by Peter Cook
These days, the very thought of smoking a cigarette makes me feel physically sick.
Not as sick as when, at the age of seven or eight, my mate Paul Hackshall and I demolished a packet of five Woodbines beneath a sheet of corrugated iron that was the roof of our camp, on a piece of waste ground between the council houses.
You could get “coffin nails” in paper packets of five in those days. They cost eight pence old money and Mr Holloway, the shop keeper, handed them over without a qualm. He knew we were going to smoke them ourselves.
My dad smoked Players Navy Cut and Mr Hackshall rolled his own, habits of which he was well aware. But cigarettes were good for you in those days.
I felt even sicker two years later when I finished off my dad’s half smoked pipe. That was a head spinning moment. I think I turned green.
But I was not to be put off and at the age of 15 I was a pretty regular smoker. By the time I started work, a year later, I was puffing away like a good’un. Guards was my weed of choice, affordable rather than cheap. Your choice of fag said a lot about you.
Our fathers smoked cigarettes with military, and in particular, naval brand names.
Players Navy Cut with a bearded matelot peering through a life saver ring, or Senior Service with a garlanded warship from the days of Nelson in full sail. These untipped horrors often stuck to your upper lip and could tear away strips of skin as you tried to remove them.
For nights out you would choose something stylish, like Peter Stuyvesant or Chesterfield, American brands in paper packets that you could flick, to make one pop up, just like Cary Grant or Rock Hudson. I could never carry this off with panache, a disability that played havoc with my love life.
If you really wanted to impress the ladies – though you would certainly not hand them round during a darts match – you would buy Passing Clouds, oval and scented, that came in a pink packet. Or Sobranie Black Russians with a gold tip.
Despite their exotic names both were manufactured by British firms. It was all part of the pretence.
For real class you could buy your tobacco products from one of those wonderful old-fashioned tobacconists that also, inexplicably, sold walking sticks, hip flasks and corkscrews with handles made from deer antlers.
Here you could buy tobacco with saintly names like St Bruno and Three Nuns for heaven’s sake, loose, to be directly loaded into your leather pouch.
These shops were rich in polished mahogany and brass. They smelled wonderful. But to me, the inhalation of tobacco never really lived up to the aroma.
How you smoked was as important as what you smoked. I will always remember a colleague, Joyce Taylor, seated on a high stool with legs elegantly crossed in the bar of long gone Mitre Hotel, Gravesend, hair piled high, drawing filtered smoke through a holder which inevitably pointed towards the ceiling. Breakfast at Tiffanys with an Aberdonian accent.
But the gurgling brown tarry filter was revolting when the time came to change it.
I had another less stylish colleague who would allow long extrusions of ash to curl from a fag that never left her mouth as she bashed away at her old upright typewriter, one eye half closed against the smoke.
The tension as the point where gravity would defeat tenacity grew close was almost unbearable. I once up-ended her typewriter out the office window and the ash cloud discharged threatened aircraft movements.