Tobacco: A History 
by V.G. Kiernan.
Radius, 249 pp., £18.99, December 1991, 0 09 174216 1
Show More
The Faber Book of Drink, Drinkers and Drinking 
edited by Simon Rae.
Faber, 554 pp., £15.99, November 1991, 0 571 16229 0
Show More
Show More

Hard by the market in Cambridge is or was Bacon’s the tobacconist, and on Bacon’s wall, if it stands yet, there’s an engraved poem by Thomas Calverley of which I can still quote a stave or two when maundering over the port and nuts (before the brandy stage):

Thou who when cares attack, bidst them avaunt and black
Care from the horseman’s back, vaulting unseatest.
Sweet when blah blah in clay, sweet when they’ve cleared away
Lunch and at close of day,
Possibly sweetest.

Calverley goes on to heap scorn on those who impugn the habit, ridiculing the notion that it is torpor-inducing and fraught with disease. This was the first ‘Thank you for Smoking’ sign that I – playing truant from a Methodist public school up the road – ever saw, and I appreciated it. Round a corner or two in Petty Cury was King Street, where there stood a rank of pubs. A rite of passage in those days was to inhale a pint of suds in each within the space of an hour – the ‘King Street run’ – without puking, or without puking until the end. A novel and film of the period captures a proletarian version of this easy-to-grasp wheeze:

The bartender placed a pint before him. He paid one-and-eightpence and drank it almost in a single gulp. His strength magically returned, and he shouted for another, thinking: the thirteenth. Unlucky for some, but we’ll see how it turns out. He received the pint and drank a little more slowly, but half-way through it the temptation to be sick became a necessity that beat insistently against the back of his throat. He fought it off and struggled to light a cigarette.

Smoke caught in his windpipe and he had just time enough to push his way back through the crush ... before he gave way to the temptation that had stood by him since falling down the stairs, and emitted a belching roar over a middle-aged man sitting with a woman on one of the green leather seats.

Alan Sillitoe. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

‘Belching roar’ is, I think, bloody good (you notice that Sillitoe is writing so plastered that it reads as if it’s the poor old temptation that fell down the stairs), and I like the symbiosis of booze and nicotine that he brings off so cleanly. Anyway, at Bacon’s one purchased the first illicit Perfecto – brand names mattered to the neophyte and in King Street the first stoups of flat-as-ink Greene King (‘drink your beer before it gets cold’), and it was an induction no less potent than the heated gropings in the Arts Cinema that was ready to hand.

How did one get from that to this? From smoking after dinner to smoking between courses – the inter-course cigarette – to smoking between bites? From drinking to acquire a manly hangover to drinking to dissolve an inhuman one? From having a cigarette after the act to reaching blindly for one during it? From explaining, Lucky Jim-like, to a hostess that you have burned and soused her sheets to explaining that you have singed her shower-curtain? How did all that happen? Eh? The jammed, thieving fag-machine that I nearly kicked to death long after all the pubs had closed and the last train had gone and the glass looked wide enough to reach through. The hotel mini-bar that I unsmilingly up-ended into my suitcase, dwarf Camparis compris, when about to take a plane to Libya. The pawing through the garbage – through the fridge, actually – in search of the lost cigarette packet. The broad-minded, sneering assault on the cooking sherry when the interviewee says: ‘No, in fact we don’t keep it in the house but perhaps there’s a glass of ...’ Here are the milestones of shame, or a few of them.

Both of these books oscillate between praise and admonition, and come dangerously close at times to suggesting that drinking and smoking are all right in moderation. Victor Kiernan would be incapable of saying anything so trite. But his book is the record of a long farewell to a much-loved addiction, and he has not permitted his change of heart to make him into a fanatical opponent. The population is praised for puffing its way stoically through the shrieking pieties of King James I, whose pamphlet on the matter warned loyal subjects that it was ‘a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs’. The tendency of those in authority to show who’s in charge by issuing no-smoking edicts is detestable to Kiernan, who recoils instinctively from the martinet, the headmaster, the dominie and the bureaucrat. Weaving together an immense collection of quotations (though no Calverley, alas), he has one very heartening story which may be true even though it has Lord Dacre for its authority. After the suicide of the anti-smoking fanatic Adolf Hitler, it seems, all the bunker deputies began to light up: ‘now the headmaster had gone and the boys could break the rules. Under the soothing influence of nicotine’, they could look facts in the face.

Engels is also prayed in aid, as having written that one of the worst privations of the workhouse system was that ‘tobacco is forbidden.’ And Marx reflected gloomily, as many a freelance scribbler has done whose stipend won’t cover his humble snout bill, that ‘Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it.’ The political economy of tobacco, on which Kiernan touches, is rather iffy from the radical point of view. Colonial Virginia and Southern Rhodesia rested on forms of peonage if not slavery, and Cuba is probably more disfigured than otherwise by its reliance on a tobacco economy. (Indeed, it would be interesting to study the degeneration of the Cuban revolution as a function of a semi-colonial system that produced only things – sugar, rum and cigars – that are supposed to be bad for you.) Pierre Salinger – or Pierre Schlesinger as I always want to call him – once told me that he was telephoned by President Kennedy and asked to calculate how many Cuban cigars there were in all of Washington. He replied that he didn’t know, but could discover how many cigar stores there were. ‘Well, go to all of them, Pierre, and buy every Havana they’ve got.’ The mystified underling completed his task, and only learned its meaning later that night, when Kennedy announced an embargo on Cuban cigars for everybody else.

Smoking is, in men, a tremendous enhancement of bearing and address and, in women, a consistent set-off to beauty. Who has not observed the sheer loveliness with which the adored one exhales? That man has never truly palpitated. It is the essential languor of the habit which lends it such an excellent tone in this respect, as Oscar Wilde understood so well when he described it as an occupation. Kiernan thrills to his own description of Greta Garbo blowing out a match in The Flesh and the Devil, and vibrates as he recalls Paul Henreid taking a smoke from his own lips and passing it to Bette Davis (Now, Voyager). With approval, he cites the mass meeting of young women at Teheran University; every pouting lip framing a cigarette in protest at a Khomeini fatwah against smoking for females.

In spite of the misogyny of certain styles of smoking (pipes, of course, and Rudyard Kipling’s hearty attitude towards cigars – ‘a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke’) and Thackeray (‘both knew that the soothing plant of Cuba is sweeter to the philosopher than the prattle of all the women in the world’), there is also a definite intimacy in the lighting ritual and in the mutual bowing over the flame. Nor, though it can catch you in the wind a bit, does smoking impair relations with the opposite sex in the way drinking has been known to do. (‘No honey, we don’t have a few drinks. We get drunk!’ – Days of Wine and Roses; or: ‘My god, my leg! I can’t feel it! I can’t move it!’ ‘It’s my leg, you bloody fool.’ I speak from experience.)

Kiernan’s sweetest note is struck when he contemplates the wondrous effect of tobacco on the creative juices. Having reviewed the emancipating influence of a good smoke on the writing capacities of Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell and Compton Mackenzie, he poses the large question whether ‘with abstainers multiplying, we may soon have to ask whether literature is going to become impossible – or has already begun to be impossible.’ It’s increasingly obvious, as one reviews new books fallen dead-born from the modem, that the meretricious blink of the word-processor has replaced, for many ‘writers’, the steady glow of the cigarette-end and the honest reflection of the cut-glass decanter. You used to be able to tell, with some authors, when the stimulant had kicked in. Kingsley Amis could gauge the intake of Paul Scott page by page – a stroke of magnificent intuition which is confirmed by the Spurting biography, incidentally; and the same holds with writers like Koestler and Orwell, depending on whether or not they had a proper supply of shag.

Kiernan suggests that both Marx and Tolstoy may have suffered irretrievable damage as writers from having sworn off smoking in late middle age; he has no difficulty in showing that Pavese also experienced great challenges to his concentration from trying to give up, and that poor old Charles Lamb (who took up smoking while trying to give up drinking) was stuck miserably, like the poor cat in the adage, between temptation and abstinence, to the detriment of his powers.

If I was to update Calverley I would include a stanza or two on the splendour of cigarettes as levellers and ice-breakers while travelling. Auden may have coupled ‘the shared cigarette’ with ‘the fumbled unsatisfactory embrace before hurting’, but if you are stuck with a language barrier and a high cultural hurdle there is no gesture more instantly requited than the extended packet and the shared match. This partly explains the popularity of the gasper among journalists, explorers and reporters. Now that most newsrooms ban the blue haze (and, in the case of the anal-sadist Murdoch, the agreeable fumes of booze as well), the atmosphere of most newspaper bureaux is like that of some sodding law firm. And, in the written outcome, it sodding well shows.

Searching unnecessarily for a socially-conscious peroration with which to close his literate, broad-minded and considered guide to the history of a grand subject, Kiernan turns faintly censorious at the last. He says sternly that ‘it is the poorer classes and countries that go on smoking,’ and mentions tobacco in the same breath and sentence as Aldous Huxley’s ‘Soma’. This allows him some boilerplate about the danger of drugs being ‘utilised by dictators to manage public opinion’, and a cry that ‘mankind should throw physic of this kind to the dogs, and cure itself instead by radical reform of the worm-eaten social fabric, the moral slum we all inhabit today.’ Och aye, or yeah, yeah if you prefer. One of the sterling qualities of tobacco leaf is its support for privacy and introspection; its reliability in solitary confinement and the dugout; its integrity. A long, slow expression of fragrant smoke into the face of the ranter and the bully has been the sound, demotic response since the days of King James the bad, and should be our continued prop and stay in these fraught and ‘judgmental’ times.

The hard stuff, of course, is a different matter. Uncollected in the Faber anthology is a moment in Michael Wharton’s ‘Peter Simple’ memoir when one of the more heroic Fleet Street pub-performers kept a long-postponed appointment with his doctor. After tapping and humming away, the quack inquired mildly; ‘D’you drink at all?’ Well-primed for the routine, and knowing that doctors tend to double mentally the intake that you specify, our hero merely said that he did take a dram here and there. ‘Well,’ said the physician, ‘if I were you I’d cut out that second sherry before dinner.’ So intoxicated was the patient by this counsel that he went straight back to the boozer, bought sextuples all round on the strength of the story, and had to go home in about five taxis.

When the effects of drink are not extremely funny, they do have a tendency to be a bit grim. For every cheerful fallabout drunk there is a lugubrious toper or melancholy soak, draining the flask for no better reason than to become more repetitive or dogmatic. But there’s a deep, attractive connection between the Italian for flask – fiasco – and the nerve of humour. When Peter Lawford or Dean Martin observed that it must be wretched being a non-drinker, because when you woke in the morning that was the best you were going to feel all day, they brushed that nerve. So did the porter in Macbeth. There are, of course, some who stand there pissed and weeping and give the porter an argument, to the effect that the male ego is actually rendered stouter and sturdier by drink, or at least by a hangover. Those who have found this are going to need K. Amis’s terse but limpid chapter on the distinction between metaphysical and physical hangover. Bear in mind, first, as he says, that ‘if you do not feel bloody awful after a hefty night then you are still drunk, and must sober up in a waking state before the hangover dawns.’ Two keen reinforcements of this insight are included in the anthology. One is Adrian Henri’s ‘He got more and more drunk as the afternoon wore off.’ The other is James Fenton on, if not in, ‘The Skip’:

And then ... you know how if you’ve had a few
You’ll wake at dawn, all healthy, like sea breezes,
Raring to go, and thinking; ‘Clever you!
You’ve got away with it.’ And then, oh Jesus ...

These are the men who have been out and done the hard thinking for all of us. At all events, K. Amis compresses all the dos and don’ts of hung-over venery in a skilled manner which makes one bawl like a pub bore: ‘Cheers mate! You said it!’ (Those interested in cross-referencing the subjects of this review will need to note what he says about the nicotine ingredient in the modern hangover – something that was beyond the reach even of Jeeves’s celebrated pick-me-ups.)

Smokers are in no real position to engage in denial, though I suppose there can be closet smoking, while drinkers can persuade themselves of practically anything between, as it were, cup and lip. It is amazing to read Byron’s bemused speculations (‘was it the cockles, or what I took to correct them?’) about his insurgent interior, when ‘what he took to correct them’, after a heavy dinner of shellfish and wine, was ‘three or four glasses of spirits, which men (the vendors) call brandy, rum or Hollands’. Of course, it could have been the cockles, couldn’t it? And then there are always old saws, like my father’s sapient favourite ‘Don’t mix the grape and the grain.’ I never understood this until it was too late, by which time it translated absurdly as keeping Scotch and wine in separate compartments of the inner bloke. Stuff and nonsense! Still, you do get people whining on about this, like Sebastian’s friend in Brideshead after he (Sebastian, not the temptation, you fool) had vomited copiously through Charles Ryder’s window:

His explanations were repetitive and, towards the end, tearful. ‘The wines were too various,’ he said, ‘it was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault.’ It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.

Arguably. The best variant of this excuse comes from Billy Connolly, in his impersonation of a lurching Glaswegian gaping down at what is known in that city as ‘a pavement bolognese’. At length he concludes: ‘It’s no’ the Guinness that does it. It’s those diced carrots.’

I once saw the following manoeuvre actually performed, on the morrow of a Tory Party Conference in Blackpool, though the article employed was a necktie:

O’Neill would prop himself against the bar and order his shot. The bartender knew him, and would place the glass in front of him, toss a towel across the bar, as though absentmindedly forgetting it, and move away. Arranging the towel around his neck, O’Neill would grasp the glass of whiskey and an end of the towel in one hand and clutch the other end of the towel with his other hand. Using the towel as a pulley, he would laboriously hoist the glass to his lips.

Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill

There’s a very good ‘Rock Bottom’ section in this collection, designed for those who know what it’s like to spill more than most people drink. Charles Jackson’s maxim from The Lost Weekend, ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can drink today,’ might serve as a representative extract for much longer and more elaborate babblings, such as the full text of John Berryman’s ‘Step One’, prelude to the general confession he made for Alcoholics Anonymous, wherein the sufferer relates all the harm he has done himself and others. If the day ever comes when I pin that document above my typewriter, it will be because the funny side just isn’t enough. Extracts, for the flavour:

Passes at women drunk, often successful ... Lost when blacked-out the most important professional letter I have ever received ... Made homosexual advances drunk, 4 or 5 times ... Gave a public lecture drunk ... Defecated uncontrollably in a university corridor, got home unnoticed ...

Unnoticed by whom? Of course, as this proves, and as the meeting of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association in the Pickwick Papers also illustrates, it’s a sign of alcoholism to make rules about how much you drink.

There’s a fatal attraction at work here (or don’t you find that?) and it’s to be found as much in the literature of dossing as in the pathetic fallacy which, as Waugh says, resounds in our praise of fine wine. Listen to the beauty of Peter Reading, (who also found the beauty of Perduta Gente), in his poem ‘Fuel’:

Melted-down boot polish, eau de Cologne, meths,
 surgical spirit,
kerosene, car diesel, derv ...

This touches on a problem which, to a more refined plane, is understood even by merely social drinkers such as myself – namely, Where’s the next one coming from? In one of its few klutzy decisions, this volume reprints the whole of Auden’s ‘1 September 1939’, presumably for no better reason than that its set in a bar, and omits his poem ‘On the Circuit’, where he confronts a problem that’s increasingly urgent in today’s America, especially for those of us who fly and drone for a living:

Then the worst of all, the anxious thought,
Each time my plane begins to sink
And the No Smoking sign comes on:
What will there be to drink?
Is this a milieu when I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

Or, and updating only slightly from 1963, dash off to the gents for a smoke? Experiences like this and reflections like these teach one that only a fool expects smoking and drinking to bring happiness, just as only a dolt expects money to do so. Like money, booze and fags are happiness, and people cannot be expected to pursue happiness in moderation. This distillation of ancient wisdom requires constant reassertion as the bores and prohibitionists and workhouse masters close in.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 14 No. 7 · 9 April 1992

It’s National No Smoking Day and I’m closet-smoking. Reading Kafka for comfort, I’m a guilty outcast. And then, oh wonders, I turn to Christopher Hitchens on ‘Booze and Fags’ (LRB, 12 March). Suddenly I feel loved again. I exhale deliciously. If this particular sheet of the London Review of Books were larger, I’d wrap it round myself and sleep in it.

Diana Hendry

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences