Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cigarettes and Alcohol

There's not a Shakespeare sonnet
Or a Beethoven quartet
That's easier to like than you
Or harder to forget.

You think that sounds extravagant?
I haven't finished yet –
I like you more than I would like
To have a cigarette.

— Wendy Cope's Giving Up Smoking

Last night, something very exciting happened. I got very, very drunk and - wait for it - didn't smoke a cigarette. This is big news. Cigarettes and me go way back, so far I can't even really remember when I started smoking. What I can remember is that it was a long, hard road to being a proper smoker.

I'd tried some hideous Embassy No.1s courtesy of my friend Tamsin aged about 11, but I think I must have been about 15 or 16 when I first took up the habit properly. My mother once memorably declared that "any child of mine who smokes won't be allowed within 50 miles of my house," so understandably she wasn't that impressed when she caught me smoking on holiday, aged about 16. She believed I was doing it to impress a young gentleman (partially true) and was quite forgiving. She would have been less forgiving had she seen me in my first year of university, trying to say something profound about Derrida or whoever and sucking frantically on a roll-up every week on essay night.

That first year probably represented the zenith of my time as a smoker. There I was, away from home for the first time, keeping my own hours, spending every evening in the pub or in Bill's room, with likeminded smokers. God, it was great.

There was just one problem. I didn't really like smoking. Or rather, I liked everything about smoking except the smoking itself. I loved my mental image of me, cigarette in hand, fingers curled lovingly round it. In my mind, I had an ivory cigarette holder and looked like a flapper (OK, I was probably one letter out.) I loved illustrating a particularly impressive point (I used to think I made a lot of these) with a jab of the cigarette, or looking disdainful by combining a long, slow exhale with raising my eyebrows quizzically. I loved the fact it grouted over any holes in the conversation, and meant you had something to distract you when your companion started talking about epistemology.

But the actual inhaling of the tobacco was always a problem. I didn't like the taste, and every time I'd wake up with a hangover, I would experience the smoker's paradox: I desperately wanted the nicotine, but having a fag made me feel like death warmed up. Not to mention the 'fagover', a special kind of hangover induced by smoking twenty Lucky Strike silvers in a row. Also, if I stopped smoking for more than a few days, it would make me feel profoundly nauseous to start up again. Nevertheless, such was my devotion that I would always smoke through this stage. Feel the burn, I thought - if pain makes you beautiful, nausea makes you cool!

I first seriously tried to give up in the second year, and did a bloody good job too, if you discount every single time I got drunk. My resolve was stiffened by the fact that my housemate (the aforementioned Bill) was also giving up, and therefore we planned to shout and bitch at each other during the painful early stages.

Except it didn't turn out like that. Giving up was easy, really. I didn't feel any withdrawal symptoms - all my cravings were psychological rather than physical. I ate like a horse, though, and my weight soared to a number of stones I'm not going to tell you. (OK, it was about one and a half more than I weigh now, and I do not currently resemble Nicole Richie.) "I'm naturally curvy," I would grunt, stuffing another sherbet lemon into my drooling maw.

But I was determined. I was not going to die because of my innate predisposition to fidget, dammit. I would find something else to do with my hands - take up knitting, perhaps, or throw coins in the air and catch them again like a gangster. My rule was that I was technically a non-smoker as long as I never bought any cigarettes. Poaching the occasional fag from a friend didn't count; I could only rely on so much generosity from my friends, thereby severely curbing my intake.

Of course, there were several problems. Some wise commentator once observed that only twice in your smoking lifetime are you given free cigarettes. The first time is when you are just starting out; the second is when you are trying to quit. The donors' rationale is this: there is only so much lung cancer to go round, so encouraging more people to smoke swings the numbers game in their favour. Of course it's illogical. But then, so is setting something on fire next to your face and then breathing in as deeply as possible. Who came up with that idea?

My resolve also wobbled every time I tried to pull someone who smoked. Because, you see, smoking provides the perfect cover for a seduction attempt, particularly if the rest of your friends don't smoke. The two of you can sneak off together and huddle conspiratorially in a corner, feeling like you're rebels at the gates of dawn, flicking two fingers up at the Nanny State.

There's a great line in Radiohead's Thinking About You that I've always liked because of its fusion of attraction and smoking: "All the things you've got/ All the things you need/ Who bought you cigarettes?/ Who bribed the company to come and see you honey?" (Yeah, it makes sense to me.) Ah, Thom, I'd think. Sometimes I wonder if you are the only one who understands me.

But, like I said, things are different now. I can't claim that if someone had held a Marlboro light in front of me last night, I would have nobly rejected it. But I can say that I didn't miss it.

So perhaps this is it; maybe I really am a non-smoker. Maybe I'll mutate into my zealously anti-smoking mother, feeling the need to cough theatrically in restaurants if anyone within 50 metres lights up, purely to make them feel guilty. I feel sad, in a way - cigarettes have been a big part of my life, and we've had some great times together. Of course, they were always trying to kill me, but what's an agonising early death set against the pure pleasure of feeling like a femme fatale?

Now, if I only kick this damn crack habit...


Anonymous Laura said...

Yay! Glad to see you've see the light. Of course, you could do the me and Mr.Lee thing and end up sneaking away because you are the only two who *aren't* smoking. But maybe that time has gone seeing as it was the first year at university and everyone was at the 'zenith' of their smoking hour......

6/02/2006 9:15 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a night on the old Joe Raz in which I didn't smoke either recently. 3 in a row, in fact.

Over the last three nights since, however, which have all, of course, involved brief but lush pleasure cruises along the River Boose, I have found myself consuming and producing smoke in greater quantities than a slag factory.

As a result, when I have awoken something has most definitely been Amis, and my mouth has felt as though a creature of the night had used my vocal cavity first as a latrine and then as a mortuary.

I don't think I want to quit, though. I want to smoke waaaay less. I want to drink waaaay less than I do. But seeing as life hasn't got any better since the 'zenith' of my existence, I don't see the point.

But what am I saying? If smoking be Polyphemus, then remember that whilst it is a horrble enemy, it itself loves Galatea. And if smoking, therefore, is just unlucky in winning Galatea because smoking is ugly (as per Polyph Pocket), then should we not feel sorry for smoking instead of upbraiding him? It's not smoking's fault he mings; it's not his fault that he did not take the advice of Nicorette/Nicoridon and be less aggressive. He just doesn't like the goodytwoshoesness of the Acis lifestyle. For A-cis, is of course, neither on this side, nor on that, because he's sat on the fence with the perimenter pole stuck firmly up his a-hole.

I want to give up. But I want to smoke. How can one do both? Tell me, Lady G, tell me, tell me...

I am long lost.

6/03/2006 8:15 am  
Anonymous paul haine said...

"I want to give up. But I want to smoke. How can one do both?"

Try only smoking with one of your lungs.

6/03/2006 6:49 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

God, if only that were possible and you could freeze a lung for later use, like sperm.

6/04/2006 5:34 pm  
Blogger marrow-from-harrow said...

UH! I also quit ciguhrettes.

6/05/2006 2:40 pm  
Blogger david raphael israel said...


a most enjoyable screed, congrats.
(Incidentally, I wandered over here due to googling for that verse of Wendy Cole's.)
Question: have you not considered the option of cigar smoking? -- or perhaps the genteel pipe? Note that these preclude inhaling, thereby (according to my admittedly self-invented folkloric excuse for science) largely obviating the question of lung cancer. Anyway, I've never heard of a cigar smoker croaking (perhaps I've not looked keenly enough)?
at any rate: hat-tips,

6/10/2006 1:12 am  
Blogger galatea said...


I have on occasion smoked cigars, especially in my younger day of faux-lesbian posturing, but there are a few problems. The first is that I cannot fight off a mental self-image of me lighting them with £50 notes and wearing red braces; the second is that I just don't like the taste. (I'm not a massive fan of shisha, either.)

I'm afraid it's cigarettes or nothing. Hopefully, nothing.

6/11/2006 4:01 pm  
Blogger red clay said...

i got here looking for wendy cope, too.

"One Cigarette

No smoke without you, my fire.
After you left,
your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray
and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey
I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal
of so much love. One cigarette
in the non-smoker's tray.
As the last spire
trembles up, a sudden draught
blows it winding into my face.
Is it smell, is it taste?
You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips.
Out with the light.
Let the smoke lie back in the dark.
Till I hear the very ash
sigh down among the flowers of brass
I'll breathe, and long past midnight, your last kiss.

Edwin Morgan "

8/25/2006 7:10 am  

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