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On the intersubjectivities of tobacco

Author: joe

Saturday, 02 June, 2007 - 19:02

I have recently stopped smoking (more or less - every month or so a night on the lash is only made more enjoyable by trashy fags), and have done so because it stinks, because it makes my lungs hurt, because I resent the dependence, and because it killed my father, and would (and probably anyway will) kill me.

Nevertheless I shall be immensely sad when the smoking ban comes into effect in July. It feels as though one of the colours has been banished, or an entire mode of thought and living outlawed. Richard Klein wrote a brilliant meditation on the cultural life of the cigarette, Cigarettes are Sublime, and his history extends well beyond the ambiences and atmospheres that have pervaded my existence on the planet. He writes of Laforgue's poem La Cigarette, itself 'pushing the Baudelairean ennui to a new, more modern despair'. Laforgue's poet smoker kills time while awaiting death, thumbing his nose at the Gods. As Klein puts it,

"The instrument of his war is the cigarette, whose power derives from the capacity of its 'blue meandering' smoke to plunge him into a state outside himself, outside the course of everyday time that seems to run its tedious ribbon to infinity."

And the war is against not only the mind-numbing passing of endless time, but the 'poor future skeletons' that will unluckily inhabit this wasteland of eternity.

For myself, I wish not so much to step outside of time - I do not have enough, and though stopping the world for a duration measured out in tobacco smoke and silent acknowledgements with the quasi-masonic society of nicotine savoirs is a comfort I miss, it is one whose confiscature I can survive. Rather, it is the world around me which has been formed by the consumption of tobacco, and which in turn has formed the world of my memory and my identity that will die, leaving the bereaved ex-smoker inside me hovering at the fading entrance to the past, ever-more-vainly trying to call back the colours and textures as they disappear.

I recall from my childhood the doorways of betting-shops, the liminal place where a boy would wait for his father who had been swallowed by that belly of adult manhood - the smoking world I grew up in was after all a male, musky world. My conscious thoughts were of the betting-slips that I saw go from counter to pocket, to being concealed behind picture-frames at home. But unconsciously I knew the odour of cheap cigarettes (the only truly necessary cigarettes) because even now a sudden scent will bring that bookies back. The cheap smell has changed - what happened to Embassy No 7? - but the whole world of the small-town, midland-grey, east-coast fog, cold-rain and overalls underclass is encapsulated in a puff of tobacco nevertheless. It is the world of the Still, the public house of betting men and Saturday dinner cottage pies, flat caps and worn-out, threadbare cheap tweed, all bound together by a static hanging fog of pungent smoke, as though its absence will cause all to fall apart.

And from my teens, next to the pint of bitter is the round blue brewery ashtray on the scratched faux-mahogany table, roll-up dying off in the indented rim while we take turns at pool. How could anyone play pool without a roll-up? That mouthful of round and woody stench, a good hot fix of cloudiness eaking into the under-stimulated sides of your tongue where it feels as intimate as a finger in a crevice? Today I still sometimes pass a road-side pub where the side doors are opened and leaking the fust of beer, stale fags and in-between-last-night-and-tonight-ness. Sun outside but agoraphobic teenage boys inside the afternoon dinge, at the bar and feeling older than they are, excited with their unwieldy freedom but trying hard not to show it.

And through it all are the fights, friendships and night-passing ships which form and twine and end, bookmarked, punctuated, and rendered grammatical by the syntax of inn, beer, funk, juke-box, rizla, clouded-glass window, snakebite sticky carpet - and tobacco and its blue meandering. The grammatical rules of the future are asthmatic from over-sanitisation and underexposure to the fox-stench-like bitterness of steely jawed working men and their smoke. We will pass the unopened side doors of fitness clubs, protected from the hot stink of body which will be deodorised with fanatical regularity. The atomising family will, despite the onslaught of modern times and its fragmenting force, acquire an imprint of cleanliness and health. The public interior will become a hell of post-formica plasticity and vinyl plants. We will be coerced into living longer than we wish or need, all the while the human face is stamped on, not by a jack-boot, but by training shoes, facsimiles and mediocrity; such will be our shared cultural life.

I mourn the passing of the stinking cancerous world of the cigarette.

Categories: smoking, cigarette, memory, tobacco, smoke, the-end,
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