The first cigarette was unremarkable, though no less memorable for that. Late afternoon, a dry autumn day in 1989. Me. James. Was it Rich? No. Must have been Graham. Squeezed between a dense hedgerow and an old stone wall by the church opposite school, we took turns to puff and splutter our way through the first tab of a Benson & Hedges 10-pack. I recall muted laughter, muffled coughs and prodigal plumes of blue smoke. Discarded copies of Penthouse scattered the ground, strewn with the burned ends of an empty box of Swan Vestas. We were not the first petty-delinquent 13-year-olds to enter into this rite of passage, nor would we be the last.
People often recall that initial acrid hit: the first burn of the trachea, the involuntary rejection of alien fumes. For me, it was the fear of being caught – the palpitating, excited sort of fear – that cleaves to the mind above all. I wasn’t really the defiant, mutinous kind. A good boy, in the main. Keen to please teachers, polite to parents, eager to get good grades. A place in the team. A part in the play. Crucially, I had always been brought up to think of smoking as a very bad thing. We all had, of course. But cigarettes littered my childhood. It had always been drummed into me not to do as family did. Defying that felt complicated.
Both of my grandfathers were serious smokers. The one I didn’t meet – Dad’s dad – was never without a gasper on the go. Every picture I have seen of him features the same filter less fag, deftly perched on his bottom lip. The enduring memory I have of my maternal grandfather is of a proud, awkward man, sitting in a corner armchair, silently doting on his grandchildren, with an ever-present Dunhill International staining his already yellowed and hardened fingers. Both of them died, eventually, of emphysema. When Mum met Dad, in the late 1960s, he had a very uncool “No smoking” sign hanging from the nearside door of his extremely cool, metallic-grey MGB. In 1971, aged 21, on the day of his father’s funeral, Dad began a committed, lifelong relationship with nicotine. He died at 67 of pancreatic cancer. If it’s not in the genes, it’s certainly in the constitution.
At First Light
During my mid-teens, I didn’t feel the same rebellious pull of cigarettes as many of my friends did, which isn’t to say I wasn’t interested. On weekends, James and I would smoke his elder brother’s Silk Cuts, when we found the opportunity to pilfer them. Strange though it might seem now, cinemas were once the perfect place for an adolescent smoker to go unnoticed, such was the habit’s prevalence in caliginous provincial Odeons and ABCs. When collared by James’s mum as we arrived home, reeking of tobacco and Westlers hot dogs, a desultory deferral of blame to the smoggy top deck of the 150 bus would usually suffice.
These intermittent trespasses aside, I would invariably take a pass. When schoolmates slipped down to the lower field during first break, emergency mints at the ready, I paid little notice. When the more rebellious kids ventured off to a nearby passageway at 4pm for a puff – going “down the alley” was the ultimate cool transgression – I felt neither envy nor interest. As our peer group advanced from underage smoking to underage drinking, it never occurred to me to buy cigarettes to accompany our contraband pints of lager and lime. I smoked other people’s cigs, sure. More than plenty. But buy them? That would have meant commitment. A formal declaration. Not to mention a direct debit on my health. That was never the plan.
The plan changed irrevocably in 1994. The location was unremarkable, though no less memorable for that. Duty-free shopping, Terminal 3, Heathrow. Having scrimped and saved through various jobs for eight months – pound-shop tiller, white-van driver, City-boy runner – I was about to embark on a round-the-world trip with a friend who had a similarly ambivalent relationship with smoking, albeit a hardier sense of resolve. This was pre-The Beach, before gap years became customary, a time when a backpacker’s journey through south-east Asia was still an excursion off the beaten track, rather than along a fully fledged motorway, complete with coastal service stations. So we would need supplies.
Charlie, my co-traveller, and by far the superior intellect, reasoned that we should buy 400 duty-free cigarettes before boarding. Just to be safe. No matter that packs of Camel Lights could be picked up on the streets of Bangkok for a pittance. When we knew not where we were heading, or where we would find ourselves on any given morning, it made sense to take provisions.
I think they lasted 10 days. Perhaps two weeks, at a push. Whenever we landed in a remote village, out came the cigarettes. When we drank bottles of cold Coke in the sweltering heat, out came the cigarettes. Smoking became a way of initiating conversations, a ruse to meet girls, a crutch to fend off homesickness. It wasn’t long before it became the first thing we did in the morning and the last thing we did at night. I knew instinctively that I was becoming a habitual, professional smoker. When we finally returned home, Charlie stopped as quickly as he had started. I, however, didn’t look back for 23 years.
Smoke and Mirrors
Smoking and the arts have long been close bedfellows. Think of all the iconic supporting roles that cigarettes have landed in cinema – alongside Bogart in Casablanca and Belmondo in Breathless. Writers frequently fetishise the paradox of a cigarette’s vice-like grip on the psyche and its inherent uselessness. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry declares: “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” Others have described their habit in similarly profound terms. When asked to name the most important thing in life, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre replied: “I don’t know. Everything. Living. Smoking.” “I smoke for my health,” David Hockney once said. “My mental health. Tobacco gives you little pauses, a rest from life. I don’t suppose anyone smoking a pipe would have road rage, would they?”
While it’s easy to be charmed by the pithiness of such quips, and perhaps even relate to their sentiment, my years of smoking were never accompanied by such categorical assuredness. There’s an old joke that the definition of a smoker is someone who wants to give up smoking; in my case, it’s funny because it’s true. I loved smoking, much of the time. In truth, I’d spark up right now if there were no repercussions. But I can count on one hand the cigarettes I’ve smoked that approach Lord Henry’s definition of exquisiteness.
Even those instances – the one slowly contemplated, window wound, the evening I drove away from a party where I’d split up with a girlfriend; the last of a crumpled pack, lit while sat alone, as the sun came up after an eventful night out – have little to do with the cigarette and everything to do with set and setting.
Unlike other stimulants, cigarettes don’t come with a rush of euphoria. Not like cocaine or ecstasy, or even alcohol. A desperately desired fag might bring with it a sense of intense relief and accompanying sigh, but it’s not in the same league as a bump. There is no high to speak of, no hit per se. But such rudimentary reason holds little weight with the smoker. Even at my most compulsive, I would have been hard pushed to explain why I smoked, in the same way exploited paramours find it difficult to leave their tormentors. Cigarettes become the toxic lover you just can’t quit. What addict hasn’t found themselves halfway through a smoke, only to wonder why and how they came to be doing such a thing in the name of so-called pleasure?
According to self-help guru Allen Carr (of whom more later), the comfort that one feels upon lighting up is not pleasure at all, but equilibrium. The objective of the smoker, he claims, is merely to return to the unadulterated state of the non-smoker. Which is to say, back to normal. In other words, the aim of smoking a cigarette is to achieve a sensation that you’d feel had you never started smoking in the first place. Ergo, it’s little more than an exercise in self-defeating pointlessness.
There is a disarmingly simple logic to this, though Carr is wrong when he claims that giving up is easy as a result because, as we have established, the mind of a committed, invested smoker is not logical. Committed, invested smokers who are nonetheless keen to kick the habit might first benefit from reading Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime. The title is more accommodating, for starters – albeit potentially misleading. Klein’s choice of the word “sublime” is qualified. It relates to the idea posited by Immanuel Kant (chain smoking aesthetes are nothing if not pretentious) that sublimity is a mixture of awe and fear – pleasure and pain. In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth found the vertiginous peaks of the Lake District sublime because he was at once enchanted and intimidated by – and thus, powerfully drawn to – their imposition. By the same reasoning, Klein explains the rational compulsive’s aversion to quitting the fags thus: “Warning smokers [...] of the dangers entices them more powerfully to the edge of the abyss,” he says, “like travellers in a Swiss landscape.”
He goes on to list the manifold reasons why people smoke, over and above nicotine addiction and risk- taking. Cigarettes are readily available, reliable, not yet entirely socially unacceptable and require little paraphernalia. They appease the caveman instinct: fire starting, communal ritual, and so on. They assist deep thought and promote social interaction. They facilitate both a wandering and a focusing of the mind, depending on which effect you desire. A cigarette can somehow quash anxiety at the same time as helping you rise to the occasion – indeed, it is a veritable Swiss army knife of medicants. Smoking also encourages deep breathing and conscious inhalation and exhalation, not unlike yoga and meditation, just with added tar. If they didn’t unfortunately kill you, the inference goes, cigarettes would have quite a bit going for them.
Except Klein wrote Cigarettes Are Sublime as a means of giving up. Admittedly, it is a curious conceit. More than once, he makes the point that there is nowhere in this world where people don’t smoke, as long as they’re not prohibited from doing so. He eulogises the cigarette repeatedly, calling it “a great and beautiful civilising tool” and a “wand of dreams” – a phrase that clearly evokes Dennis Potter’s “tubes of delight”. But the subtext to this apparent paean to smoking is the point that, like it or not, cigarettes have had a big influence on our culture and society. For those who succumb, their hold over the psyche is diabolic: cigarettes make it almost impossible to distinguish reason from sophistry, reward from suffering. This being the case, to dismiss their significance by insinuating that kicking the habit is straightforward is disingenuous. Accept their power, however, and you might just have a chance of eluding their control.
Breaking the Habit
I am not writing this as a method of giving up – I managed that a little under three years ago, by means I will come to shortly. But the experience has proved, as I hoped it would, to be a form of light therapy. This being Men’s Health, a magazine that exists to enhance its readers’ lives, my foremost reason for writing this is to help you. And I use that pronoun on the assumption that, if you’ve made it this far into what I admit is a rather indulgent piece, you probably have some skin in the game.
In the preface to his best-selling book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the neurologist Oliver Sacks explains the reason for writing his collection of strange tales detailing the quirks and foibles of idiosyncratic patients. Case histories can give you a comprehensive description of a condition, he writes, “but they tell us nothing about the individual… They convey nothing of the person, and the experience of the person, as he faces, and struggles to survive, his disease.” This strikes me as pertinent to the subject of pathological smoking and people’s attempts to free themselves of the habit. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the compulsion to smoke is a disease. But I do believe that the process of stopping, if it’s to be successful, is as singular and personal a narrative as the one that caused the smoker to start in the first place – and to keep going.
In the end, it was Allen Carr who got me, though I’m still not entirely sure how. Countless friends and colleagues had recommended his Ronseal-titled The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. So, in around 2002, I decided to give it a go. It was eminently readable and certainly persuasive, but despite many efforts to swallow its message, I failed to digest it whole. Carr’s method disputes the idea of a physical dependence on nicotine, instead claiming that cigarette addiction is psychological. I was happy enough to accept this – why else, for instance, do smokers not wake up in the night, desperate for a fix? My problem was one of obedience. Carr expects you to follow his lead, all the way to the end. He wants you to smoke when he tells you to smoke, and invariably that was when I didn’t feel like smoking – especially not with him. Four, maybe five attempts later, I eventually threw in the towel.
Years followed during which I flitted between smoking manically and smoking ritualistically. During the manic times, I would binge on 40 cigarettes over the course of a boozy weekend, only to refrain for several days afterwards out of regret and disgust. As my dependency became more deep rooted, the rituals began to harden. Rather than coffee spoons, my life could be measured out in Marlboro Golds. The first would clock in at 7.07am, once I’d dropped off my son at the school bus stop. The next would be at 7.45am –traffic permitting – as I approached the end of the motorway stage of my commute. And so my day would continue with this small system of rewards.
Meanwhile, I was sporadically trying and failing with various methods of cessation. Patches and gum weren’t worth the bother or the expense, though they would occasionally yield interesting dreams. Vaping had its moments, though I remained unconvinced by its comparative virtue. In any case, I decided to knock that one on the head when I found myself using a vape for most of the day, only to submit to tobacco no sooner than a drink with friends had passed my lips. Throughout all this, I was having an internal dialogue with myself, in which I reasoned that there are good times and bad times to give up, and that the time has to be right for me. (In hindsight, the former is undoubtedly bunkum, while I maintain the latter is true.) Of all the various quitting tactics I attempted, cold turkey was most effective – I am nothing if not determined. But by effectiveness, I don’t mean it worked. I just took longer to cave. And then I remembered one of Carr’s lessons: that to give up through willpower rather than understanding is to sentence oneself to a lifetime of pain and denial.
The last cigarette was unremarkable, though no less memorable for that. A grey and sodden day in south-west London, some time in April 2018. I was tired of cigarettes and tired of myself. The death of my dad the previous summer had given my smoking an almost nihilistic edge. I knew I needed to do something but felt powerless. Then I saw an advert for a Stop Smoking seminar at an Allen Carr clinic. Yes, I had been down this road before, but perhaps a crash course would be substantially different to another attempt at the book. At least I would finish it.
The assembled class was a motley crew. I remember an unsmiling man with expensive jewellery who confessed to a 40-a-day habit but little else. There was a posh girl who had attended the same seminar nine months previously and successfully quit, but wanted a top-up after finding herself having the odd drag at parties in recent weeks. Then there was the sad woman with advanced lung cancer and a voice like the edge of a saw, who had been advised that unless she stopped smoking immediately, her life was all but over. She still couldn’t do it. That blew my mind a little, not to mention my heart.
Over the course of the day’s lessons, I realised that I’d already heard everything there was to hear. I was hoping that there had been something I had missed during those previous aborted attempts with the Easy Way method; I was hoping for a revelation. But there was none. Instead, we were repeatedly told to smoke. Then we were repeatedly told why doing so was illogical. I became combative, antagonistic almost. I countered arguments that I thought were overly simplistic. I spoke up when I felt others were being bamboozled. I was conscious of being seen as an irritant – not that I much cared.
In the closing minutes, we were instructed to head outside for a final smoke. The class was asked to think deeply about that last cigarette, what it felt like, what it meant. I struggled to summon anything enlightening. It was raining. I felt as if I’d already failed. I’d smoked so much that day, as per our instructions, that my mouth was scorched. At the close, there was more anticlimactic choreography: each of us was made to stand up in turn and throw our lighter and remaining cigarettes into a bin next to our jubilant seminar leader.
It’s difficult to put into words how I felt after that – or have done since then. I certainly experienced no sense of conversion or fundamental change in my mindset. I didn’t feel magically cured of my addiction. But staring out of the window on the train home, I recall watching a woman of similar age standing awkwardly in a doorway. Her body was contorted and her face scrunched up as she vainly tried to smoke her Superking while avoiding the wind and drizzle. She was wet. She didn’t look as if she was enjoying herself at all. But she persisted. And at that precise moment, it struck me as the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. All I could think was: why? Why would you do that to yourself?
Once upon a time, if someone had asked me the same question, I might have answered with a petulant, albeit unconvincing, “Why not?”
But now I can say quite plainly: “Because I don’t have to.”
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