(originally published at World Online, 16 August 2001. Alas, it’s no longer online.)
I LOVE life. I love it because I love smoking. I’m drinking coffee and smoking away as I write this. At my desk, in my room, where I CAN smoke.
Not too long ago, at some literary thing in Cape Town, I bump into the editor, skulking like James Woods behind the giant Strelitzia, sunglasses in one hand and dragging on an absolute or final light cigarette. ‘Fuck! Absolute lights!’ I laugh in derision.
As scum of the earth, we naturally huddle around our common plight. ‘The last enclave of offense against bourgeois health,’ I joke.
‘What about a piece on smoking?’ he muses. God, no, I think; what about all my colleagues with a psycho-analytic bent seeing only my death-wish, paying particular attention to my use of the definite article in the phrase ‘the delight of smoking’. I purse my lips and blow smoke just as a healthy couple passes by under the Strelitzia.
The couple shudder at the sight of us, him putting a protective arm around her, both coughing like two adventurers finally emerging from a fug of swamp air most poisonous and fatal. ‘Fuck, yeah,’ I say loudly, ‘a column on smoking.’
‘Besides,’ I continue for the benefit of the couple about to run for the sanctimonious, clean air inside, ‘I’ve been smoking since I was four. You want an expert.’
I’ve smoked everything, from Hunter Toasted stolen from my father in ingenious ways, to Boxer roll-ups in desperate times, to, in even more desperate times, the tobacco dust Dad used for the lawn. Sometimes I got lucky and found half a cigarette in the bag of dust. Sometimes, times were so desperate that I smoked tea bags. That’s right, in a bottle neck, with friends, pretending we were hardcore, huddling on our haunches and discussing all the gangsta ways of holding the bottle neck.
Yes, I’ve been smoking for a long time, what with both Mom and Dad smoking when I was born. And yes, I know all the arguments about dependency. But I’m not going to sue my parents nor blame them for my dependency. They don’t have the money. Besides, that would be infantile; rather, I thank my parents for giving to me the joys of smoking.
Mind, there’s a lot of lolly in suing tobacco companies, but, God, who can seriously believe that the plaintiffs are innocent victims? Sure, the big tobacco corporations are in it for the money, and, as big corporations, they will certainly overstep all sorts of ethical, environmental and health boundaries. But it’s a big corporation, and not an omnipotent force.
Why is it that we do not think twice about the moral schema by which they are automatically guilty. They’re not blameless, certainly, but there is something unsettling about the overwhelming and automatic consensus against them. Smokers lose agency and are under the control of some satanic force; anti-smokers shudder but feel smug and safe for having seen the light. Smokers are there to be saved; anti-smokers, again smugly, are the bearers of knowledge. Oh yes, they know about the dangers of smoking. Smacks of religion. His People.
Look, let’s get a few things straight. Despite the assertions that the world is multi- cultural and that the modern world that counts (the north) is secular, the dominant way of looking at the world is still Christian. Modern, western secularism evolved, indeed, from Christianity, and the moral consensus against cigarette smoking shows deep roots of that strain of Christianity that we call Protestantism (in its broad sense). Who is it that said Protestants are those people who can’t stand seeing other people have fun? Actually, most religious peeps are like that, except maybe Rastas. And anti-smokers are just that: they can’t stand that there are people who huddle outside on balconies, sharing laughter more raucous than inside around the dessert bowls.
The arguments against smoking are scientific. Some causal relationships between smoking and a range of horrific diseases have been drawn. And yes, after 30 years of smoking I can feel these relationships forming coalitions inside my body. But anti-smokers latch onto this science and turn it into the shrill tones of fundamentalism. I remain sceptical that the harm of second-hand smoke is equal to the histrionic response of the healthy couple. It is as if they have seen, up close and with immediate effect, their death. But then again, as Bernardo Bertolucci said somewhere: ‘People believe themselves immortal; you should give them back the sense of death.’ So, smokers of the world, give them back that sense of death, all those longevity obsessives.
I know, there’s nothing more irritating than the smoke curling from the front end of a Benson & Hedges; even smokers agree on this. (It’s a bit better drawn through the filter.) But to suggest someone is going to die from it. Fuck, I don’t know.
If people are really concerned about clean air and longevity, what about a bubble or an oxygen tent. And in this regard surely tobacco smoke is the least threat. At least it’s easily recognizable.
What about cow farts eh? And cars? Do those catalytic converters really work? Is the petrol really lead-free? If big corporations like tobacco companies hoodwink consumers and government agencies, what prevents their siblings in other areas of supply from hoodwinking consumers and governments? Shouldn’t cars also carry a warning: Using this car may cause mangled wrecks with shards of metal and glass that may pierce your heart? Or: Using this car will harm the health of joggers who have the right to jog along our main roads and insist on clean air.
My Gawd, just the other day I see a young father pushing his kid in a pram, from the nice clean mall air (yeah right) into the parking garage, across the pedestrian crossing there as a car zooms past, the kid level with the exhaust. If health is the issue then… surely many forms of air pollution other than cigarette smoke pose more serious, global, long-term threats.
But these issues are difficult aren’t they? It’s much easier, much more convenient to rid our lives of tobacco smoke than to rid our lives of the motorcar, isn’t it? Life without a motorcar is unthinkable, no matter the pollution. We won’t even try cut down on it by forming lift clubs because, well, the inconvenience. Anti-smoking is just a much easier cause. You don’t have to convince the world of it’s evils; with the motorcar and other industrial pollution you will have to fight a much, much more fundamental assumption, which is difficult. With anti-smoking, well, the language is there; you just join the chorus and soothe your conscience: today I said to someone that ‘smoking is bad for you’ and tried to save their life. I feel all smug and happy.
Due to forces beyond my control, this column is now like a major carcinogen in my life. It hampers progress; it eats away at me. It is six months overdue. And I’m really burning to vent my spleen at the bad, very bad service everywhere I want to buy something I really want.
The editor points out that I am opening a can of worms about contemporary life: the loss of individual agency, the paternalism of warning labels, the descent into a miasma of relativism where everything is a lifestyle choice, as if it’s cool to walk into Woolworths and buy this or that lifestyle. Which people do.
Then he harangues me to finish this article: Leave those other issues aside for later pieces. Or he flatters me. Come on you old veteran! he cajoles. You can thumbsuck this in 5 minutes.
I do not respond well to oral fixations, and I do not want buck teeth. In any case, thumbsucking doesn’t have quite the mouthfeel of handrolled cigarettes.
I play Miles Davis endlessly, poring over album pics of him: Miles with trumpet, Miles with trumpet and cigarette, Miles with cigarette, Miles with a cup of coffee and cigarette, Miles with a cigarette, Miles in thoughtful pose, face resting in his hand and, yes, a cigarette in that hand.
I realise the meta-commentary – writing about the writing of the article – is a lazy, slacker move, so I play more Miles, brew more coffee.
The editor promises seedy rewards, on which I know he cannot deliver. I counter-attack by threatening to write an article about him: how, once, he wrote a piece on Derrida and Breytenbach. I turn to more Miles.
The pictures are rather cinematic, and there’s a touch of cinematic eroticism. And I remember a time when, suddenly, I couldn’t smoke in my local cinema anymore. What was the point then? As a kid I went to the cinema because, under the shield of darkness, oh what joy to light up, relax and smoke away while not quite getting all the jokes that Shamus (Burt Reynolds) cracked at an assortment of stupidos.
Then there was the era when none of the characters in any films smoked. The less said about this period in human life, the better. It was dull.
But onto the scene burst a remarkable film with shots of Sean Penn brooding with a cigarette, shots of him brooding with a 9mm pistol and a cigarette, shots of him being Sean Penn on a rooftop in cold NYC air, clouds and clouds of delectable cigarette smoke billowing around him and hanging gracefully in the air. It was State of Grace.
Suddenly characters started smoking in films again. Cinematic bliss. With one flaw: cinema patrons couldn’t smoke. That’s when I got the VCR. Now I get the video, grab the ashtray and smoke away. Oh, there are other advantages: into your home cinema you can bring Chinese food, the best food for video; you can stretch you legs, and so can your tallest friends; you can adjust colour, contrast, brightness and volume (don’t get me started on inattentive projectionists); and, your local video store won’t fleece you for stale popcorn and flat coke.
I don’t insist on smoking as an absolute personal right. As a political issue it is also pretty low down on the scale. I will just not patronise those restaurants and coffee shops where I cannot smoke. And I neglect my friends who sniff and wave and cough when I light up. ‘What can I do? I’m an addict,’ I say and laugh, ceding responsibility and indulging in that loss of agency.
A casual glance shows that the coffee shops are empty and the waiters are bored. There may have been a flush of visits from anti-smokers, gleefully celebrating this novel idea. But they’re not fun people are they, anti-smokers. And, with no smokers to abuse, what will they do?
Well, I felt right at home the other day at some place I’ve never given a second thought because of their bad croissant. A friend and I went on a weekly music buying venture, stopping off for grub at a favourite joint. This joint had decided to get rid of their smoking section after the dreaded 1 July, when the SA government’s laws regarding smoking in public places came into effect. We turned away. Besides, the 5 patrons they did have all looked dull and alone. So we went to bad-croissant place, and a waiter (clearly a smoker) welcomed us warmly and poured us oversized drinks. Now that’s what I call community.
Alas, a boycott by smokers will not bring anti-smoking establishments to their knees. Or might it?
By a perverse negative default, it seems smokers may carry some economic clout. The latest M&G (20-26 July 2001) carries a report on some study that shows that the Czech government saves more than $140-million p.a. in health care due to the early death of people like me. OK, we need to be sceptical of this since a tobacco company funded the report. If you have the money, you can prove anything. So, I did some economic research of my own I visited some more restaurants.
One particular place, that caters for a flow of cinema-goers, confirmed my suspicions. Smokers were being turned away because there were too few smoking tables. The non-smoking section contained one lonely old soul who, it appears, had been stood up. Heish, these non-smokers, so insensitive.
And all around me in the smoking section were jovial couples and groups of friends, lighting up and throwing their heads back in laughter. At the bar, next to me, a group of five ‘older’ women. Some of them rolling their own cigs, sipping at whisky… Now, there are ways in which some people light their cigarettes. Watch any old black and white movie and (for heterosexual men and lesbians only) see the femme light a cigarette. God, that stuff should be banned.
Yeah, smoking can be erotic. Anything can be. It’s only dullards that want to turn every pleasure into something nasty, something dirty. Only dullards repress eroticism, and cigarettes, humankind’s most enduring oral fixation, is an easy target for their misguided passions. I mean, the first time I tasted nicotine on someone’s mouth I knew I had arrived. It was like all sex should be, when the other person becomes yourself. So, when I tasted that nicotine, I knew this was what my mouth tasted like.
What about history huh? my editor asks. I say, yeah, what about history. Look at coffee – first looked on with secpticism, then embraced. Cocaine – embraced, now looked on with scepticism. Opium. I mean, for God’s sake, alcohol. What did banning alcohol in the States do during Prohibition? Get rid of that scourge?
The point is, somehow some powerful lobby (read repressed Christians and longevity obsessives) presents their vision of the perfectly dull society; some governmental yobbos (read USA) accept a bribe (read donations) and the vision (read myopia); and, voila, smoking is banned. Then the government insists it’s for my own benefit; they’re really being good governments because they are concerned about my health; in fact, so concerned are they, they do my thinking for me too. And like a child I am happy to be told what is good for me. Not.
Then the UK (the 51st state of the US) follows; then the rest of the world (the 52nd state) follows.
This all bothers me because it looks like in 5-10 years, nicotine maybe be a banned substance, contraband, a real drug. Like cocaine. Difficult to come by, but de rigeur with the hip crowd. Then, of course, smokers will be a sad sight, logging on to puff.com and its affiliated chatrooms where they can hang out and smoke as many cigarretes as possible, virtually. No, sadder: I am powerless in the course of these events. I love smoking, am addicted to it; and now suddenly the world does not approve. Who says coffee isn’t next?
Sounds a bit like a westernised, subtle vigilantism, doesn’t it?