As much type as possible has been squeezed into the smallest possible space. The book is published by Vintage; it is printed by Clays Ltd of St Ives, although I assume printers just follow instructions. I consider the book a useless object: Price – £11.99.

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Now, I know putting 958 pages into a readable paperback represents a challenge. I checked some of my books for a comparison. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has 1114 pages. It is printed in a slightly smaller paperback and has smaller type. But it is flexible. The book opens flat at any point and is easy to read, in bed or otherwise. It was published in 2005 by Penguin Classics.

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An alternative is simply to print a larger paperback. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 and 2, have 1360 pages and 1288 respectively. Wordsworth Editions (God praise them) have simply published the book at 9 x 6 x 2.25 (230 x 150 x 55). It is flexible at all points and has large inner and outer margins. Heavy to read in bed, perhaps, but no fault of the publisher. Incredibly, it is available, new, at £6.99 (£5.24 from Amazon). I think Wordsworth always produce readable volumes. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

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Just to prove inconsistency, I’ve just checked my version of Anna Karenina. It’s also published by Penguin (2001). It has narrow, inconsistently sized inner margins and is not flexible. To me it’s unreadable. Off to the charity shop with it. The Wordsworth edition is £1.99, I’ll buy that one.

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The other book I bought (today) was purchased in Waterstones: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz, by Kevin Jackson. I looked through it and it seemed fine. On getting it home for a closer look it is not so good. It consists of diary type entries for the year 1922. The diary entries are set towards the middle of the page. That’s OK. But the inner margins are inconsistent, barely a quarter of an inch in places, making the entries hard to read. The book is fairly flexible and quite nicely produced, but why this inconsistency? On pages 250 and 251, for example, the type almost merges at the centre of the page. All through the book there are massive outer margins, just wasted space; I wouldn’t care at all if outer margins were narrow. Most of the book is fine (just), but tiny inner margins for no reason – it seems so careless The book is published by Windmill Books, part of The Random House group, at £9.99.

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According to the Amazon reviews the book may be badly or nonexistently edited too. That’s something I’ll return to another time. It seems that many publishers are only interested in rushing books out as quickly as possible, with little thought for quality.

That’s it. Rant over. Please let me know of other cases of thoughtless printing (and good printing too). I don’t suppose we can do anything about it, but we can try.

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Somebody Say Something

Graham Greene wrote that:

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The writer’s duty is to make trouble for any dominant power, forcing complacent authorities and submissive followers to confront difficult questions.’ They should be ‘grit in the state machinery.’ He says that disloyalty is essential against anything that is ‘part of the establishment – churches, universities, businesses, social and cultural groups, even great literary figures such as Shakespeare. If any of these institutions or people are deserving, they can survive the criticism directed at them. Otherwise, no one will suffer unduly except the pretentious, the humourless, the dogmatic, the corrupt.’

There is nothing contentious in this statement, it is just common sense. Any power should be able to tolerate and absorb criticism. Criticism is necessary for democracy, or at least a healthy society, to thrive. Yet I see very little criticism of authority today. Of course it is there, perhaps more than ever, but it is mostly hidden, confined to the Internet or minority, specialist outlets. In the mainstream there is little of any relevance.

V.S. Pritchett described Greene as ‘genially subversive’ and suggested an appropriate maxim for him and those like him:

The world is too complacent. Let us catch it out.’

Greene was a very good writer and an extraordinarily interesting man. There were many like him: George Orwell, John Steinbeck and, later, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens that he was:

Generously angry…a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

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Orwell wrote that in 1939 about a man who wrote in the previous century. What would he think of the standard of writing today? Who confronts our ‘smelly little orthodoxies?

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Orwell also wrote about ‘the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.’  That describes almost everyone in authority in the Western world today, particularly where I live in England – public schoolboys and girls are everywhere, completely out-of-touch with reality, living in a strange cocooned world of privilege, but nevertheless possessed of a disturbing certainty that what they are doing is right, that there is no other way. It is much the same with TV, journalism, in fact the media as a whole.

Far too many people are only interested in trivia. Twitter, Facebook, computer games and porn are all escapes from reality, time spent on them provides an excuse not to think. Authority conspires in this, often unthinkingly, until we are all engulfed in nonsense. Meanwhile a significant minority goes on its merry way, leading the world to disaster. Here is not the place to discuss what that disaster or disasters may be, I am merely addressing the reporting of it, the writing about it, particularly in books, newspapers and magazines. Many people believe that print is a thing of the past. I don’t agree. Generally, most people do not absorb or remember what they see on their screens; they don’t really learn anything – it is just an escape from thinking.

So, who in print is addressing real problems? Where are the influential writers of today? Who is publishing them? Where can I buy their books or read their articles? I hope I’m wrong, but I know of very few, especially novelists. Is there anybody out there who isn’t just playing the game, just lining their own nest?

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Norman Mailer wrote of the American WASP that:

They were not here on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love very much, they were here to serve, and serve they did in public functions and public charities (while recipients of their charity might vomit in rage and laugh in scorn).’

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Mailer wrote that in the sixties; he was still genially subversive in 2006, not long before his death at 85:

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‘Global capitalism does not speak of a free market but of a controlled globe. It is alien to the creative possibilities that have not yet been tapped in legions of people who’ve never had a chance to be creative, who work and die without creative moments in their lives. Their hopes have been buried. When talented people emerge from no apparent cultural background, I see them as the product of ten generations of frustrated people who wanted more than their lives gave them.’

Some fine writers have died recently, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens among them. Far from perfect human beings, but thinkers, writers, troublemakers – they always had interesting things to say. I find it hard to think of anybody now who is challenging today’s awful orthodoxies. Is there anyone?

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio: so much that the production of opinion seems to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most enjoy doing. Most of it isn’t bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn’t speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely tuned in to hear people not making any sense, it would be much easier to dismiss. That though is not the problem with what passes for discussion in Britain. The problem isn’t that it’s low-grade: It is mostly fluent, clear, coherent and often vividly expressed. The problem is that it is almost entirely free of fresh ideas.

You can go whole weeks without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of media debate and encounter nothing new. The void is at its worst when there is a conspicuous attempt to fill it: the frowning politician pretending to think, as he mimes sincerity; the pouting celebrities spouting forth on the issues of the day, when their only motive is to draw attention to themselves. You witness these performances (and that is what they are – acting) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling I get about British life, a bizarre feeling given how much talk there is, but one which goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the newspaper, and wait for somebody to say something…and wait…and wait…and wait…

John Lanchester wrote the above in the London Review of Books. He wrote it TEN years ago. We are so, so much worse off now.

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Smoking

At the beginning of the film Smoke (1994), one of my favourite films, William Hurt mentions that Walter Raleigh was a favourite at the Court of Queen Elisabeth I and that smoking (Raleigh had discovered tobacco) had caught on at the court. He said that Raleigh once made a bet with Elizabeth that he could measure the weight of smoke. Toldwalterraleigh it was impossible, like weighing someone’s soul, he took an unsmoked cigar and weighed it on a balance before lighting up and smoking it. He carefully tipped the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished he put the butt alongside the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that weight from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference was the weight of the smoke.

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Later in the same film Hurt tells Rashid the story of Bakhtin, caught in the Siege of Leningrad in 1942. He’s holed up in an apartment expecting to die any day. He has plenty of tobacco but no paper. Desperate, he took the pages of a manuscript he had been working on for ten years. He tore up his manuscript and rolled cigarettes from the pieces. Rashid asked if it was his only copy. Hurt says that it was and ‘You think you’re gonna die, what do you want? A good book or a good smoke?’ So he huffed and he puffed and little by little he smoked his book.

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I quit smoking in December. I’m really depressed about it. I love smoking, I love fire, I miss lighting cigarettes. I like the whole thing about it, to me it turns into the artist’s life, and now people like Bloomberg have made animals out of smokers, and they think that if they stop smoking everyone will live forever.

David Lynch

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I recently started smoking again after 3 years, the longest period I’ve managed to stop. I wasn’t even missing smoking at all, had got past all the withdrawal symptoms and thought of myself as a non-smoker for the rest of my life. A drink with an old friend, a cigarette, convincing myself I’d only have a couple and I was hooked again. Not only hooked but now I don’t want to stop; it’s too late – I enjoy smoking. If you’ve never been a smoker then I suppose it’s hard to understand, but the response of Bakhtin was the action of an addict – I am an addict. I started through boredom with my job at seventeen and now I’m stuck with it.

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He found a tree that had not been damaged by shellfire and sat down beneath it, lighting a cigarette and sucking in the smoke. Before the war he had never touched tobacco; now it was his greatest comfort.

Sebastian Faulks – Birdsong (1993)

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Although I am a smoker I never, when I had given up, looked down on those who smoked. I did reach a stage where I felt sorry for them, thought of the health damage and the expense, but I would never object to anybody smoking anywhere, even in my own house. In years to come we will probably look back and consider smoking insane, but for now it persists. I accept that people should not be subjected to other people’s smoke in restaurants and pubs, but to ban it everywhere is ridiculous; there should be smoker’s pubs and smoking rooms in non-smoking areas. The Health Police have gone too far.

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Whatever Aristotle and all the philosophers may say, there is nothing equal to tobacco. All good fellows like it, and he who lives without tobacco does not deserve to live.

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Smoking is supposed to aid writing; it certainly feels as though it does. I smoke loads as I write. When I didn’t smoke I continued to write. I look back and find stuff I wrote then and some of it is rather good. It just didn’t feel as though it was good. I am undecided. While I was a non-smoker I became a recluse; I didn’t go out and I didn’t travel because the temptation to smoke would have been too great. I think I have just been smoking for too long to stop. Who knows what I would have written if I hadn’t started. But I did.

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Dear Mr Eliot

I read in the current Time Magazine that you are ill. I just want you to know that I am rooting for your quick recovery. First because of your contribution to literature and, then, the fact that under the most trying conditions you never stopped smoking cigars.

Hurry up and get well.

Regards,

Groucho Marx

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It’s very hard to explain to non-smokers why you smoke. You smoke because you’re addicted and you enjoy being addicted. Look at any film before the eighties and everybody is smoking. The tobacco companies held sway then; they had convinced enough people that it did not damage your health and we wanted to believe them. There wasn’t a big movement against smoking then; too many people did it. Now the anti-smoking brigade hold sway; it’s mainly poor people that smoke, and the citizens of poorer countries where the tobacco companies can still influence young people. I suppose it’s crazy, a really stupid thing to do, but it has its attractions. The writer Iain Banks died last year. He was diagnosed with terminal gall bladder cancer and died very soon afterwards at the age of 59. I had enjoyed some of his books many years ago and remembered a passage from Complicity (1993).

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We tried another cigarette, and by then I’d – maybe instinctively – sussed how to handle it. I sucked that smoke in and made it part of me, joined mystically with the universe right at that point, said Yes to drugs forever just by the unique hit I got. It was a revelation, an epiphany… this was better than religion…I became a semi-junkie that day, that afternoon, that hour. It was that virginal rush of toxins to the brain…truth and revelation. What really works.

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Although the above is taken from a novel, I’ve no doubt those were Banks’ thoughts too. He met his sudden death with equanimity. I do not know how much he regretted it, how much longer he would have liked to live. Longer I’m sure. I remember a cartoon I saw somewhere: two decrepit old men sit in an old people’s home in wheelchairs.

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‘Just think’

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says one to the other

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‘if we hadn’t looked after ourselves we would have missed all this.’

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Of course that leaves out the often terrible deaths suffered by smokers. We all think it won’t happen to us.

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Although I don’t think I’ll attempt to give up again, I’d like to try electric cigarettes. I’ve bought some but haven’t got round to trying them yet in case they don’t work. The Health Police are banning the advertising of them and are trying to ban the cigarettes too; their reasoning being that they fear people will try them and then take up smoking, when it’s obvious that the opposite is happening – people are using them to try to stop smoking. I’m encouraged that a serial smoker like Martin Amis is using them. If they work for him…well, I’ll try them soon.

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On the wall was a sign bearing the saddest words Keith had ever read.

NO SMOKING.

Martin Amis – London Fields (1989)

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