Books: A Point of View: Smoking the Memory |
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Smoking the Memory : on giving up smoking

(S02E07, broadcast 3rd and 5th August 2007)

"Smoking, my lost love"

At my age, achievements become few and small. One enters the era of tiny triumphs. The other morning, as I walked along slowly beside the Thames on my way to my favourite coffee bar — walking slowly because I was deliberately minimizing my impact on the environment — I reflected, in the style of one of those old essayists who were always reflecting on narrow areas of experience that turned out to have a wide area of implication, I reflected, as I walked slowly upstream beside the south bank of the Thames and turned up the spanking new glass-lined avenue that calls itself More London, I reflected that the now virtually complete restrictions on smoking would have driven me to violence if I still smoked, but I don’t, so they haven’t.

I did it. I finally quit. Two and a half years ago I smoked my last tin of cigarillos, and although I still dream of taking them up again on my death bed — more of that later — I am now at one with the non-smoking world. I almost pity, instead of envy, those who are still caught up in it. Outside the entrance halls to the tall glass buildings of More London — what a name, so exactly conveying that it has less of everything — there were groups of people smoking at each other. Occasionally they talked to each other as well, but you could tell they were talking about smoking. Some of them were arriving late for work and were having a quick one before they went inside. Some of them had arrived for work earlier and had come back outside for the first smoking break of the day, or perhaps the second.

Cigarette butts surrounded each group in a sort of fairy ring. Already these fairy rings seem to be moving further away from doorways, and one foresees the day when the fairy rings disappear altogether. In California it was already happening ten years ago when it was decreed that you not only couldn’t smoke in the outside section of the restaurant, you couldn’t smoke within fifty yards of the entrance. When the entrances were less than fifty yards apart, smokers in Bel Air had to walk to Hollywood Boulevard before they could light up. Now it’s happening in Britain. It’s already happened in Scotland, where any space with three walls is designated a non-smoking zone. After that law came in, you could see otherwise sane-looking people counting walls and you knew that they were smokers.

I was just such a smoker from my early teens until my early thirties, quickly working up from a twenty a day habit to the dizzy eighty a day peak that some so-called experts declare impossible because you would have to wake up in the night. But of course I woke up in the night. It was an expensive habit but I never subsequently thought of suing the manufacturers to get my money back. Revenge on the tobacco companies was always a branch of the compensation culture that I thought especially ungracious, like suing a host for having served you champagne before you fell into his swimming pool. At the age of eleven it was already clear to me that inhaling cigarette smoke was likely to do to my lungs the same thing that it had done to my Uncle Harold’s.

Coughing himself inside out, Uncle Harold would reach for the next cigarette. By the time I quit, I was doing the same. Impressed by the news that if I stopped cold before I was thirty-five it would probably undo any damage I had already caused, I didn’t have another drag for thirteen years. But I missed it every day, so how, you might be asking — and if you’re trying to quit you’ll certainly be asking — how did I manage it?

I used the offset method, i.e. I spent the money on something else, something that I could see accumulate instead of burn away. The same amount of money I would have spent per week on cigarettes I spent on recordings of classical music. They were all on vinyl in those days and eventually I built up a collection weighing a couple of tons, almost as much as the pyramid of the butts of all the cigarettes I had ever smoked would have weighed if they had been swept together in the one place, which would have had to be as big as Trafalgar Square. As I sat there listening to, say, the Mozart String Quintet K 516, I could reflect that its limitless sublimities almost outranked the pleasure of sucking on the fiftieth filter tip of the day.

But there was the catch. I was still thinking of that pleasure, and eventually I took up smoking again, but this time with new hopes of smoking in moderation. I had been impressed by the way Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns chewed a cigarillo instead of saying anything. Taciturnity had always been among those dreams for myself I knew to be hopeless, but I correctly assessed that he smoked far fewer cigarillos than he would have smoked cigarettes. Alas, the same was not true for me, and within a year I was chain-smoking the little cigars, often carrying a third tin of ten for when the first two ran out.

So it went on for a further twenty years on and off, and usually more on than off, while the final whistle was blowing for smokers in the Western world. The cigarettes which had been the only stable European currency in 1945 gradually but inexorably became branded as evidence of the lethal conspiracy of big business against populations helpless to choose their own fate, and the freedom to choose death was rolled back under the imperative to lead a healthier life.

Eventually even I was convinced, and I gave up again, partly because of my job. Flying all over the world to make films for television, I was sometimes faced with thirteen hours in the air without a smoke. The thirteen hours might as well have been thirteen years. After most of the airlines turned on the non-smoking signs for keeps, a smoker who wanted to keep his fires burning had to plot a circuitous route across the globe, and often he would have to fly with an airline that allowed not only cigarettes in the cabin, but live chickens.

There was also the matter of a cough that became harder to conceal from my family. The smoking I could conceal, or thought I could, by going out into the garden for a quick dozen drags before always burying the butt in the soil of the same pot plant and sticking a peppermint in my mouth. Why a man thinks the sweet stench of peppermints from his mouth will offset the foul reek of smoke in his clothes is a question that has so far puzzled science. Anyway, it soon transpired that only I was fooled.

So I would give up for another year, offsetting the money this time with a plan to spend the same amount on health food in order to halve my weight. Having doubled it, I would hit the cigarillos yet again. Finally it was the Australia run that spelled the end of my smoking career. After thirteen hours we arrived at Bangkok airport and I raced for the smoking room. Smoking room was a big name for a small Perspex cubicle that was opaque from the outside because of the grey pressure of the fumes within. I opened the door, saw all the other smokers sitting there face to face in two tight rows, and I realized that I would have to smoke in the standing position. Then I realized I didn’t have to light up. All I had to do was breathe in. It was the moment of truth.

But then, I had always known the truth. The truth is that I love smoking. Hence the failure of all my attempts to give it up, because every method I used was predicated on the assumption that a desire could be eliminated once it was seen to be absurd. I tried nicotine patches and kept sticking them on until they joined up at the edges. I looked like the flesh-pink version of the jade warrior. There is a book out now which teaches that every cigarette you have from your second cigarette onwards does nothing for you except raise your nicotine level up to what it was. Possibly so, but in my case it also satisfied a deep longing, the memory of which lingers like lost love.

So how did I finally quit? I learned to smoke the memory. When the longing hits you, don’t try to repress it. Savour it. The actual thing wouldn’t be any better. In fact it wouldn’t be as good, because it would last only as long as the cigarette or the cigarillo, whereas the memory lasts as long as you like. Reflect on the frivolity of your desires all you wish, but you will never conquer them unless you first admit their urgency. And since I’m being positive in this series, let me record that I feel better. I still quite like the idea of taking a crate of cigarillos with me when I go into the nursing home, but that day will be further off now than it would have been if I hadn’t stopped lighting a fire in the lower half of my face every few minutes. I would have been in the same condition as the pot plant. The pot plant died.


This broadcast has a sad resonance for me when I read it again and I can scarcely listen to it without tears of shame. Within a year of having written the script, I was smoking cigarillos again. And this time, having made such a public boast about my powers of self-control, I was obliged to smoke in secret. There was many a furtive disappearance on many an absurd pretext. Remorse, however, was not the worst consequence. On the first day of the year 2010 my lifetime’s dereliction caught up with me, and I was diagnosed for COPD. This fancy set of initials sounds like an American television police series but the quickest way to explain it is that it used to be called emphysema. I was lucky it was only that. Judging by the cough I had developed, I was fully expecting that the X-rays would come back as a picture of lung cancer, but it seems that I am one of the lucky two-thirds of smokers who don’t get it. (Readers who are relieved by those odds should try expressing them another way, and contemplate the proven fact that a full third of smokers do get it: a pretty ominous statistic to be fooling with.) My lung X-rays were scarcely a clean sheet — they looked like a battlefield on the moon — but there was no cancer. So I got away with it after all. It’s a little stroke of luck to be blessing myself about as I lug an oxygen tank onto the aircraft when I want to fly anywhere. Apparently the chances are good that I will be able to ditch the tank soon. I’ll try not to celebrate by lighting up. No, smoking was never worth the money, and certainly not worth the danger. But my real trouble was — I tried to be honest about this — that I liked it. Loved it, in fact. At the time of writing, when I haven’t had a smoke for an entire year, I’m on seven different medications per day. Two of them are inhalers, and guess what, one of them gives me a blast not very different from those first few hundred cigarettes I smoked when I was still in short pants.