LIKE most of us born in the mid-20th century, I was weaned largely on cigarette smoke. My parents and grandparents were partial to a regular gasper and it seemed that everywhere I went as a child had a blue fug lurking beneath the ceiling.
Little wonder that at the age of 15 I was a confirmed smoker myself. We were aware by then of the dire health implications and my father, a chronic bronchitis sufferer, had sensibly given up the weed, but it was a small sign of teenage rebellion to defy the health authorities’ orders.
Also, fags were pretty cheap. You could get 20 Sovereign, Number 6 or Woodbines for under three bob (15p) – about three quid in today’s money – and even luxury Benson & Hedges were less than double that price. Hence the crowds of coughing youngsters behind the bike sheds.
Serious smokers, and I classed myself as one, quickly moved on to untipped brands; my poison of choice being Senior Service. A few of those, each having been ‘dimped’ or snuffed out two or three times, were enough to make your blazer stink – indeed my French teacher, Mr Pomfret, claimed he could tell whether I was in the room without looking. Even I drew the line, however, at Capstan Full Strength, whose acrid blast threatened to take the lining out of your throat.
There was a tobacconist at No 5A Railway Street, Nelson, run by G E Vaughan and known as the Bent Door because its portal featured a beautiful concave piece of etched glass. Both shop windows offered a bewildering variety of cigars, pipe tobacco and cigarettes, the latter of which I vowed to sample in their entirety.
Among them were Albany, Anchor, Ariel, Bachelor, Bristol, Buckingham, Cadets, Cambridge, Camel, Cameron, Chesterfield, Churchman’s No 1, Conquest, Consulate, Craven ‘A’ Cork Tip, De Reszke, Diplomat, Disque Bleu, Du Maurier, Dunhill, Embassy, Envoy, Escort, Everest Menthol, Gallaher’s De Luxe, Gauloises Caporal, Gitanes Caporal, Gold Bond, Gold Crest, Gold Flake, Gold Leaf, Grosvenor, Guards, High Kings, Kensitas, Kent, Lark, Lucky Strike, Marlboro, Matinee De Luxe, Mayfair, Nelson, Olivier, Olympic, Pall Mall, Park Drive, Passing Clouds, Peter Stuyvesant, Piccadilly, ten varieties of Player’s, Ramsey Special, Rembrandt, Reyno Menthol, Richmond, Rocky Mount, Rothman’s, Shipmate, Silk Cut, Silva Thins, Solent Menthol, Sterling, St Moritz, Sweet Afton, Three Castles, Weekend, Weights, Windsor and of course Woodbine.
One of my first purchases from the Bent Door was 20 Silva Thins, at 100mm longer and slenderer than any snouts I had ever seen. They were made in the USA by Philip Morris, who dubbed them ‘the impossible cigarette’ promising ‘real flavour’ yet with less tar and nicotine than rival brands.
They were certainly impossible to smoke in deepest Lancashire, where a teddy boy spotted me looking effete with a Silva Thin on the go and promptly knocked it out of my mouth with the words: ‘You little ponce!’
Next on the list was Sweet Afton, named after the Robert Burns ballad Afton Water and produced in Dundalk by the Irish company P J Carroll and Co. Here’s a short and indeed sweet clip featuring them.
From the name, I expected them to be exotically scented in some way but so far as I can remember they just tasted like common or garden fags. And they were expensive. (Incidentally, they were Thomas Shelby’s favourite smoke in Peaky Blinders).
I was most impressed by Passing Clouds, which had been made by the Bristol company W D and H O Wills since 1874. Unlike your typical round cancer stick, these were elliptical and seemed to fit better between the lips. Again, however, these fell foul of the Nelson Pretentiousness Police.
By the time I’d burned my way through most brands, I decided that the toasted American tobacco was most to my taste and smoked mainly Marlboro and Kent, although Lark was my favourite with its rattling filter made up of tiny charcoal granules. It used to get my goat that whenever I offered my expensive Larks around, everyone took one then later offered in return crappy Embassy Regal, with which I would not sully myself.
As I wrote here, I was impressed on my first job interview by the barely penetrable tobacco smog in the newsroom of the Burnley Evening Star and was happy to accept the offer of a job as a trainee reporter.
When I eventually became a sub-editor, ciggies were a vital part of the headline-writing ritual. Much like Sherlock Holmes’s three-pipe problems, a difficult heading often required two fags, one lit from the other.
My smoking career was stubbed out when, in my mid-20s, I met a girl who was strongly anti-baccy. She persuaded me to stop via the threat of a nookie embargo and I found I didn’t miss them, especially not the enhanced hangover caused by a packet of 20 on top of a plethora of pints.
With the daunting price of fags today, starting at more than a tenner, she did my bank balance a major favour – not to mention my health. Cigarettes cut short the lives of my parents and both my in-laws, so it’s a good job I stopped. There’s still an occasional moment when, usually late at night with a glass of single malt in hand, I fancy a smoke but I remember my mum coughing her last in intensive care and, like those Passing Clouds, the craving soon disperses.
Old jokes’ home
A young Liverpudlian woman is so miserable that she heads for the docks intending to throw herself in the water.
Just before she jumps, a handsome young man stops her.
‘You have so much to live for,’ he says. ‘I’m a sailor, and we are off to Italy tomorrow. I can stow you away on my ship. I’ll take care of you, bring you food every day and keep you happy.’
With nothing to lose, plus the fact that she has always wanted to go to Italy, she agrees.
That night the sailor takes her aboard and hides her in a small but comfortable compartment in the hold.
From then on, every night he brings her three sandwiches and a bottle of wine, and makes love to her until dawn.
Two weeks later she is discovered by the captain during a routine inspection. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asks.
‘I have an arrangement with one of the sailors,’ she replies. ‘He brings me food and I get a free trip to Italy.’
Her conscience gets the better of her and she adds: ‘Plus, he’s screwing me.’
‘He certainly is,’ replies the captain. ‘This is the lsle of Man ferry.’
A PS from PG
‘Didn’t Frankenstein get married?’
‘Did he?’ said Eggy. ‘I don’t know. I never met him. Harrow man, I expect.’
PG Wodehouse: Laughing Gas