This week the government has announced plans to ban the public display of cigarettes and tobacco in shops. It's odd to think that fags have finally swapped places with contraceptives and "feminine hygiene" items (now openly, if coyly, advertised on TV) as the unmentionable pariah product.
It's been 22 years since I last had a cigarette. Twenty two years and a couple of months, actually, as I gave up on New Year's Eve 1989. That's 7730-odd days without tobacco, and one of the few New Year's resolutions I have either made or kept. I gave up counting the hours and minutes some time ago, so I think I'm probably pretty much over it now. I remember we were in Pembrokeshire, I had a sore throat, and we were contemplating "starting a family", as people say. The medical advice was that my partner should give up smoking, so it seemed only fair that I should, too.
The sacrifices we make for children... The worst of it was that I immediately put on two stone (12.5 kilos) which I have never managed to lose, going from a thin man with a 30 inch waist to a tubby man with, ah, a much larger one. It doesn't help, of course, reaching for a biscuit when what one really wants is a cigarette, or cancelling all squash sessions in favour of afternoons on the sofa mucking about with Play-Doh.
Just the other day, I was looking for something, and wondered whether it might be inside one of the old tobacco tins I still use for storing odds and ends. Wonderful things, tobacco tins; airtight, compact, robust, and decorative. I opened one, and got a brief whiff of Golden Virginia, ca. 1980. Now, as it happens, I have a condition known as "anosmia", which means my sense of smell is practically non-existent, but there are a few smells that can break through, and tobacco is one of them. I love the smell of tobacco.
In fact, I used to love everything about smoking. I heard a radio programme recently where the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano was talking about his extensive collection of smoking paraphernalia, and I completely understood his obsession. Lighters, ashtrays, cigarette packets, cigarette cards, colourful adverts and shop placards from the heroic days of British typography... It's all so evocative of what was once one of life's simple, uncomplicated pleasures.
Nearly everyone used to smoke. I have a particularly vivid memory of being about four and watching my mother lighting a cigarette from a red hot cooking ring, with her eyes half-shut against the heat, before we sat down together in the kitchen for a nice cup of tea (little kids used to drink tea, too, in those days -- milk and two sugars, lovely!). She used to smoke the Guards brand, I remember, which had a particularly graphical white, black and red pack. The adverts ("They've got be GREAT to be Guards") often featured a mounted Life Guards kettle drummer which, as she often remarked, was what her Uncle Jim had been. It all seemed to fit.
Of course, in some trades, smoking was practically compulsory. Opening the door of any teachers' common room at lunchtime before the late 70s was like opening a fire-exit to Hell. A multi-branded fug from the massed ciggies and pipes would billow out in a solid toxic wall. "Passive smoking" is far too feeble a description of what must have been happening to any non-smokers on the staff. "Smokeboarding", perhaps.
I think it's true to say we were the last generation of "natural" smokers, growing up in respectable families and institutions where smoking was entirely normal, although we were all by then fully aware of the health risks. It's probably also true to say that the youthful fashion for smoking cannabis that swept the country in the late 60s prolonged the decline of smoking among the health-conscious middle classes. I'm sure I, like thousands of others, would never have started smoking tobacco if it hadn't been a prerequisite for getting high (in the UK, that is, where resin was then much more common than "herbal" cannabis). Crazy, really -- it's like using methylated spirits as the basis of a cocktail.
The best craic at work, I found, was always to be had at the smokers' table. So much so that -- even when we had finally been banned from the library common room and had to congregate over the road in the Staff Club for our morning coffee break, and our number had dwindled to three or four actual smokers -- a good number of honorary smokers would join us, to take part in the tobacco-fuelled badinage. Now, of course, it would have to be a smokers' pavement corner -- you still see sad little clusters of the poor sods hunched in the rain, but I suspect the quality of their conversation has diminished to phatic level.
I found the simple act of hand-rolling a cigarette very therapeutic. I never really enjoyed manufactured cigarettes, but the first few roll-ups from a freshly opened half ounce of tobacco were bliss. A light tobacco like Golden Virginia or A1 was my preference, using blue packet Rizla papers, of course -- thinner, and therefore requiring more dexterity to hand roll than the red or green ones, but giving you less burning paper to inhale. I did know people whose preference was for a dark, tarry tobacco, like Old Holborn, and some might even go so far as to roll it in liquorice-flavoured papers, but that, frankly, is a revolting combination, like sucking a burning Liquorice Allsort.
When the time came to give it up, I found that it was the rolling ritual that I missed more acutely than the actual smoking. I discovered that if I mimed rolling, lighting and inhaling a phantom cigarette, the craving could be held at bay. Unfortunately, this is not something you can do in public, without attracting the wrong sort of attention. But, at the end of a long day, it was oddly relaxing to pretend to have a couple of cigarettes. Somehow, though, I have never found that pretending to have a glass of whisky hits the spot in quite the same way.
How long will it be before smoking is made illegal, I wonder, or mothers are reported to the Social Services for smoking in the company of four-year old children? Perhaps they already are. It's hard to imagine what will then be next on the righteous puritans' checklist... Alcohol? Insufficient warm clothing in cold weather? Unwarranted pessimism?
It's enough to make you ... No, no, no, I mustn't go there. Not yet, anyway. Though getting into my old trousers again would be nice.