Sunday, July 01, 2007

Elegy for an Ashtray

Today marks the first day of a brave new era for England as it goes smoke-free in public places. How does this affect me? Well, it doesn't in particular. Not anymore. I gave up smoking a few years ago after more than two decades of daily rolling and hacking. But at one time this would have been a grim day for me, leaving me with the awareness that my civil liberties had been eroded yet further and that I desperately needed a cigarette.

Many writers reach for tobacco as a means of inspiration, to kickstart the creative process. Alcohol too, often in larger quantities than is good for our livers, but so far they haven't got round to banning that. Soon though, I have no doubt. Because the government knows best. They are not interested in the civil liberties of smokers, only those of pub, club and restaurant-going non-smokers.

And the outcome of this ban? That hardened smokers will now stay home in order to indulge their 20-a-day habits, stocking up on the single malt and filling their children's lungs with smoke.

I'm exaggerating, but the dangers of passive smoking have also been exaggerated. Human beings have been living in smoke-filled environments ever since the first cave-dwellers rubbed two sticks together and invented the cooked dinner. Now we are no longer entitled to light up in public for fear of damaging passers-by, but must take the smoke home and inflict it on our children instead.

I am a non-smoker. I am also an ex-chain-smoker. That means that barely a day goes by when I don't want to have a cigarette.

I watch people smoking in the street, in bars and restaurants, and feel a powerful desire to join them, to drag that dizzying grey crap into my lungs again and lean back with my eyes closed, secure in the knowledge that I'm killing myself legally.

In that sense at least the ban will be useful, helping me to feel clean and self-righteous in public, no longer tempted by the sight of others enjoying what I have denied myself. But my memory still works fine. And memory is a dangerous thing for the ex-smoker.

I remember days when I smoked almost non-stop, lighting one cigarette from another, writing with my hands shaking and my heart racing, falling into bed exhausted and happy and stinking of smoke.

I remember moments when there was nothing between me and the void but the single burning filament of a roll-up. A white flag, raised and lowered in silence.

I remember chilled nights with friends, sitting round a table or on the floor, drinking tea and sharing a few joints between us. The gift of the high, its other-worldly acceptance.

I remember the first cigarette of the day, that astonishing all-body relief of the nicotine. The abrupt brightening of everything, nerves and bloodstream clicking into gear, super-charged, even grateful.

I remember the dreadful fear of running out, the palm-sweats, the uneven temper. Scrabbling in long-cold ashtrays for butt ends to be ripped apart and cannabalised, smoking their bitter entrails with the pinched face of the addict.

I remember the endless attempts to give up, year after year. The fads and the patches. The pretend cigarettes and the gum. Then the tobacco again, like an old friend, an ex-lover. The cruellest of old flames.

I remember the frustration, waking up and needing to smoke above all else, throwing a full ashtray across the room, desperate to be free.

I remember the day I finally gave up. Twenty years stopped cold in their tracks. How my resolve weakened a few days later and I smoked a furtive cigarette in the garage. Stubbing it out again quickly, disgusted and nauseous.

I remember the night I realised that I was clean. Going to a restaurant and watching a friend light up after our meal, yet being unmoved by the sight. Not desirous of a cigarette, not sick with envy and restlessness.

Finally, I remember the moment it dawned on me that I would never be entirely free. Being offered a cigarette at a party and suddenly, desperately, physically needing to say yes, yet still managing to say no. Accepting a glass of wine instead and remembering when I was a smoker, the sheer ecstasy of nicotine and wine mingling, the death instinct and the perverse belief that I would live forever, the heady pleasure of the post-coital cigarette, the post-argument cigarette, the pre-interview cigarette, the writer's cigarette, the poetry reading cigarette, the after-dinner cigarette, the cannabis cigarette, the shared cigarette, the last cigarette.

Smoking is both a glorious pleasure and a deadly insult to our bodies. Today's ban on smoking in public places will change the smoking habits of millions of people, and perhaps many smokers will stop altogether, as I did.

But there's no getting round the fact that those who genuinely wish to smoke will continue to do so, whatever the social circumstances, just as those who genuinely wish to die will continue to kill themselves, undeterred.


Anonymous said...

I have mixed feeling about this. In a way, I am pleased because it will help me smoke less and give up - but I am also disturbed by the creeping orwellian society that this government seems to be heading for. This government has passed more new laws (and done more to curtail civil liberties) than any other in modern history.

I did hear that there were some unexpected emergent outcomes in Scotland when the ban was first introduced there - a rise in domestic violence because of the number who were drinking at home instead of going out to the pub.


Jane Holland: Editor said...

My first thought - having lived with an alcoholic chain-smoker for eight years myself - was that domestic violence would rise because of this ban.

I edited that comment out of my original post because I felt it was alarmist and too difficult to prove. I'm glad you've voiced that concern though; it seems a logical jump to me, as someone who knows how heavy drinkers tend to operate once they're safely behind closed doors.


Background Artist said...

Herr furhess, you attempt a lament on the withdrawel of a "right" to consume cancer sticks in the workplace, cast back a nostalgic glance at the idea of smoking in pubs, before it's even started. You are years behind the time my timid fawn. Life no more is a Blakean idyll of rag-pickers and child chimney sweeps dying of consumption, but a smoke free environment in the drinking sweat shops, where minimum wage slaves from our new member states, spending bleddy euros shirl, get yer head round that one O most smartest of space-investigators - actually fit in, byt not polluting the environment with sociological unnacceptable behaviour.

In a few short months you will be asking yourself why this simple and effective piece of legislation was not enacted ages ago, and realise that all the bullshit talk, the vintners up in arms predicting the death of cultural life, are no where to be seen. It's like the bully being tossed out of school, everyone is happier as it dawns on them that - actually - not smoking in pubs is a very bleddy good idea.

Like spending euros. Ditching the pound holland?

Imagine your horror at having to touch the bladdy stuff? The shabby disreputable coinage that ousted ones pund...phwoar wot a shocker!!

A non story methinks, although your effort at whipping up the downer play-buzz is comendable, if somewhat misguided in the long run.

For one shall discover hollando, that far from being the draconian dictatorship your cultural dna defaults you to rage on about like some latter day rossetti, europe is actually a nice place and closer links a very sensible idea, as gordy will no doubt tell you.

Don't think tones is still in town, the troubled sherrif aint got the badge now the scttish mans around..

Jane Holland said...

I told you before, Desmond. Get some therapy. And leave me alone. I'm going to start deleting your comments from now on. This is stalking.


Background Artist said...


Ooh jane holland the chirpy heavyweight, thus will she spake.

If your life is that devoid of excitement you invent a litearte stalker, get help you mentally ill crap poet. Don't use me as the poor git to fix your fantasy on. I am in a different country, and i take excpetion to the way you are trying to use me in your life as a wannabee serious poetry bore.

I am a poet who you invited to talk on your site, in your attemnpt to further a career as an online dictator, and i went ionto it honestly. But you immeduatkey started acting the bollix and not publishing what i wrote, and then publishing it in a way which clearly demonstrated you were not being honest with me.

The you sent a few a mails in a matey register, then the "Suspended!!" one.

Grow up, you know very little - if anything - about my poetic culture, and turned wierd when i talked of Amergin and bardic practice, which i don't mind. Do what you want. Ignore me do as you please.

And the reason I am writing this, making it public, is that when you are unable to talk to me as a poet - due to a lack of poetical knowledge on your part - you pull the lowest trick in the book.

After not a lot of anything in reality, only language, you write to me advicing me to get therapy and talk of insanity, to a poet?

Get real Holland. This is poetry and you are having a go at me to get help, a poet who aint got a clue about Amergin. If you try to use my writing or your very very brief encounter with me to further your sad act, make sure i will be slagging you rotten.

You wrote to me several times, not me you, asking me to talk, then stopping me when i do and after two days, marching in as if i'm actually supposed to give a fig about you, get real joker poetess..

Jane Holland said...

Feel better for that, do you? I've let you have your say, as I'm a fair person, but now that's enough.

So long and thanks for all the abuse.