Friday, 30 September 2011

SMOKING

Brigitte Bardot, Terry O'Neil
I was nearly sixteen when I smoked my first cigarette, deep into the old gardens at school, under a tree. It was pouring down, as ever, and we went through an entire box of matches trying to light the damn thing, and even now the smell of smoke hanging heavy on cold damp air conjures the ghost of stolen pleasures.

The cigarette was Dunhill, which at the time seemed the apogee of glamour, filched by my best friend from her parent's cocktail party one exeat, and carefully smuggled back, hidden in a box of tampax. Neither of us had much idea how to smoke, which added to the difficulty of lighting it because it took us a couple of goes to realise that you had to suck in at the same time as holding the match to the end, and we shared the cigarette in a series of jagged, exaggerated puffs, wrists held stiffly like dowagers, neither of us inhaling, even accidentally. Had I inhaled, I'm quite sure I'd never have smoked again, but as it was, that first time had all the allure of the illicit, and we were determined to acquire the sophistication we felt sure smoking would confer on us. We may have been two schoolgirls huddled together, in our woollen kilts and gabardine macs in the clammy air, but in our heads we were Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle, Joan Collins in Dynasty, Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crowne Affair, Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour. Life had never seemed so daring. This was what it felt like to be a proper grown-up.

A little less than ten years on, when I was trying to give up, I realised that it was the pose of smoking I was addicted to, rather than the nicotine, or trying to stay thin, or the sheer habit, or the social smoking, or whatever other reason one usually gives for smoking. Cigarettes were less of a psychological prop than a literal prop: they simply complemented whatever role I was inhabiting at the time. I spent my mid teens smoking brightly-coloured Sobranie Cocktails, the perfect accessory for a New Romantic. At university, I imagined myself a left-bank intellectual circa 1968, and carried a pack of Gauloise around with my copies of Barthes and Baudrillard: Fortunately for my health and my wallet, I found them so revolting I could only ever smoke one a day. A little later on at university, when I was briefly a placard-waving socialist-culturalist-feminist, I smoked roll-ups in a print frock and clumpy Doctor Martins and later still, in my first job, I had shoulder-pads in my nipped-in, double-breasted, pencil-skirted suit, and in the pub after work I propped twenty Marlborough Reds on top of my outsize Filofax.

Anyway, I managed to quit, partly by curing myself of the need to be such a hopeless poseur. And an ex-smoker I remained until almost twenty years after that first fag when, on holiday with my Godbrother in Tuscany, sitting outside a chic coffee bar, espresso in hand, Prada sunspecs glued to our faces, he remarked idly that the only thing we were missing to make the experience truly contextual, was a cigarette. Did I demur, or point out that we were, at thirty-three, far too old and sensible to take up smoking again? I did not. 'We'll give up in the departure lounge,' I said, and promptly lit up.

Of course, we didn't give up at the airport at all but passed customs with 200 Marlborough Lights in a Duty Free carrier bag.  I managed to wean myself off what quickly became a twenty a day habit by the winter of that year, but still scabbed a fag whenever I had a drink in my hand.  I gave up properly when I realised I was pregnant with Trefusis Minor, but took it up again the minute I returned to work, keen to prove to myself I was still a bit of a rebel, not merely a pinny-wearing, carrot-pureeing mummy. But my heart wasn't really in it.  And by the time the Tiniest Trefusis came along, smoking gave me up altogether - tipsy after a supper-party, I took a cigarette from Mr Trefusis' emergency stash, and it tasted so unutterably vile in a way smoking never had at anytime during the preceding twenty five years, I immediately ground it out, taking a huge belt of someone's after-dinner whisky to try to take the horrid taste away.

Of course, the thing about smoking is that one has one's first fag in an attempt to look more grown up, and by the time one is an actual bone fide adult, you realise that it's neither big nor clever. I don't miss smoking, but I miss the camaraderie of smoker's corner, the gang membership of the ashtray, and I never mind keeping a friend company as they shiver outside a restaurant or the office. But I won't smoke again.  Not even if someone offered me a More Menthol, a la Joan Collins, or a Sobranie Black Russian, like a character from James Bond.

5 comments:

LUCEWOMAN said...

You are someone who has never truly been addicted, because it was an image thing, not a crutch.
My mother is a social smoker, always has been. Sometimes a year will pass and she won't smoke a single cigarette, other times she'll get through 20 on a weekend.
For around 10 years I did the same as my mother, and one day I just decided there was no point whatsoever.
A freshly lit cigarette can be the most delicious smell, or the most revolting, depending on the situation.
There's no doubt that smoking can lead to the most painful, drawn out death imaginable. My best friend's mother slowly suffocated over 15 years, a terrible scene to witness.
I doubt she'd have had it any other way, such was her devotion to the weed.

Sarah said...

Really enjoyed this piece - I'm with you all the way, from the posing with Sobranies at school, to the comradeship of smoking and the merry skiving, and that whole bohemian thing that I still can't quite shake when I go to Paris - it's now the only place I crave a little Gauloise, in the most pretentious way possible. Now, whenever I see people huddling outside their offices in the cold, looking utterly miserable, I feel so blimming relieved to have kicked it. And replaced it with cake.

Lucy said...

I really identified with everything you said.
Thank you for such a great post.

Lucy

Bodybuilding Diet Plan said...

That`s great, but there is no way i`m gonna stop smoking. It is really really awesome.

Rose said...

I really enjoyed this post. If we are honest the smoking corner/ area/ pavement is generally where the most fun is being had.

I don't smoke, partly because I have asthma and it really wouldn't be a good idea and partly because I hate the smell on my clothes and hair. It is also a very unfair but a very true fact that women who smoke seem to age more than men who do- no doubt like alchohol it is more damaging to us while men seem to be able to smoke 30 a day and not end up looking like a wrinkled old sheet.