Sunday, 27 December 2009

The meaning of smoking

My kitchen window, on the first floor (level 2) of our flats, looks down on a road leading to the station. That’s where most passers-by are going to or coming from, often with cases on wheels that provide the first sound I hear on many mornings. Today itt’s cold out there and a man who just passed wheeling his case and looking underdressed was plainly feeling it. But he still had a cigarette on, which entailed keeping his hands, or, strictly, one of them, ungloved.

It obviously meant something to him to be smoking as he walked and shivered and I thought back to my own smoking days, when I too would have wanted to light up while walking in the cold. Or while working outside at gardening or building something. Part of the story is obviously addiction, though addiction is in some usage just a label for liking to smoke. But another part is the extension of our personal zone and the bubble of culture out into the alien environment. Instead of taking in nature in the form of its air we take in as our own smoke, the work of our lungs and their prosthesis, the cigarette. The cigarette, part of which, after all, is inside us, isn’t an external device but a bit of us. Like our own mouths, we can’t see it; it’s an intake channel equivalent to and as intimate as the nose.

Smoking is a defiant declaration of independence: ‘Wherever I go I can make my own environment, breathing my own stuff and not what nature offers and moving in a cloud of my exhalation. Between nature and culture I'm for culture every time.’ Hence the appeal of lighting up even in the most inconvenient circumstances -- up ladders, under cars, on mountainsides, on bikes. It’s an assertion of our self-sufficiency, the mastery of the human over the worst the world can throw at us, of our dominance over nature. (Having written that I'm aware there’s a gender dimension to all this.)

And as such it’s a stance that’s out of fashion. Now we think we’re rejoining nature. (’We’ being, I suppose, more the white middle class.) Once more (the last time being ancient Greece?) we’re animals with bodies that we’re keen to let the air get to, the more the better - just see us on the beach compared with our ancestors of two or three generations back. Any bodily residues on skin or clothing are removed by crazily frequent showering and laundering. Kids at my primary school in the 1940s would wear the same clothes for, it sometimes seemed, the whole winter, including in bed. Farmers, shepherds and navvies, who -- the first two at any rate -- I romantically thought in my teens should be expressing in their dress and mien something of their noble communion with nature, like Tolkienian Elfs or Ents or whatever they’re called, wore old suits and smoked -- and whistled not folk songs but hits from the Light Programme. Nor did they bother about getting soaked: the only rainwear was a sack across the shoulders: let nature -- which is, let’s face it, just a pain half the time when you’re trying to make a living -- do what it will: me, my clothes, my fags and my bits of tunes are all I need to be a king.

The price of symbolic reinforcement from at least one of these cultural appurtenances was cancer and wrecked lungs for some, a risk most of us have judged excessive. But I don’t underestimate the satisfactions of smoking in the open air or despise those who hang on to them. David Hockney, who I reckon a wise man, can’t be all wrong.

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