Photo by Geography Photos

Match made in heaven

Once a habit that cut across class, smoking is now masochistic comfort for the dispossessed

Artillery Row

“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” declared the infamous 1940s adverts. Next to the text, a portrait of a white-coated doctor smiled as he held his tab. The statistic was gathered under utterly false pretences the manufacturers simply issued packets of free cigarettes to physicians, and then asked what brand they were smoking. But it was arguably the peak of U.S. tobacco advertising which, on both sides of the Atlantic, faced increasingly burdensome regulation as we moved towards the glistening new millennium.

By the early 90s, the focus in Britain was on wit. The Hamlet cigar man long entertained and there was a particularly excellent, though unused, commercial from that brand showing an angry Dalek trundling up to a flight of stairs. Thwarted and bemused, a compartment in its shell opens, and a 6 inch mild pops out, which the creature lights with its gun-stick and lifts, with a metallic claw, to its dome to relax itself.

Nigel Farage turned drinking and smoking into a brand

My favourites were the adverts from Castella. Comedian Russ Abbot would find himself confronted by a problem mowing the lawn, winning a game of golf, fitting a cat flap then, inspired by a deep draw on his cigar, devise a convoluted way to solve it. “Classic from Castella,” the voiceover would declare, as Abbot beamed smugly into the camera, his scheme perfectly executed, “for the man who thinks that little bit bigger.”

Through-out the 20th century, smoking was woven deeply into our culture. Politicians built smoking into their image. There was Churchill’s cigar, obviously. Harold Wilson’s pipe proved a useful prop, honing his everyman image, disguising his more refined sympathies. Tony Benn also smoked a pipe, chewing on it thoughtfully, as he pondered the revolution and his tax arrangements. The image of Baroness Trumpington and Lord Pendry, enveloped in a halo of smoke, at the Pipe and Cigar Smokers’ Club’s Annual Lunch in 2006 is an exemplar of cross-party friendship. 

Recently smoking seems to have become more specifically associated with the right. Jacob Rees-Mogg, though not a smoker, keeps a case of cigarettes available at his London townhouse, should a guest wish to partake. Nigel Farage turned drinking and smoking into a brand. “He’s a good lad, that Nige,” we were encouraged to think. “He loves a pint and a fag.”

Perhaps Dave Allen’s greatest controversy was when he gave up

The archetypal club comic always had a cigarette on the go. “Fella went to the doctor with a frog growing out of his neck,” Bernard Manning would rasp, holding court in his “world famous” Embassy Club. “The Doctor said, ‘what’s wrong with you’? And the frog said, ‘well, it started as a boil on me arse.’” The drag on his cigarette would help pace the set, and ride the laughs.

The appeal went well beyond clubland. In 1971, Eric Morecambe was named Pipeman of the Year, joining an august list including Peter Cushing, Jack Hargeaves and Warren Mitchell. His penchant also yielded one of his most risqué jokes, as he recalled his grandfather at Christmas, sitting by the fire, pipe in hand, enjoying a rough shag. The great Irish comic Dave Allen never performed without his stool, his whisky and his woodbine they were as iconic as his missing finger. Never afraid of controversy, perhaps his greatest controversy was when he gave up. “To the heavy smokers who used to be my allies, I’m a traitor. ‘Bloody Judas! You of all people.’”

It was a habit that cut across class. At the Butlins end of ITV’s schedule, Stan Butler and Jack Harper in hit sitcom On the Buses smoked like chimneys. “Corr, look at that little raver,” Jack would chuckle, taking another drag on his roll-up, gurning salaciously at the latest gamine clippie to sashay into the depot: “I bet she’d be up for all sorts, mate.” And she often would be, in exchange for a half pint of oatmeal stout and some free fags.

It’s unsurprising, then, that smoking holds a special appeal for nostalgists. Those photos, of 60s and 70s pubs, dense with smoke, younger people at the tables, glum regulars at the bar, their pipes poking out from under their caps, seduce me. Similarly, early 50s hospital wards, with prettily dressed nurses, and an NHS ashtray on every bedside table. Imagine living in that world. A very decent run would be “three score years and ten”: 70 good years, rather than 95 increasingly miserable ones, subsisting on lentils, rattling with pills.

Artistic devotees have become convinced they must apologise for it

The aesthetics have changed. In our supposedly classless, but increasingly classist society, we are encouraged to think of smoking as a habit which is beneath us: a masochistic comfort for the dispossessed and irresponsible, or a silly social thing a couple of swift puffs on a night out. Gentlemen’s clubs have been forced to close their smoking rooms. The new bohemians have binned it, as have many writers artistic devotees have become convinced they must apologise for it. “It’s a terrible habit,” they’ll say, “I wish I could stop.”

But on a corner of the right, the old imagery is being reconstituted and reborn. Where mainstream Conservatism bleeds into the alt right, reactionary social media accounts are reframing cigarettes. Often performatively religious some followers will be more familiar with Catholic doctrine than others these self-styled aesthetic outlets share recipes and art, political philosophy and theology, pictures of beautiful buildings and beautiful women. This sub-culture is often sceptical about modern medicine, devoted to outdoor pleasures and fresh meat, and also keen on smoking. The beautiful women will have their lips pursed around elegant cigarette holders. The men, often in tweeds, will have cigars and pipes.

Psychologically of course, it is all a kick-back. Many, on the left and right, and of no particular political persuasion, find themselves outside the increasingly narrow status quo: adrift in a world that has moved on from them, that doesn’t just let them be, but seems determined to impose itself.

As a symbol of rebellion, for some at least, smoking still has a long way to go.

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