Most people, even non-smokers, have their favourite smoking moments from films. Well, maybe not the most rabid anti-smokers, but those people probably don’t even have a favourite film, unless it’s something safely dire, like Beaches. There, I’ve declared my credentials. I am a smoker: not a proud smoker, but certainly proudly anti rabid-anti-smoking and its tyrannies: denials of choice and of personal responsibility. Anyway, my own favourite is not a style moment, not a macho moment, but a logic moment, from 1997’s oddly underrated Love and Death on Long Islandº .
Grumpy NY cabbie, to passenger John Hurt, playing the filthily English Giles De’Ath: “The sign says ‘No smoking’.”
Hurt (smoking. Languidly and stylishly but, somehow, with fury): “No. The sign says ‘Thank you for not smoking’. As I am smoking, I don’t expect to be thanked.”
And how we, or at least I and the then love of my life, smiled. At last, the passive-aggressive mimsiness of that cutely conspiratorial little phrase – hey guy, let’s build a happier, cleaner world, and most passengers don’t smoke, and I am utterly aware that your not-smoking is a physical wrench for you, not a whimsical choice, but I wrote the damn sign polite, so up yours, buddy – had been demolished by dry Englishness.
And how impossible to smile now, just 14 years later. There are signs, tiny signs, of a last hurrah for the coolness of the cigarette, most recently in the fashion world: but it’s not just that the health argument roundly (and rightly) won the day, the vaulting change in societal attitudes means it’s probably a doomed battle. John Hurt would be drenched in opprobrium, sprinklers and spittle, even – especially – the interestingly phlegmed stuff from fellow-smokers. It’s just not done, today. Wit and smoking, style and smoking, bars and smoking, jazz and smoking, films and smoking, sex and smoking, cool and smoking. The last Bond to smoke on screen was in 1989. British commercial TV currently runs ads featuring “bad boy” Iggy Pop looking half-naked, wrinkled, druggy and bedraggled and with a quite unaccountable latex dwarf-druggy-dipso mini-me version of himself, doing bad fast crazy loud things in cars. But superbad Mr Pop would not be allowed, of course, to smoke. Since the start of the new millennium, especially since the rolling smoking ban throughout the UK, a sea-change has occurred. Even smokers don’t like other smokers breaking the rules.
Sit in a pub or dodgy restaurant today and watch someone light up inside near the doors, and the nostrils flaring will be those of fellow-smokers, like Dracula scenting garlic, and the denouements scarcely less bloody. Put a living, polluting smoker on TV, an advert, a council promo, the cover of this magazine, an anything, and they’ll be as welcome as a streaker at Queen Victoria’s funeral. And, my God, we certainly can’t have it properly advertised, aspirational, appetising, sexy.
Which is why it was intriguing to pick up the latest edition of Love magazine, a week after Kate Moss deliberately smoked on the catwalk (on National No Smoking Day). The two are not unrelated.
Love is an impossibly stylish biannual fashion magazine, edited and styled by the rather fabulous Katie Grand, who also styled/ran the Louis Vuitton catwalk Kate-smoke show. Her mag is shudderingly chic. Weighty. Every model, every advert featuring a model, has a face that could launch a thousand ships; but a well-flung copy of Love could sink half the same fleet. Honestly, it’s heavy. And, in this unusual issue of Love, there are more than a dozen shots of models smoking. Mostly smoking rather well. Old-style. Sexy. (Wisps of blue-blue smoke escape, like half-remembered perfume-ghosts. The thin white dukes of paper jut from lips, from long fingers, promising intention. Much is intensely sexy.
But is this our last hope? Given even professional smokers – musicians, writers, drunks – have kowtowed into out-of-door pariahship and showed not even a throaty croak of dissent, is this our last hope for cool? The beginning of the lung goodbye? A faintly awkward catwalk stunt, and a bog-blocking fashion magazine?
“Christ, no. Smoking will always be cool. On paper. In fashion. In photos. But it’s always been like that,” purrs – I did hesitate to use the word, but she is just so French – Valentine Fillol Cordier, a catwalk model at 17 and now a rollickingly successful stylist.
“Fashion loves to go back, to reference itself. And smoking helps: it says history, and style, and it works well for what it says in two dimensions. It’s a bit dreamy, a bit intellectual, it gets smoky and it fills the screen. But it’s in films, in stills, in photos, in something that happened before. It’s in two dimensions. That’s what we love. In all dimensions, in real life, well… you know, it actually stinks. It smells. And it kills. I was a smoker, hell yes. When I was a model – and the people who have a go at models who smoke, well, it kept our weight down. But it has always been far more cool on the screen than in real life. It just works better there.”
There is an echo of her words when I speak to Harriet Quick, fashion features director at Vogue. “Oh, it’s just fashion. Fashion loves to do this, to provoke. It’s not really saying anything. But, yes, there’s something about smoking which works wonderfully well on the screen or the photo. It fills the screen, gives impact. Just doesn’t work that well in real life.”
It was, actually, always so. Always since cigarettes and cameras coincided. The Hollywood stars who promoted cigarettes, and were paid handsomely or prettily to so do, mostly didn’t smoke. John Wayne spent the last part of his life making anti-smoking adverts, to counter the earlier pro-smoking adverts which had helped get him the money to get the cigarettes to get the cancer which killed him. Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Betty Grable – all appeared in newspaper ads (Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Chesterfield and Camel… ) but few smoked, even fewer smoked the featured brands. Even even fewer towards their ends.
Because it does kill. Valentine and Harriet are far from alone in telling me that, while they like to/may have liked to smoke, once, it is now a bugger, frankly, to get away with.
“I think it’s age, yes,” says Harriet. “As people, friends, grow a bit older, they have children and suddenly it is, frankly, just not done to ever smoke. Probably quite right.”
Valentine, with a little more French expansion, tells me that “things are changing. It is better that we realise the lumps in the lungs, so horrid. I just wish it wasn’t.”
Valentine calls me back an hour later to remind me that Lady Gaga had a week earlier gone down the Thierry Mugler catwalk at some Paris show with a nicely smouldering cigarette. Gaga, Mugler, Iggy. I have written all these words with a) a lack of appreciation for the talent involved; b) a mild worry that I possess this information; c) a less-mild terror that I have just died and been reborn and am saying German babywords. Still, this learning curve is fun, and I have suddenly realised that it’s so much more fun than a website called “Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada”. Could there be any more bad words crammed into one sentence?
Which leads me ineluctably to the governmental strategies. Designed by people who don’t smoke. I can’t really put it better than my colleague Victoria Coren, who recently said in the Observer’s comment pages: “The idea is that hiding cigarettes in plain boxes, then hiding the boxes under the counter, will stop children wanting them. That is an excellent idea. Unless you’ve ever actually met any children.”
Smoking is, essentially – and no one, certainly not folk who don’t smoke, can take this away – great in the imaginarium. It fills the screen. It gives poise, balance, pause, thought. Authors, photographers, directors love their characters to smoke. Especially crime authors. It gives their guys something to do when they can’t pull out a gun, which certainly helps in Britain. But I digress, and so I eagerly answer the call from Maggi Hambling, the fabulous artist and grand smoker, although I’m told she quit five years ago.
“Yes. I did. But I started again the Thursday before last. I have to tell you – cigarettes have never tasted better!”
Maggi, helpfully, wanders deeply complicit into my burgeoning theory that smoking is Grand on screen, Crap in life. “Absolutely. On screen, in a portrait, it fills the corners. And the glamour, the wisps, the formality, the romance!” I ask her a little about her friend George Melly, thinking what jazz may have been like without cigarettes.
“Well, it wouldn’t have existed. I painted George for the two years after he died. And each time with a glass of whisky and a cigarette. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been true!”
So: smoking – grand on screen, on stage, crap in life? Maggi, rather unhelpfully, delights me. “Fuck no. I don’t even go out to a dinner party unless there’s a guaranteed ashtray. I hate anti-smokers. I did three, three, sculptures of Oscar Wilde. Bronze, steel and then hardened steel. In each case some lunatic anti-smoker managed to saw the cigarette off the end of the hand. The last one must have taken a real effort. What kind of chuff would summon that effort?”, except she doesn’t say chuff.
It stinks, smoking. There are many websites to tell you as much. If you’re a non-smoker, you’ll nod along with it. If you are a smoker, you’ll nod along with it. Here’s the difference: we smokers understand your concerns and anger, and increasingly try not to provoke. You fabulously fail to even entertain the idea of our addiction, and constantly attempt to find new ways to provoke, and ban, because now you can.
And, no, it doesn’t make you cool. It makes you addicted. Your teeth stain and fall out. Your lungs stain and fall out. Barack Obama just about got away with it, because it revealed a charming human weakness. Nick Clegg didn’t, on Desert Island Discs, because at that stage we didn’t need him to reveal weakness but backbone (and, by the way, he’s a complete pussy when it comes to smoking. I rather like the man, still, but he actually said “hardcore”, quite possibly with an exclamation, when I offered him a B&H during the last election campaign).
But that’s life, and indeed death, and what we’re meant to be talking about here is art, or at least styling, and expression: 2D smoking, images of smoking . Wispy, ethereal, perfumed smoking, through a glass smokily. And keep the windows closed. Sculptures should be allowed to hold cigarettes. Paintings should be allowed to contain cigarettes. Photographs should, surely, be allowed to portray cigarettes. Theatres, too. In all cases, the fourth wall protects us. From the smoke, definitely, if not from certain strangely unbusy editors and Mumsnet contributors. It’s an image, a representation – do with it what your brain will allow.
Smoking doesn’t make you cool. It doesn’t make you clever. Actually, scratch that last: it does, a bit. Here are three differing quotes. “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life,” said Brooke Shields a while back. On Thursday, a rather lovely woman from ASH (I had expected some drippy doomglut naysayer) said to me, “It’s not illegal, models smoking, it’s down to them,” which made me cheer inwardly, and then she ballsed it up by adding, “but they are role models, which makes it disappointing.” No, they’re models.
And then there’s Bill Hicks, the late US comic. “The worst kind of non-smokers are the ones that come up to you and cough. That’s pretty fucking cruel, isn’t it? Do you go up to cripples and dance?”
Not dancing, Bill. None of us addicts are dancing. But we can tell the many differences between a seriously sexy picture and a seriously advanced lung tumour. That’s our dance.