The last state will be worse than the first

I do not smoke. I have never smoked. I accept that smoking is not good for one’s health,

But, then, there are many things that are not good for one’s health, including being constantly fixated on all the things that are not good for one’s health. Stress and anxiety seem much more common among those who examine every label and count every calorie than it is among those who live with a carefree joie de vivre.

But to return to the evils of smoking.

The health puritans presumably imagined that when the last cigarette had been extinguished, when the price of a packet had been raised so high that the price was beyond the pocket of a working man, then a promised land of healthiness would be reached. (Although, they would by then have turned on sugar, alcohol, chocolate, potatoes, cheese, red meat, milk, eggs, anything that brings enjoyment).

What has happened is not what they had envisaged, and threatens to have a far more detrimental effect than a packet of Player’s No. 6.

Anyone who has been to a secondary school will know that cigarettes were always the mark of rebellion, the sign of teenage non-conformity. The cigarette smokers that I remember weren’t bad people, they were people who were determined not to be cowed by the system.

For at least a century, contravention of the social norms has been the mark of being youthful. Smoking behind the bike shed was a fairly benign activity, a relatively harmless assertion of individuality.

The cigarettes have all but gone. Few teenagers have money to buy them over the counter and fewer have access to the contraband ones that come from Eastern Europe.

Cigarettes have been superseded by vapes, and who knows what they contain? A drag on a cigarette might have caused someone a spasm of coughing, but would have had no hallucinogenic effects.

The teenagers whose breath once smelt of smoke now stare vacantly into middle space, those who once coughed now break into random bouts of giggling. There is no regulation, no quality control. School students will gather in the toilets to share vapes. The caretaker will complain that the pipes have been blocked by the used vapes that the users have tried to flush away.

Teenagers will always kick against the system. The health puritans have made that revolt more dangerous, for, whatever its demerits, cigarette smoking was a considerably more healthy activity than the inhalation of hallucinogenic substances.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Causing harm

In his frustration with Padhraic, Colm cuts off each of the fingers of his left hand. The Banshees of Inisherin is a profound psychological insight.

Colm wishes to leave a cultural legacy, to create something that will outlive him, and Padhraic becomes a source of annoyance, a distraction from the music writing that has become Colm’s purpose.

To harm himself in frustration seems a strange choice. What would be achieved through such brutal violence? Yet there seemed something universal in his behaviour.

In university days, there was a student who enjoyed playing the penny whistle. Yet the aptitude for tunes that could change the mood of a place did not prevent moments when his mood became very dark and he would take his whistles and deliberately break each into two pieces.

Perhaps causing harm to oneself, in whatever manner, expresses frustration in such a way that no-one else has cause for complaint. The old Scottish song The Parting Glass celebrates the capacity for doing damage to no-one but oneself:

Oh, of all the money that e’er I spent,
I spent it in good company,
and of all the harm that e’er I’ve done,
alas, it was to none but me
and all I’ve done for want of wit
to mem’ry now I can’t recall,
so fill to me the parting glass.
Good night and joy be with you all.

To cut off one’s fingers seems a rather extreme response to the tribulations of daily life, yet it is not hard to recall times when there was a temptation toward self-abnegnation.

Being averse to pain, there was never an inclination toward physical self-harm, but, in retrospect, there seem too many moments of declining opportunities, and invitations, and kindnesses, for no reason other than to accept a chance of enjoyment would require allowing light into the frequent dark moods.

It is hard to find a rational explanation for a disposition that set in during teenage years. It was certainly not rooted in the sort of creativity attributed to the character of Colm, sitting in his beachside cottage looking out at the Atlantic. Instead, it was more an existential unease, although it was hard to discern its source.

The passage of the years has at least brought a hesitation before acts of destructiveness. Taking out my phone on the bus this morning, there was a moment of temptation to delete my Instagram pictures. There was no logical reason for the impulse, just a desire to do something negative. I put the phone back in my pocket and watched the passing traffic.



Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Tobacco hierarchy

Drinking tea with a colleague each morning, conversations are nothing, if not eclectic.

Today’s meander began with a recollection of an old priest my colleague had known, a Benedictine who had the title ‘Dom.’

‘I knew a Dom Paul,’ I said. ‘A lovely old gentleman, too gentle for the Twentieth Century. He was a great man for taking snuff, much of which seemed to be left on his soutane.’

‘My grandmother took snuff,’ my colleague replied.

His grandmother had been a countrywoman born in Edwardian times. It was not hard to imagine a black and white picture of her, sitting outside a whitewashed thatched cottage.

‘My grandfather smoked a pipe’, he said. ‘Warhorse tobacco that you had to pare and rub yourself.’

(It had never occurred to me before that the term ‘ready-rubbed’ on the packs of Golden Virginia tobacco that my father smoked meant that a person did not have to rub it themselves.)

‘Pipe smoking seemed popular among the professional classes,’ I said. ‘Clergy smoked pipes, and academics. I wonder if there was a hierarchy of tobacco.’

‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘Cigarette smokers were thought less polite.’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but I know there were clergy who smoked a pipe who would have met with disapproval if they had smoked cigarettes. There seemed to some sort of distinction.’

Did the distinction arise because pipe smoking had been established since the arrival of tobacco, whereas cigarettes were a phenomenon of modern mass production? Did the massive number of cigarette smokers and much smaller number of pipe smokers prompt a notion that cigarette smoking was somehow ‘common?’

Sitting pondering the conversation during the relative calm of a secondary school lunchtime, I wondered if somewhere there was a diagram illustrating the tobacco hierarchy.

Cigars would obviously have been the top, the preference of wealthy gentlemen at clubs and in dining rooms after dinner. Then there would have been the pipe smokers, the genteel, taciturn souls who puffed reflectively as they listened to conversations. Then would have come cigarette smokers, a number of whom would have also been cigar smokers, but who by their sheer weight of number would have been seen as engaged in an activity for the masses.

Cigarettes rolled by the smoker  themselves would presumably have lain somewhere between the pipe and the manufactured cigarettes (although my late father, who rolled his own, would have insisted he was the most common of being).

Where, though, would snuff have been? A Benedictine priest and an Irish countrywoman were far apart.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | 4 Comments

The efficacy of nonsense

Each summer, we would go to the Stade Dauger in Bayonne to watch Aviron Bayonnais, the local rugby club, play a match. Not once did we manage to find the way to the ground without getting lost. Each time we got lost, I would say it was because the stadium had moved.

Of course, the stadium had not moved. Rugby grounds do not take to the air at a whim and land elsewhere in a city. However, in the nonsensical assertion there was humour that dissipated the annoyance at yet again taking twice as long to reach the ground as the SatNav had suggested.

Myths have always been helpful in dealing with things that would otherwise be an aggravation.

Growing up in sight of Glastonbury Tor, we grew up with the tales of King Arthur (and lots of other far more absurd fabrications). Merlin the wizard became a friendly figure whom we might conjure in our imaginations. (Over indulgence in cider had led to some local gentlemen claiming to have met him)

Decades after we first heard those stories, my middle sister and I still seek the assistance of the wily magician. Intractable problems might prompt the suggestion that Merlin would have a solution and an inquiry as to whether he had been seen recently in the neighbourhood. A recent appeal from my sister prompted me to reply that he had been seen wandering around Turn Hill, smoking a pipe and looking for spring flowers.

Of course, it was nonsense, but it was useful nonsense. We could smile at the grey robed, long-bearded, wonder-worker walking the roads around High Ham. It distracted us from the aggravation that had prompted the request.

In childhood days, the myths had a more powerful hold. I remember believing that Arthur and the knights of the Round Table were buried beneath Cadbury Castle and being very disappointed when an archaeological dig that was taking place on the ancient site did not reveal any evidence of the heroes of legend.

Of course, had the archaeologists excavating an Iron Age site discovered the remains of Arthur and his men, their legendary power would have been destroyed. Dead men could not ride forth in England’s hour of need.

Imaginary figures have far more power than corporeal ones. Merlin in imagination can always be summoned. The irritations of daily life can be attributed to the evil Morgan Le Fay and the wizard can be called upon to overcome them.

Of course, it is a piece of fantasy, but it is efficacious in lifting the spirits.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Sixty years in a wig

The photograph is my favourite from my childhood. It dates from perhaps the spring or summer of 1963. It is taken beside the corrugated iron door of the shed that was used as a garage for cars on the home farm in Pibsbury, the yard being needed to be clear for agricultural vehicles.

Sixty years later, the garage still stands there, still has corrugated iron doors, and is still used each day. Seeing it each time I return to the farm creates a sense of continuity,

The photograph shows a small boy, two or three years old, dressed in a pullover and tartan trousers and wearing the most outlandish wig, giving him a hairstyle that would compete with that of Albert Einstein on a bad hair day.

The wig is hardly something one would expect to find on a small Somerset farm in the early-1960s. Rural Somerset was nothing if not conservative and there would not have been much demand for wigs, particularly wigs that did not conform with traditional ideas of style and elegance. Spiky, blond hair was not something that might have been encountered in the Langport era in 1963.

The photograph has been in circulation among members of our family for the past sixty years. For more than five decades, the boy pictured was told that the wig had belonged to an aunt who lived on the home farm.

In a county where the arrival of the hippies in the late 1960s had brought an awareness that life could be lived in many and diverse ways and that a blond wig was quite conventional when compared with the garb and hairstyles preferred by the new arrivals in our county. It seemed odd that my aunt, who worked for Clark’s Shoes would have identified with the hippies, but the photograph seemed proof of hidden radical inclinations.

Of course, 1963 was too early for the hippies to have been on the English scene, and who had suggested the wig had anything to do them? A boy had made an assumption on the basis of what he saw around him at the time he was asking questions.

One morning, a few years ago, I sat drinking tea with my aunt who was said to have been owner of the wig. ‘There is a photo of me, I wearing a spiky blond wig: was that yours?’

‘It was, it was part of the costume for the carnival club.’

More than fifty years of imagining her a secret radical had gone in a moment. The boy in the wig continues to live in the mind of the person he became.

Posted in Unreliable memories | Leave a comment