clinic, family, midlife, screen, words, work

The Last Cigarette

How I didn’t quit smoking. (Featuring Joan Crawford’s knitting, Italo Svevo’s Zeno, a lifetime of last cigarettes, and the things we do for nicotine.) 


           FOR A TIME in the 1930s, actress Joan Crawford was Hollywood’s shiniest star. Crawford’s films were commercially and critically successful – she had box office magic that made her a Depression-era celebrity. She’d come a long way.

Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in Texax in 1906, or possibly 1905. Or maybe it was 1904. Her father, Thomas E LeSueur, was a laundry labourer. Was he actually Joan’s biological dad though? And how much does it matter, given Thomas didn’t stick around for much of Joan’s childhood anyway? 

Joan’s mother Anna Bell Johnson, who perhaps did marry Thomas, but then maybe she didn’t, would later definitely marry an opera house impressario from Oklahoma, who molested Joan in her early teens. 

Joan’s mum moved on. But not to better things. Her next partner was sexually predatory towards Joan. The mother turned on her daughter, accusing her of ‘vamping’ the new man, and packed Joan off to a Catholic girls’ school. Crawford enrolled as a work student – a second-tier pupil who paid for her education by labouring in the school laundry. Joan washed the clothes of the wealthy girls in her class. She felt inferior. This personal hurt was perhaps a future driving force in Joan’s dedicated pursuit of a career in entertainment. Or maybe the spur was simply as Joan described it, that she was showgirl who ‘just loved to dance’. 

Joan Crawford
I love a fireside knit, how about you?

Crawford ditched her real name LeSueur, because it sounded fake and like a toilet in France. To get ahead in movies, Joan often ended up on the casting couch. As with many young women in Hollywood at that time, she was treated as a sexual commodity – another good-looking, good-time girl with acting aspirations, available to be passed around by men in positions of power. Often these were much older men, who regarded Joan as one more wannabe who wouldn’t make it past a year in the business. (Joan also appeared in a porn movie and was occasionally blackmailed about bootlegs when she was famous, including by her own family.)*

But Joan stuck it out in southern California. She swam all the way up the river. She worked hard. Her films were a success and soon she married upwards. She wed Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. This was like marrying into Hollywood’s royal family. Yes it was (this is not an exaggeration or lazy cliche recited carelessly). Dougie’s dad was the leading action adventure star of the silent movie era. Mary Pickford, Doug senior’s wife, had for several years been silent cinema’s biggest female attraction. The couple were so top, that in 1919 they joined together with Charlie Chaplin and director DW Griffith and co-founded the film studio United Artists, in a successful bid to take control of their careers and get even more paid – as in their full market value. 

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks lived in a vast mansion in Beverly Hills (yes, it actually was vast, with significant acreage). The gossip and fan press called their mansion Pickfair. It was at Pickfair that the stellar couple hosted private film nights for their starry friends. At these private screenings of still to be released new films, indeed at all the A-list parties across Hollywood, Joan Crawford secretly observed the hands and fingers of the other beautiful women and saw perfection. Joan perceived no traces of domestic labour, specifically laundry work, upon their elegant mitts. 

Joan was ashamed of her humble origins. She feared her hands as the scarlet letter that betrayed her provincial, proletarian past. Joan wanted Lucille Fay LeSueur’s hands hidden from view. So, she took out her knitting. 

Joan Crawford would knit at all the glamorous parties she attended. It’s not for me to suggest that she was legendary for her knitting. Legends of knitting are few in history. But it was her party signature which, over time, some interpreted as stand-offish. And in her regal years, perhaps the two sticks and wool became Crawford’s barrier to keep the nosy parkers out. But that’s not how it started. Joan’s social knitting wasn’t a sign of feeling superior, just a way of concealing her hands in plain sight. It was a disguise and a prop.

Toni Erdman, Film Still
wig, teeth, action

So, that’s knitting as one kind of prop. Joke teeth might be another. In the German comedy Toni Erdman (2016), a career-driven daughter’s fruit-loop dad uses false teeth and a wig for laughs, but also as emotional props as he struggles through a midlife crisis brought on by the death of his dog. The teeth are clicky and annoying.

The rest of the blog piece however concerns a different social support. Prop Number Three is the evil cigarette.

Recently describing the high number of smokers inside his friendship group, The Annoying Son, who is yet to succumb, pointed to idle hands as a compelling reason to light up. ‘What else am I to do with my hands?’ It’s a specific question, not a general complaint. What is anyone to do with their hands socially? It seems that for many of his peers the answer is to hold a cigarette. I have written previously, in Hands Solo, about the challenge theatre performers face managing their fingers and thumbs acting on stage. Is there any other period in our lifespan more self conscious and performative than adolescence?

Italo Svevo
Italo Svevo

When the writer James Joyce moved to Trieste in 1904, he was twenty two, married, and soon to become a father.  At this point in history Trieste was not to be found in north eastern Italy, where one would expect, but had been temporarily relocated to a distant south western corridor of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Joyce was reluctant at first about settling in Trieste. He’d left Ireland planning to move to Zurich. But his Swiss job as an English teacher turned out to be a swizz – the advertised position didn’t exist. Joyce was packed off to Trieste and despite the initial doubts continued to live there until 1915, when Italy entered World War One, at which point life in the port city became too difficult. 

Trieste in the early 1900s was a cultured, cosmopolitan settlement, with modernists, socialists and futurists on the scene. Joyce taught English to the middle class Triestines (He also tried to launch himself as a film magnate, and then as an importer of Irish tweed, but neither venture flourished). One of Joyce’s private students was a man called Ettore Schmitz, a highly literate Italian Catholic from a Jewish background, who became a friend, supportive critic, and also the model for Leopold Bloom – co-star of Ulysses, Joyce’s modernist blockbuster that’s been bending brains for nearly a century. It was Schmitz who provided Joyce with many of the details of Jewish life that feature in Ulysses.

Schmitz was several years senior to Joyce.  For a long time, he worked for a paint company owned by his father-in-law that made an excellent anti-fouling paint – preventing shellfish encrustation – which was used to protect the keels of the Austrian navy’s warships. 

Schmitz was tasked with overseeing a new paint factory in south-east London, in Charlton. Each year, from 1903 through to 1915, he spent a month or so working in Charlton, where on his downtime he played violin in a neighbourhood string quartet and enjoyed the local beer.

It was to make his English better for his annual trip, that Schmitz hired Joyce for conversation classes. The two men first met in 1907 and remained mutually supportive friends until the older man died following a car accident in 1928.

Ettore Schmitz is better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo, a writer who self-published three works of fiction in Italian, including Zeno’s Conscience (published 1923, also known as Confessions of Zeno).

Over time, Zeno’s Conscience came to be regarded as a great comic novel of the modernist era. Bur recognition didn’t arrive swiftly for Schmitz/Svevo (let’s just call him Svevo from now on). The novel’s initial publication in Italy largely went unnoticed. Svevo’s literary fortunes turned on his finding a foreign publisher, which happened largely due to the intercession of Joyce. By now a world famous writer of a difficult and legally contentious modernist masterpiece, the ex-English teacher had the sway to get Svevo published by a French imprint. Joyce also recommended his friend’s novel to leading critics. Zeno’s Conscience gained popularity in France, which caused a reappraisal in Italy, and led in time to the work being translated into English for successful publication both in the UK and US.**

Zeno’s Conscience is Svevo’s fictional memoir of a comic figure called Zeno Cosini, from Trieste. Zeno purports to be a reluctant author who has written his life story to appease his psychiatrist, but also to prove him wrong about Zeno’s emotional state of being. ‘Scriva! Scriva! Vedrà,’ urges the psychiatrist, ‘come arriverà a vedersi intero.’ ‘Write! Write! See what happens when you look into yourself.’ 

Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience
Svevo & Zeno

Zeno looks into himself to describe his relationship with his father, a career in business, and the clumsy courting of his wife, who came from a large family of sisters. At first, a blundering Zeno tries to woo his wife’s beautiful sister, but is rejected. Then the second most beautiful sister, but again he is turned down. And then lastly Zeno resorts to the least gorgeous sister, who turns out to be a forgiving soul and his soulmate for life. Zeno’s memoir also features the narrative of his life as a smoker. Zeno reports numerous failed bids to kick the habit. 

Zeno first smokes as a young child and graduates to stealing money to buy tobacco, or dog-ending the butts from his father’s cigars. At the age of twenty, Zeno gets a fever and his doctor instructs him to stop smoking. Zeno dramatically smokes his last cigarette. 

But almost straight away he starts up again. This failed effort proves to be the first of many ‘last cigarettes’ that link to form a chain of frustration twisting through the story of his life. 

Zeno succeeds in writing analytically about the turbulence he experiences inside, despite being certain that psychology lacks the wit to properly make sense of him. It is a paradox to provoke the question then why does Zeno bother? He writes perhaps to contest his psychiatrist’s version of the truth, but also as a assertion of personal freedom. But Zeno’s not free. He is a subject caught up in history, business, morality, but also a man ensnared by nicotine. 

Zeno wants release from his nicotine shackles, to kill off the malevolent tobacco before it kills him. He visits leading doctors, sees specialists, seeks the advice of charlatans. He devises quirky quit strategies: like ending on important days (or pivotal moments) deemed propitious by numerologists, hoping this will add weight. Later, Zeno persuades himself the best way to stop is temporarily and inattentively, hoping to trick himself into ending for keeps.

This self-deception sees one part of the brain bid to con another when it isn’t paying attention. I saw my dad try this several times when we were children. Occasionally he had a cold and couldn’t keep the inhalations down. So, he put the ciggies on pause. And once the cold had passed, he would continue to go without fags, but pretending like he’d never smoked a cigarette in the first place. The trick, he believed, was NOT to act as someone trying to give up after years of addiction. This contrived inadvertence was meant to stand in for will power. No one in the family was to mention smoking during this not-giving-up period of giving up. Each of us played along with the charade. The charade that never worked.

As the last cigarette continues to evade Zeno, he checks himself into a clinic where he is forced to go without. But he escapes from the clinic and runs away.  

Zeno’s comedy of a man of few qualities is presented as fiction, but the torment with nicotine came straight from the author’s life. Svevo was an incessant smoker who spent his days in a fug of ‘last cigarettes’ and failed resolutions. Svevo also resorted to crackpot  end theories – on several occasions he smoked his ‘last cigarette’ at seven minutes past four in the afternoon – the time his mother had passed away. But no matter the spell, he couldn’t stop.

Italo Svevo died from complications due to a car accident. As he lay on his deathbed, so the story goes, seeing his nephew smoking, Svevo asked for a cigarette, but was refused. At which point the author muttered, ‘Now, that really would have been the last cigarette.’

A Skull Made of Cigarettes
a cigarette skull, what are you saying?

So many smokers quit but take up again. Stopping is easy – it’s staying stopped that’s hard. ‘I’ve given up smoking more than any man alive,’ said Mark Twain ‘every time I stub one out I swear it’s my last.’*** 

And yet, it’s not always the way. My whole adult life I have been a smoker. But not once have I tried to give up. I am yet to suck on a last cigarette. Never have those two declarative words ‘I quit’ passed my lips. But I don’t claim this makes me a better person. It singles me out as of weaker breed, in fact, compared with the millions of gaspers who have at least tried, tried, and tried again to wrestle this foul habit to the ground. 

If I could understand why I’ve never given quitting a chance, then I might also get a better view on what it would take to put nicotine behind me.**** 

Perhaps I should establish why I started. But I’m not sure if this will help. When did I start? A long, long time ago. (I’m not going to calculate how many fags, the appalling grand total.)  

And neither am I going to cough up a stinky, stained smoker’s biography, nostalgia in ashes, with long gone manufacturers and preferred obscure brands, of me as the hobbyist smoker tracking down rare artisanal brands in pouches. There never was anything organic or hipster about me and fags. I’ve never owned a flash lighter, no Zippo, or art deco case. My smoking has never been styled – although the long limbs and fingers may make it look this way at times.

I’m not going to share my favourite smoking anecdotes. Or take a tour of cigarettes in culture, in photography, on TV, or at the pictures. I could talk up the cigarette as a stimulant that fired the imagination for scores of creative types down the years. But I prefer not to do that. This isn’t set to be a defence of the gasper as cultural worker, featuring an eminent roster of smokers at their desks. There will also be no best ever cigarettes. 

Of course, the time I flew over the handlebars of my bike, headfirst through the back window of a car – when afterwards I sat bleeding at the side of the road, bits of broken glass embedded in my hands and wrists, waiting for the ambulance to show – now that was a pretty amazing cigarette. 

There is no worst ever cigarette. (I suppose I should write that all of the cigarettes I have smoked were the worst ever, because smoking is intrinsically bad for you, but that would be weird.) Tracking back through the years, there are good and bad times of the day to light up. Good times: first coffee of the day, after dinner, post sex, last in bed at night – oh lenient sleeping partner of the years of extended youth. Bad fags: while walking in a hurry to be somewhere when you’re just getting the cigarette smoked. Or lighting up in a storm, as the weather competes with the cigarette and wins. Smoking like a subjugated wreck through a cold or the throat abrasions of a bad cough. Or the many bad cigarettes because it’s become simply too anti-social: with the increased public restrictions on smoking, the status as a pariah grows – the furtive addict hunched with hands cupped, trying to light one up down the windy side of a building.

These days, for me, the main argument isn’t good versus bad ciggies, but, c’mon, just try to smoke as few as possible.

In the mid 1980s the singer Bryan Ferry was interviewed for a TV music show. Though well dressed and coiffed and sat in a posh country garden, plainly Ferry found the process an ordeal, chain smoking through the exchange. At one point he put a fresh cigarette in his mouth. But as he reached for the lighter, he realised he already had one on the go in his other hand. He smiled awkwardly. Awareness is a beginning point. 

The writer Dennis Potter was on TV’s Question Time once, discussing banning smoking in public spaces, and though he spoke honestly of his nicotine regrets, he also declared it to be a fact, that if he didn’t get to light one up just as soon as the show was done, then he would die.

There are the hungry smokers – the agitated, urgent puffers sucking up hard like their lives depend on it. Then there are the elegant smokers, almost vogueing, working that stick. Some addicts appear to smoke for pleasure – this is me. But the largest part of the nicotine community are indifferent smokers, so taken out of time and space, into their smoker’s fugue, they barely seem aware of the lit appendage dangling from their lips (‘a cigarette with a body attached to it’, as Raymond Carver once described the habit that killed him at 50). 

There are socially considerate smokers and dirty smokers. I won’t say into which category I fall – it’s not for me to comment. I’m also not going to take us back to my smoker’s year zero, to then lead you by the hand through my potted history of cigarettes, reveries and coughs. That’s not what I’m here to do….But, okay, maybe briefly the year zero. 

Embassy Number 1 Cigarette Box

I smoked my first cigarette on an ancient London commuter train when I was twelve. It was the 1970s and we were a little gang of wouldbe hooligans off the leash for the afternoon, on our way from Victoria to Mitcham, to play a rival school at football. It was late spring, it was warm, and we had the carriage to ourselves. A boy had a box of twenty, I think it was Embassy, that he’d lifted from home. He lit one up, then passed the pack around and we all had a smoke. For some reason I smoked mine with my head out the window. I could’ve been sloshed by a train coming in the opposite direction. But instead I got addicted to nicotine. 

I don’t think I inhaled properly the first time. Maybe this is why I didn’t feel sick or experience any ambivalence, aside from a slight flicker of guilt. I mainly felt a strong and immediate enthusiasm. I remember saying to myself, I like this a lot, I’m looking forward to doing this again. 

Nicotine affects the mind; it is a psychoactive drug. But it doesn’t make you do crazy things – you don’t hallucinate or jump off a tall building on nicotine. You don’t try to take off your trousers over your head. The only crazy thing nicotine makes you do is to keep smoking and therefore kill yourself.

At my year zero and the conclusion of my first ever cigarette, I flicked the butt out the window. Everyone did the same. Except for Robert, who extinguished his stub by pressing it into his seat, wilfully burning a hole into the shiny blue and red tartan cover. The burn gave off a chemical whiff and left behind a smouldering piece of fabric that didn’t need to be there.

For his next act of vandalism, Robert climbed up into the net luggage holder suspended above the row of bench seats and, feeling bored perhaps, kicked in the dim yellow carriage lights with his boots. We got flecks of lightbulb in our hair. 

(Years later, I found out how my first smoking party turned out as adults. Robert joined an extreme right political party and killed a man in an unprovoked racially aggravated attack. He was sent to prison for murder. David grew up to be the owner of a card shop on Gray’s Inn Road, Bloomsbury, London. Stuart was a fireman, but retired to Hampshire in his late thirties with multiple sclerosis. Anthony, who often suffered epileptic fits at school (for which he was mocked), died in an accident in a timber yard in Fulham where he did casual labour. And Richard teaches maths at a comprehensive in south London.)

Once I got the hang of smoking – inhale, exhale, try not to set light to your nose – I continued with the occasional fag through the adolescent years. But after I left for college, when it was finally my life for me to live as I chose, I started to smoke daily. The fag in my finger was one of the trappings of being grown up – like hangovers and overdrafts – an extra buzz for the ride.

Smoking makes me happy and always has. (This isn’t what’s meant  when nicotine is described as psychoactive.) Smoking rarely makes me feel ill, so far; although there’s a cough some mornings that hacks like something nicotine related. And although the first stick of the day always brings a head rush, cigarettes have often served as lulls to ease me to sleep during periods of insomnia. 

Cigarettes Are Sublime, Richard Klein, Book Cover Illustration

Cigarettes are sticks of reassurance in sad times, sour times, mellow as well groovy times. The historian Richard Klein writes that cigarettes are sublime. In fact he published a long, highbrow book on smoking with this attention-seeking notion for a title. For Klein, ’Cigarettes are not positively beautiful, but they are sublime by virtue of their charming power to propose what Kant would call a ‘negative pleasure’: a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.’ 

Yes, death from lung cancer is certain to last a long time – for the rest of eternity. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Schopenhauer, a heavy smoker, believed all pleasure to be merely temporary relief from pain. In tobacco perhaps he located the right blend of gratification with suffering, confirming his worst suspicions about the dark side to happy times.

To get deeper inside the smoker, so to fathom why, we might try on some velvety French theory. Not only the sublime, or the voluptuous, but concepts of desire, transgression, the cruel and the sweet. One might also theorise about the existential hollow, or the emotional lack, that the smoker seeks to fill with hot carcinogens 

In normal terms the cigarette brings strangers together and provides a setting and ritual for friendship. Combatants smoke furiously in wartime, with tobacco featuring as a token of the ordinary carried over from peacetime to contrast against the extraordinariness of collective violence. And with it raining bombs, what’s to worry about, you’re going to die anyway. 

Although not actually democratic at all (big tobacco preys upon vulnerable addicts for profit), smoking can feel comradely. You can approach any smoker you see for a light or a fag. That said, the exorbitant cost of a pack these days means you’re likely to be told go buy your own. 

Not only an instrument of friendship and love that glows in the night, the cigarette can also be a means of torture, or more favourably an escape hatch from crushing boredom – ask a prisoner. 

Cigarettes offer dependable support facing fear or under pressure. A smoke also lights up a moment of importance. The night the Annoying Son was born, I stood outside the hospital at 4am in the light snow and silently lit a welcome cigarette. It was a moment to celebrate and also to ask what have we done? (The answer still isn’t in.)

I don’t regret starting to smoke. But realise that I should. I need to rustle up some hard regret, and bury the moist ‘smoking-makes-me happy’ refrain. And do it soon – as affecting these corrections could help me pack it in. 

I know how to stop smoking. I’m just not sure how much I want to. The way you quit smoking is to eliminate contexts for cigarettes, narrowing the field of inhalation, removing the settings in which we expect to smoke, until there are none left. And then it will all be over.*****

Down the years, as each prohibition on smoking in public spaces came into practice, or law, I sighed, but then concluded, yes, probably for the best. Even before I recognised it was a good idea not to smoke –  all the way through the long uncomplicated years of pretending everything was fine, smoking was just a fun thing I’d taken up with, not a habit baked into the structure of my life, nothing addictive, just one cigarette in my hand – always as new restrictions came onstream, they felt about right, and on time. The top deck on the bus was no longer a dense smelly fug. The singled-out rail carriages ceased to be gas chambers. The post pub fag could actually wait until after you got off the last tube home, as you quickly came to realise that it wasn’t that urgent. I guess we used to be able smoke in shops and then this was banned. I don’t remember for sure. But I did once go to Glasgow in the 90s, and a writer took me on a tour of the estate where his novel was set. In the local supermarket he pointed to the guy behind the cold meat counter carving ham with a fag in his mouth. 

I used to think the cinema couldn’t function without cigarettes –  the glow in the dark, the blue smoke curling through the beam of the projector. I thought airplanes, now that’s one place they’ll never be able to forbid lighting up – it’s too risky, the smokers will panic. But they didn’t panic, we just sat on our hands. 

Football though? Surely not the beautiful game, not with its pleasuredomes where the working man may shout, swear and inhale. Take that away and there’ll be a riot. Except football became part of the entertainment business and the fags jogged on. And then it was restaurants – the end-of-the-meal finale on a romantic date – poof, gone. 

No Smoking Sign

When they came for the pubs, it felt critical; the death of something vital, the foreclosing on actual pleasure. Grudgingly, it also felt like the correct thing to do. If it were for me to decide, I would also ban pub gardens, outdoor heaters, and possibly pavements, if that’s what it takes to get the nicotine out of alcohol.

During these years of pinching the life out of the puffer, as the fields of inhalation in the public domain got thinner, I also did my bit on the domestic front – I stopped smoking in bed. 

It had been a valued final moment in the day for many years, head propped on a pillow, the last toke to go with the last puff of thinking before bye byes. Then I went to Prague on holiday. We drove and didn’t smoke in the car. I shared a double bed with a friend in a city apartment for the duration of our stay. On the first night as we got in under the covers together, he said, don’t smoke in here, it’s disgusting. He didn’t request, he insisted. I was affronted – he was being stroppy and unreasonable, I was certain of this. I was forced to get out of bed and go smoke in another room, and with this, I stopped being a bedtime puffer and phased it out completely soon after my return to London. 

And then I stopped inhaling in the morning, or at lunchtimes, and then I stopped smoking indoors. My last three homes stretching back over a decade, I haven’t smoked inside. Smoking smells the place up. (Also, it didn’t seem fair on the Annoying Son’s young lungs.) In a decade I totally reconfigured my smoking operating system. I’ve been so successful that nowadays I find puffing indoors the strangest thing to do. Light up inside? How quaint, how odd, how 70s, how revolting. 

Keep thinking contexts. It’s all about contexts.

There’s a mini park behind my work. No one really goes there much. Except for me years ago. I visited daily during the break-ups. Two break-ups the park and me endured together. It’s the saddest little patch of grass and dog shit. I would sit on one of the grey benches behind the box hedge and smoke and read the plaque under the tree planted by the colleagues of a boss who died suddenly in his forties. First time I frequented the park was in the mid oughties, for break-up No1; and then a second time round, eight years later, I returned for break-up No2, puffing away at the sorrowfulness of life, with ’How I’m gonna get through?’ playing in my head. 

But you get through. And then, deploying some indisputably solid reasoning, I surveyed the breakheart park one last time and realised we had to stop, me and it were over, done. And in this way I ceased smoking at work. I don’t even carry fags into the office.

Silk Cut - Advertising Poster Art

The first night I met Vela (Ex No2), over ten years ago, on the day of our initial date, she emailed me saying don’t bring cigarettes. She said I’ll beg you for one, and another, and then another. But I took my ciggies anyway. I even bought a pack of ten of her favourite brand as a kind of gift. She thought it was charming, and smoked the lot. And although through most of the eight years together she didn’t smoke, from the very first night we met, cigarettes were established as part of our context.

When I first met Silba, I didn’t bring cigarettes. She doesn’t like smoking and you want to make a good impression. But the larger reason was that a crux choice was there to be made – that we could either have smoking involved as part of whatever context we were about to embark upon, or we could keep nicotine out of it. And a year later, smoking is nothing to do with who we are together.

So smoking is being choked of the oxygen of opportunity. If only I could do something about the balcony. 

Juilet's Balcony, Verona
somewhere in south London, a balcony

The balcony is mainly where I smoke. When it was time to split up from Vela and buy a new place for myself, I put an offer in on a property with no balcony, and said, that will be good for not smoking. But, of course, this meant that it would also be bad for smoking. And when my offer got kicked back and I fell out of the race, I thought well, the flat didn’t have a balcony, so, not like it was perfect. (Smokers, like any good addict, are handy with double bind arguments.)

Some months later, I bought a home in the same building, but this one has a balcony. 

As I write this, it’s a hot day even though it’s late September. The balcony door is open wide. I can hear a garden mower, an airplane and some traffic grinding in the distance. It would be agreeable perhaps to step out on the balcony, look at the flowers and the sky for some moments. But then I’d feel immediately something’s missing, and I’d probably find myself lighting a cigarette. 

It’s hot. I want to go outside. I’m thinking cigarette. I just watched a video about nicotine, so of course I’m thinking smoke. It was a long video with Will Self and the German writer Gregor Hens discussing addiction, roll ups and best smokes ever.

It’s hot. I want to go outside, I’m thinking cigarette. But my heart is aching. Not like a poet’s heart aches, not figuratively, but actually physically aching – fluttering, clenching, acting differently to the way it’s behaved my whole life. (My cardiologist tells me later that the shape of my heart has changed with the atrial fibrillation). I have pills now to regulate its performance and stop the jitterbugging in my chest. I think if you’ve reached the time in your life when the doctors are giving you heart pills, then you’ve also reached the time in your life when you stop smoking. 

But It’s hot. I want to go outside. I’m thinking cigarette. 

Why did I have to go get a balcony? And why have I never tried to quit smoking? Every smoker tries to stop at least once in a lifetime, don’t they?

Stop Smoking Now!

There was a brief moment a few years ago when the last cigarette almost happened. I was set to be going solo again and single-parent house-holding isn’t cheap, and I thought maybe now’s the time – at last, finally! I saw a health worker for advice on how to renounce nicotine. We discussed patches, gum, support groups, phone lines. I got a prescription and stocked up from the chemist. 

Set yourself up in the new home, ran my simpleton reasoning, and make the fresh start super fresh by ditching the evil, mephitic sticks. But then move day came around, and the first night I stepped outside, onto my new balcony, and looked up at the cold sky and wondered how come I’m single again – same old, same old. And as I dwelled in this melancholy moment, senses weighted with disappointment, I not only found a pack of Camel in my hands, but the packet was open, and one of the cigarettes was already in my mouth, with the flame from the lighter rising towards it…

When we talk about giving up smoking, what are we talking about giving up, what is it we’re about to lose? 

Cigarettes make me happy, so there’s that. But smoking also helps you to think. (I know, non-smokers, you are also capable of thought.) The cigarette is a prop for contemplation. Auden called it the labour-saving device in ‘the mental kitchen’. But, be warned, ‘liable to injure the cook’.

An evening exhalation on the balcony is the head sending smoke signals, emitting visible fumes of brain work. ‘Cigarette smoke is one of the material substances that closely resemble the substance of thought,’ writes Jeremy Harding. ‘We smoke to think and rethink the world, or at least imagine ourselves to be doing so.’ (Of course sometimes, we smoke to chase the bad thoughts away. Call it a different kind of meditation perhaps – sadly the kind of mindfulness that also gives you cancer.)

tired of the Tango, fed up with Fandango

Consider the scene: a dark deserted city street at night, filmed in luminous black and white in the 1950s. A man in a trench coat turns a corner and walks into a close-up, accompanied by a jazzy orchestral soundtrack. The lone hero stops, tips his hat back, pulls out a cigarette and lights up in the glow of a street lamp. ‘A cigarette in the moment’ says the voiceover. It could be Richard Widmark in the Jules Dassin’s film noir classic Night and the City, but is actually a period TV commercial for Strand cigarettes.******

The solitary smoker steps out of time as he lights up, into a fermata where the temporal tick-tock is stalled and the subject climbs inside their own head. ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’, ran the marketing line for the short-lived cigarette brand. And this remains true of the solitary inhaler, as we find our inner thoughts sparked into voice by a surge of nicotine. The smoker on the balcony may think, reflect, daydream, or do nothing – except for performing the hardest thing of all in momentarily removing himself from the daily flow. 

I have found no better way of feeling alive in the present than with my killer fags (ok, maybe there’s one other way I’ve found in my life as a man). 

But it is possible that the wistful nicotine revery is something greater than a suspended drifty five minutes of abstraction. Nicotine may also hold the smoker together, keeping the demons at bay. ‘Perhaps by smoking,’ wrote Livia Svevo in a memoir of her husband ‘he tried to quieten the “frogs” …the insistent doubts that tormented him.’

It rains frogs at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia. And I believe there was a plague of the tailless amphibians in the time of the old testament. But in the normal flow of life, we can more reasonably expect just mini cadres of frogs coming at us from time to time. These are the life intervals when we can least afford to be all over the place. Single parents don’t have space for a crack-up. I ask myself during spells of frogs, do we cope because we must, or because we smoke? Did smoking save our life? Maybe the lives of others? (A small exaggeration.)

This what is meant by nicotine being psychoactive, perhaps – that we are someone else because we smoke.

In early 2016, the German writer Gregor Hens published Nicotine, the English translation of his memoir of his life as a smoker. Hens reports that his first smoke came at the extremely tender age of six. ‘It is remarkable how clearly I can remember this night.’ Little Gregor is handed a fag – by his mother for God’s sake – to help light a firework at New Year. The six year old puffs, the firework catches fire, and young Gregor comes to life. 

Hens is convinced this first cigarette was a crux moment – no less than his subjectivity was born out of this first rush of nicotine: ‘I became myself for the very first time… it was as if a curtain had been pulled back … I felt and saw…. not only saw images, not only heard single words or sentences, but experienced an inner world. In this manner, I was offered an experience that was narratable for the very first time.’ 

This self-portrait of the writer as a young smoker may sound high blown and ridiculous. And yet even the least contemplative smoker will recognise how nicotine increases self-awareness. Hens characterises smoking as a form of self actualisation. In which case, what person have I become in the halo of blue smoke? Did smoking stop me from becoming a better person, or has it kept me from being the monster I might otherwise have turned into?

‘Who knows whether if I had given up smoking,’ writes Svevo, ‘I should really have become the strong perfect man I imagined? Perhaps it was this very doubt that bound me to my vice, because life is so much pleasanter if one is able to believe in one’s own latent greatness.’ Believe in one’s latent greatness, don’t actually test it. Through smoking we may fail to actualise the person we might have been (the stronger man I’ve made out in the mist just now and then down the years, the man who worked hard for one whole term at college, and then for one whole year writing a book, and then for several long months to help his son learn his maths).*******

So, now that I can say with a closer proximity to the truth how much smoking defines me, it makes me wonder what will become of me if I quit. Who might I turn out to be should me and nicotine ever part?

‘Am I reborn each time I smoke − a fag-wielding phoenix?’ Wonders Will Self. ‘Or, like a dormant seed germinated by fire, is there only one essential me, who will always be smoking?’

What if  the essential me actually turns out not have a fag in his hand? Well, I would find this rather odd. And also perfectly acceptable. And in this way, as I think about finally leaving my nicotine gaol after 30 years of stir, I also face the prospect of becoming the better person I might have been all this time, the man with no crutch, the guy who pushes himself to improve and grow up, finally.

Or will I just balloon through cold turkey, eat far too many sweets trying to negotiate the nicotine withdrawal, pounds of pudding, cake and choclit. And them I’m getting gross. Perhaps I’m an imaginal fat man who’s been pupating in his thin body carrier for way, way too long, held over because of the fags. And now I am set to finally become my imago – a fat man drinking wine joylessly; joyless because el vino and mr smoke, companions for three decades, have finally been parted.

Dismantle the base structure. Take the nicotine from your grammar, stop using it as some kind of punctuation, and with this a last interrogative is left dangling, waiting for the next sentence to begin.

If it is true that everyone chooses his own death – or is a fool if they don’t – where does this leave one with the smokes? I’m still confused. Could it really still be too early to tell, or actually too late? 

life is a vanitas, old chum

* Some of the Joan Crawford biographical content comes from an episode of the brilliant podcast You Must Remember This on the ‘secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.’

** ‘The thought will always please me,’ wrote Joyce, ‘that chance gave me the opportunity to have a part, no matter how small, in the recognition that his own country and the international public accorded Svevo and an admiration of long standing that matures, rather than weakens, with the years.’ (Extract from The Critical Writings of James Joyce.)

*** A record of Mark Twain’s comment concerning repeated failure to quit fags, encapsulating the strife of gaspers across the decades, is tough to track down. When Gregor Hens researched Nicotine, his memoir/essay on smoking, he could find no proof of Twain saying such things. But in the absence of another well known author to hang this hat on, for now we shall stay with Twain.

**** I know – I could vape. But, for now pipes or plastic suckers hold no appeal.

Or, I could tell myself that as it’s gone down to only a few fags a day – now that I socialise less frequently because I can’t hear what anyone’s saying – do I really need to worry?

I ask myself this often. Then I asked the cardiologist last visit. How about the smoking?

I muttered the words, just as I was leaving. An after thought reaching for the door handle. I left it so long that momentarily I decidedt, well, it’s probably too late for any more questions, isn’t it? Slippery smoker. But the saner, non-slippery part knew that I had to ask. That to not articulate this query with a cardiologist in front of me, would be too much bad faith. And anyway, whispered a darker barely verbalised thought in the deep background, if he says – No, stop Smoking this instant! – I could pretend that because it was the last thing he said, that I didn’t hear properly, so it doesn’t count. (And so the self-sabotaging thinking continues, enough to keep a smoker hooked for a whole lifetime.)

So, I asked and the cardiologist, said ‘Yes, I wanted to talk about smoking. Nothing so far about your heart shouts stop now, this instant. But anyway,’ he added with emphasis (but was it already too late?) ‘no one should smoke, ever, because it’s very bad for you.

***** As an habitual non quitter, I’ve never read a stop smoking guide, and can’t say if my theories on quitting have any merit or universal application.

****** The Strand commercial was filmed by director Carol Reed, who made The Third Man. The music for the commercial, The Lonely Man Theme, was released on vinyl and became a minor chart hit. The Strand cigarette was not a successful brand however, and was discontinued within a year. 

******* That man who worked hard, but only for a while. Is that the real man, or the foolish man? Was time lost, or brilliantly squandered? Who wants to be Lou Salome on her deathbed deploring all those hours studying and writing, ‘All that I have ever done is work… why?’ That’s a lamentable last thought to make all workaholics ponder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *