I was walking to work through Green Park as usual the other day, early on another sunny morning in what should already be Autumn. It is a strange pleasure wearing summer skirts as m feet brush through the falling leaves. Not exactly unwelcome, but does add to the general sense of foreboding about the future. Global warming, Trump, terrorism, Corbyn, Putin, farm closures, cancer, accidents, unemployment, the next big war.So there I was, thinking my dark thoughts as usual. The man in front of me was wearing the usual sharp charcoal grey suit and well ironed pink shirt. Then he lit up a cigarette, and my opinion of him instantly changed. He was no longer boring office drone who was going off to arrange rich people’s yacht funds, but an edgy rebel to whom the suit and the job were mere means to an end, the means of financing his band, or his novel.
I thought of the painting my father has on his wall, in a rather depressing reverse Dorian Grey, which an artist friend painted for him when he was 25. He is also wearing a pink shirt, but short sleeved and open collared. He holds a cigarette between straight fingers, his elbow on the table in front of him, the arm forming a neat line with the wisp of smoke curling from the tip. All my childhood, he seemed to me just like the Marlboro cowboy on the posters, a cool, self-contained silent man. He was none of those things, so maybe it was wishful thinking.
I got an email from him this morning. It seems his medication needs adjusting again, more wheezing, more bronchitis merely because the weather has turned a few degrees cooler. He coughs and wheezes pretty much every time he so much as heaves his frail body out of his chair. His golden curls, which looked very Michael Caine in the 1960s, have given way to complete alopecia, which looks a little strange as he’s also lost his eyebrows and eyelashes. He can’t afford his medical insurance, and yet he still smokes. He has smoked for 70 years now.
A young man smoking is to me more than ever a marker of someone with an independent, rebellious streak, and yet an old man smoking is a tragic smudge of past glories. So I have another thing to be very sad about on my way to work.