Book review: The Cigarette Book. By Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkins.

Satirist Auberon Waugh argued that smokers are heroes because they die young and don’t clutter up hospitals, put a terrible strain on their children, or spend everything they have on nursing home fees.

The late great Waugh is quoted in The Cigarette Book as suggesting that “passive smoking” is no more a danger to health than “passive hamburgers” or computer games.

Here at last is a book by Camden authors Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkins that celebrates the glory of one of the most disgusting, dangerous habits known to man, with fascinating nuggets of information and a wry sense of humour.

Take a deep breath and celebrate the 'glamour' of a disgusting and dangerous habit lsqu

Take a deep breath and celebrate the 'glamour' of a disgusting and dangerous habit lsqu

Famous writers like Camden Town’s own dear Beryl Bainbridge, as well as Martin Amis and journalist Lynn Barber, own up to their fag addiction.

Ms Bainbridge is described as a “true folk hero” among smokers. Her closely observed novels owe much – as she would be the

first to say – to the kick-start effect of her cigarettes. “You’re sitting at that damned machine, you know, you’re stuck and you light up and you put it out and you light up.”

When she tried to give up smoking: “…suddenly all the words drifted out of my head.”

Amis says in a quote taken from the Paris Review: “I think someone must have told me at some point that I write a lot better when I’m smoking.”

Lynn Barber from the Observer is a shameless two packs a day smoker. “Cigarettes have given me constant, reliable pleasure for over 40 years,” she says.

Stalin, according to writer Simon Sebag Montefiore, was a “furious” smoker who decreed that only he would be allowed to light up at important meetings. No doubt this would increase the feeling of stress and unease among his underlings.

The legendary Soho boozer and smoker, the late Jeffrey Bernard, fell on his head in the street – not for the first time, by any means – and needed 17 stitches. When he was in the Middlesex Hospital, again not for the first time, his doctor brought a group of students to his bedside announcing: “This gentleman is Mr Jeffrey Bernard, who closes his veins each day with 60 cigarettes and opens them again with a bottle of vodka.”

Poet, drinker and bon viveur Dylan Thomas is reported as seeing a sign in a Swansea pub: “Please don’t drop cigarettes on the floor as they burn the hands and knees of customers as they leave.”

This can be compared with the official sign seen hanging over a urinal in a US military bathroom: “Please don’t throw cigarette butts in toilets.” And scrawled underneath: “It makes them soggy and hard to smoke.”

Who remembers Dr Kildare, played by dashing Richard Chamberlain? In 1961, in the early episodes, we’d see him handing a cigarette to a patient, and together they would light up and bond in smoke.

More recently, Britain’s most famous smoker is probably Bet Lynch from Coronation Street, played by Julie Goodyear. When Ms Lynch finally left the show, the Manchester Evening News calculated that in 26 years the fictional character smoked 569,400 cigarettes.

Actor Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-89) had a cigarette brand-named after him. The deal for Olivier-tipped cigarettes, made by Gallaher, the makers of Benson & Hedges, was that he received two pence for every 1,000 cigarettes sold. He was given a £2,000 advance against the first year’s royalties – money for old smoke.

He also received 500 packs of 20 every week, for his own use and to distribute to his friends – a handsome 10,000 cigarettes a week.

Olivier was loyal to his brand. Ian McKellen remembers starting work at the National Theatre Company founded by Olivier and finding that “there was a cigarette machine only ever filled with the Olivier brand, although it was capable of dispensing half a dozen different ones.”

Everyone of a certain age remembers the 1959 TV advertisement “You’re never alone with a Strand.”

It featured a moody man, who looked like a cross between Frank Sinatra and James Dean, in a raincoat and hat. The music was a big hit, but the campaign was a failure.

People associated the brand with the wrong kind of loneliness – a loser’s loneliness rather than the Dean/Sinatra kind.

US President Lyndon Baines Johnson managed to manipulate the Senate with a phone in one hand and a cigarette in another. An observer described him at a dinner party “chain smoking one cigarette on top of another and pouring down Scotch whiskey like a man who had a date with a firing squad.”

When he finally gave up he was asked if he missed smoking.

“Every minute of every day”, was the poignant reply.

Perhaps the greatest question of all is: Why do people smoke? Many smokers fail to provide a satisfactory answer, beyond mumbling about habit. Writer David Krough says there’s none of heroin’s ecstasy, alcohol’s sudden brightening of personality, or marijuana’s giddiness: “To the casual, non-smoking observer, it’s as if smokers have gotten the worst of both worlds: drug addiction, without drug euphoria.”


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