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.

*

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.

*

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)

smoke*

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.

*

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.

Moliére

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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.

*

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

*

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).

*

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.

*

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.

.

‘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.

*

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

NO SMOKING.

Martin Amis – London Fields (1989)

*

chriscuba-001

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153 thoughts on “Smoking

  1. Very well written piece. I am an x-smoker and I do miss smoking while contemplating, having coffee, writing, and of course when drinking. Also, there is that comradery amongst smokers huddling outside, braving the weather, that cannot be denied.

    The one thing I should say though, is when you get older, if you have to do anything that requires physical endurance and lungs, you are at a great disadvantage. That is why I had to quit. What I could do in my 20s, I could not get away with in my 30s; my body would not allow it. I didn’t wait to see how my body would react in my 40s. That logic outweighed the romanticism of smoking for me.

    • Very sensible. You’ve cracked it. I tried, several times, but always slipped back. Trouble is, at 63 I feel more or less fine. My doctor though seems to think I’m a dead-man-walking. I will try one more time. Not sure I can face life without fags though, and it may be too late anyway. Coffee, drinking, writing, comradeship – there you have it. And of course – the addiction.

  2. Pingback: Waiting in the Wings | missunderstoodteacher

  3. Great post! I have moved on to “vaping” mainly because I was sick of smelling horrible, and having to go outside to smoke, huddled under a brolly in the rain, freezing in the snow! I haven’t looked back.i can vape indoors at home, and at my local. But when I was a smoker, the best fun was to be had outside the pub, with all the other smokers !

    • I have mixed replies about vaping. Some swear by it, others didn’t think much of it. I’m working up to it in the same way I worked up to giving up. If I try it, I don’t want to fail. I suppose the best fun will always be the real thing.

  4. I enjoyed your artful writing and the honest appraisal of your addiction. I smoked for thirty-two years, have quit for over twelve. Yet, unlike many, it does not sicken me; I still love the smell of tobacco. And though I shall never return to my former lover, there are certain nights, when lunar conditions are just right, and after the third glass of a succulent red has been consumed at a party or gathering, that I run into her again. And in those awkward and anxious moments we, upon the rare occasion, re-kindle what we had, re-share all the memories, and briefly feel what we felt. But then the reality is always faced. We know we can never be who we were back then, we are both completely different now, with different lives. We acknowledge what we just did was in fact nostalgia for the past and we tamp out any further expectations and, with a quick parting touch of lips, it is good-bye. Again. She disappears, I go back inside and I think, though it was thrilling, as it always is, we are really better off alone.

    • Nice reply. Like you I gave up after over thirty years. I thought I’d beat it, that I would never go back. One weak moment and I was back – worse than ever. Eloquent appraisal of how it feels. Maybe I’ll get there again, maybe not.

  5. It’s the toughest thing I have ever faced. I am 39 and have been smoking for well over 20 years. When I was diagnosed with asthma for the first time this past January, I had to stop. I still sneak one every now and then. Think about that: either I can’t breath or I have a cigarette and there are still moments when I choose cigarette. This was a great piece. Thanks for sharing!

  6. You could always move to Serbia, where I am currently residing. It has the highest percentage of smokers in the world. People smoke everywhere – in cars, in cafes, at dinner parties as the food is being served – and nobody thinks twice about it. A stark contrast after living in the ‘health police’ capital of the world – Australia.

    • Didn’t know Australia was the Health Police capital. It must have competition from some US cities. Serbia sounds great. Cuba isn’t bad. It’s slowly changing but you can still smoke almost anywhere.

  7. Two fine smoking books: ‘Zeno’s Conscience’ by Italo Svevo (Penguin edition: bit.ly/1rda9qQ) and ‘Sublime Tobacco’ by Compton Mackenzie (out of print; bit.ly/1n0ahsD). The former a novel structured around the narrator’s many ‘last’ cigarettes, the latter part memoir (‘My Smoking Life’), part celebration, part history.

    • Sometimes in the past patches helped, then they didn’t. Later pills from the doctor helped, a little. I haven’t tried vaping yet. I’m building up to it. Whatever you do though, it’s only your willpower that will get you through. In my experience if you can get through 2 weeks of hell you can make it.

      Then you have to make some lifestyle changes too. Your brain will send you messages every day: ‘Something you desperately need is missing – smoke now.’ You must tell your brain ‘Forget it. I don’t smoke. I don’t need it.’ Gradually your body gets the message. If you constantly think of smoking, constantly miss them, you have no chance. The urge will always remain.

      You must change your mindset and think ‘no smoker’, not ‘smoker who’s desperate for a fag.’

      Good luck!

      • nice, and I totally agree, I think I quit in the Morning, 2 weeks, eh?? no problem, yeah right >..< Smiles, Sassy

  8. The big question: Are you improving the quality of your life by doing it? If so, continue. If not, stop, because you will most likely add to the years of your life by not doing it.

    You did forget to add one of the most profound quotes about smoking ever written:

    “They smoked and smoked and smoked some more. And then their lips fell off.”
    – Steve Martin, The Smokers

  9. As someone living with a rare, progressive medical condition, it is impossible for me to look at people who voluntarily abuse their bodies and say “I’m alright with that.” I agree that there should be some areas where smokers can still smoke, and that health advocates may be getting a bit too militaristic with anti-smoking. Yet whenever I encounter smokers (of cigarettes or pot) or heavy drinkers, it is impossible for me to be totally accepting of that lifestyle. I may not know what it’s like to be addicted, but I do know what it’s like to be a teenager, be lonely, and be disappointed. I had always had trouble making friends and connecting with people my age. Then, when I was 18 years old, I became partially deaf as a result of my medical condition. Yet I never turned to drugs for solace, and I never will.

    I respect your honesty, though, and realize we all live through different life experiences that inform our actions and decision-making. I really do hope e-cigarettes work for you.

    • Thank you for that, I do appreciate that smoking is insane and often think of people with health problems and those less fortunate. Smoking is mad. I stress that in my blog. It is about addiction and the blog written for addicts and ex-addicts. I hope e-cigarettes work too. I hope you health improves.

  10. Nicotine does help one focus, personally, I prefer cigars and pipes to cigarettes, but will smoke them occasionally (a pack every week or so). I also enjoy a nice hookah session now and again, and my only issue with the vaporizers is I tend to smoke more when I’m using them than without. I actually started smoking because I had been using cocaine (because I wanted a ‘leg-up’ in HS football, and it worked getting me to be a starting O & D lineman), and when I quit that (supply issues) I fell into depression, and even started having anxiety attacks. I know I was just swapping one addiction for another, but at least smoking is cheaper, and probably safer than snorting some unknown powder into my nose.

    • Hmm, I’ve never used smoking as a substitute. It’s the one thing (apart from a few years of giving up) that’s remained consistent. At one time I did everything constantly: speed, dope, cocaine, booze and cigarettes. Now I hardly drink, no drugs but can’t kick the cigarettes. I’ve yet to use a vaporiser but getting close to trying it.

      If you can smoke one pack a week, you’re not really addicted. I need at least a pack a day. It’s easier for me to give up than cut down, but both are hellish. I never get depressed.

      You certainly have a weird mixture of changing habits. I wish you luck with finding the least harmful and most enjoyable. And a happy life!

  11. Interesting stuff. In my field (I am a psychologist who makes health coaching interventions), we rarely accept that people may not want to do something just because it is the “right” healthy thing to do. It’s implicit in a lot of our approaches that people might not be ready to change yet, but it’s also implicit that you can move anyone to readiness if you find the right mix of tools. That may not be true.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    • The awful strength of true nicotine addiction cannot be truly understood by non-smokers. The preference for illness and death eventually over health seems baffling. I believe that smoking is the hardest of all addictions to quit. The Health Police don’t really understand this.

      I have smoked three cigarettes already this morning and can’t wait till I need another one. I love smoking, although of course I wish I’d never started. I found the right mix of tools the last two times I stopped: you must train your brain to think “I don’t need this. It’s horrid, expensive and stupid”. But one moment of weakness is all it takes to slip. The trouble is smoking has become part of my character. It takes me three years from slipping (when I start again I kid myself that it poses no health problems) to giving up again – when I am fed up with the cough etc. Three years to build up the necessary courage to stop again.

      I am on the verge of trying E-cigarettes (I bought them six months ago) but know that I can’t afford to fail, hence the big build up. I think I will switch to E-cigarettes within the next month. Then we will see.

      “…if you find the right mix of tools”. That is true. But the most important tool of all is tremendous willpower and courage (it’s that hard), and maybe only half of smokers possess it.

      If I fail again I won’t bother to give up any more. At 63 it ain’t worth it.

      Thanks for your reply.

  12. Thanks for posting this, I enjoyed the read. I’m 45 and have been smoking since I was 15. “Quit” 3 times and went back after weight-gain and driving my family insane. I’m convinced the only real way to be a non-smoker is to never start in the first place. So, I resign myself to the path chosen at the oh-so-wise age of 15. I still love ’em, and I still hate ’em, and I’m still gonna smoke ’em.

    • You’re right: the only way to be a non-smoker is never to start. Even if you give up you’ll always be a smoker – it will affect your life one way or another. I’m on my last pack before I try e-cigarettes. But I’ll probably put it off – just one more pack before I try. If you’re gonna smoke you might as well enjoy it. If you stop you have to find something, anything, that makes life enjoyable. No point in getting an extra ten years if you’re going to be climbing the walls. Thanks for your post.

  13. chris,
    If you have not yet pushed the power button on your e-cig I recommend giving it a whirl. I have met many people who have cut back on their smoking, quit smoking, and some who have “thrown the damn thing away” for the real thing. never have I got into smoking due to intelligent parents of an 11 year old who pointed the preverbal finger and told me “if we ever catch you smoking again…” Today I work in a pipe shop selling glass water pipes, hand-held pipes, and vaporizers and in order for me to “learn” the product I took up smoking liquid nicotine and enjoy the lessened addicting aspects of smoking. The other day after very delicious sandwich I had for lunch I followed it up with a few draws on the vape pen filled with a Key Lime liquid and came to the realization of why so many have proclaimed, “AAAHHH” as if the cigarette was some bowl of gourmet ice cream. Good luck in whichever you travel.

    jim

    • Strange – I tried vaping on the day I received this. It’s better than I thought. Got a bit fed up with it after 3 days, but I think I’ll use it to cut right down. Perhaps 5 a day. Got to have a real fag with coffee in the morning. There will also be better e-cigs around. I’ve only tried one sort. Glad you like them. I suppose they’re harmless. Weird to take it up having never smoked, but why not?

      Yep, it’s that “AAAHHH” feeling.

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