Smoking is cool, really

Kate Moss Times Seven
Image by Arty Smokes (deaf mute) via Flickr

I was reading a comment article in The Times this morning entitled “If you’re not Kate Moss, smoking isn’t cool”.  I don’t think she looks cool smoking at all,  or certainly not in the Louis Vuitton catwalk image. It was following the well-trodden path of generating controversy for greater press coverage, and the whole effect was rather arch. Smoking itself however remains as cool as it has always been.

Personally, I have never enjoyed smoking, and have never been a smoker – apart from a few weeks of trying to force myself to when I lived in Paris, just to avoid the awkwardness of being the only non-smoker. I don’t like the rushing, jumpy feeling, although I do smoke about once a year, in situations where the rush can be a useful antagonist to too much alcohol – as most people know, nicotine is chemically a stimulant, while alcohol is a depressant.

The practicalities of smoking are not that glamorous or that cool; if you’re not a real smoker, the whole activity of finding ashtrays, finding something to do with the cigarette butt, avoiding getting ash on your clothes, is quite unnatural and offputting.

The contradiction for me is that I associate the image of smoking with artistic and intellectual activity. Smoking has become an easy way of demonstrating a nihilistic rejection of any sort of common sense or conformity, which tends to be the difference between those of us who choose safe, lucrative careers based on logic, and those of us who insist on pursuing pipe dreams of creative endeavour based on a few images of Cocteau and Cartier-Bresson. If you want to pretend you’re not an actuary, just light up a cigarette – after all, who would take a risk they spend all day calculating?

When I was growing up, the thick fog of smoke in clubs and pubs blurred the edges of perception enough for you to feel comfortable with the whole ridiculous idea of cramming yourself into a hot, confined space with several thousand other people, just for the purpose of showing that you were young, which was quite obvious from the stupidity of the enterprise. The abstract notion of hastening your death is always going to appeal to those with an abundance of youth, to whom the decline of age, and the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is too abstract to contemplate.

That seam of vulnerability and the human desire for instant gratification that smokers epitomise is  perhaps why I find a higher proportion of people I like are smokers; or perhaps that is just an a posteriori assumption I make, based on the fact that my father smokes. But it is the way that he has aged, and the way his life seems ruled by cigarettes, that makes it seem so much worse than a trivial and understandable vice. When I go and visit him in Berlin, I spend the whole weekend either sitting in his flat, or crammed into the tiny smoking section of the one or two cafes in the city that still allow it. For his 70th birthday, he camped out in Zwiebelfisch (a rather militant smoker’s joint), chain-smoking until 2 am. It’s quite suffocating, and I feel so sad when I look at him, coughing and spluttering and going on about how the “cold air” has got to his lungs, in denial about the slow death that stalks him. His voice often sounds like it’s drowning in a gurgling morass of tar. He has smoked  about two packets of Benson & Hedges a day for nearly 60 years. The cafe is populated by hunched, wizened old men, possessively guarding their ashtrays, their shaking hands holding up the papers while they drag and suck as if their life depends on it. They sit there with faraway expressions,  drawing in memories of youth and freedom with every wheezing breath, and I start to see how age has rendered them captive to the image, like Proust’s irritating madeleines. They flip open the packet of Lucky Strikes, and in their heads they are 22, with their whole lives ahead of them, not wasting away at 70-something, divorced and poor and lonely.

An artist friend of my father’s painted a picture of him when he was young. He is depicted against a pink background, wearing an open white shirt, his bouffant curly hair painted blonder than it was. His lips curl in that slightly obstinate, arrogant expression of his, gazing off into the middle distance, as a plume of smoke curls away from the cigarette held rigidly between his fingers. The image summarises who he has always been, and perhaps the good and bad of all the personality traits to whom smoking appeals: selfish, original, uncompromising, curious rebels.

Smoking in the 60s
My father's family in 1962

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