A year or so back, an article in the Independent by seventy-something Joan Bakewell raised a question in my mind that has never quite gone away. The title of the article was:
If I feel like having a cigarette, why shouldn’t I?
Oh, right, I thought, on reading that. Joan Bakewell must be a smoker. I read on:
I am going to start stockpiling cigarettes. I feel the need to have a small cache hidden around the house. I shall distribute them in out-of-the-way places in different rooms. I don’t think it’s appropriate to start putting them under the floorboards just yet. But the time may come… By the way, I’m a non-smoker!
I came to halt, a little confused. Why on earth should a non-smoker demand the right to smoke cigarettes, and propose stockpiling cigarettes all around her house, including quite possibly under the floorboards? Anyway, if she says she’s a non-smoker, she must know what she’s talking about. Oh, I know, she’s keeping this stash of tobacco for people who still smoke. How thoughtful of her!
I continued reading the article, until I came to this:
The fact is that as a non-smoker I do enjoy an occasional cigarette. And there have been circumstances when I relapsed completely. When my father was dying and the distress was very great, I found that smoking really relieved the tension. Likewise, when my marriage ended. The comfort of nicotine became suddenly important.
So this non-smoker occasionally smoked. My confusion deepened.And does someone smoke an “occasional” cigarette when someone is dying, or when a marriage ends? Wouldn’t it be more like chainsmoking the whole way through the traumatic event?
What no one dares mention is the sheer pleasure of smoking. I am quite nostalgic for the paraphernalia: ashtrays; cigarette lighters – from slick American Zippos to those heavy Wedgewood ones that popped up on wedding present lists
She’s nostalgic? She surely must once have been a smoker to be nostalgic for such things?
It took another article by Joan Bakewell in another newspaper for me to discover that she had indeed once been a smoker. She’d been a 40-a-day smoker from the age of 17 to 40.
The question I was left with was this: is Joan Bakewell a smoker or a non-smoker or an ex-smoker?
There doesn’t seem an obvious answer to this. Clearly she thinks she’s a non-smoker. She said so twice. I’d be more inclined to call her an ex-smoker. But is someone an ex-smoker, if they will promptly start smoking again as soon as they encounter one of life’s periodic storms? And what counts as a storm? A large tax bill? A missed appointment? Would an ex-smoker or non-smoker really stock up with cigarettes the way Bakewell does? She is really someone who calls herself a non-smoker, but who is in fact an ex-smoker who’ll start smoking again at the drop of a hat. i.e. a smoker.
It reminds me of what Mark Twain once said. “Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
And when asked whether she’s a smoker or not, Joan Bakewell doubtless always replies that she’s a non-smoker. And since this is how smoking incidence is measured, by phoning people or knocking on their doors and asking them if they’re smokers, Joan Bakewell would declare to such pollsters that she was a non-smoker, even though her house was bulging with packs of cigarettes, its ashtrays unemptied since the last crisis or trauma. One has to wonder: how accurate are estimates of smoking incidence likely to be, if everyone who answers a telephone poll is a Joan Bakewell?
It may simply mean that there are no such things as smokers, non-smokers, and ex-smokers. They are illusory categories into which nobody ever completely fits. A non-smoker can become a smoker at a moment’s notice, and an ex-smoker shortly after that. I could quite honestly say that I am a non-smoker while I am typing this sentence, but have taken up smoking in the next sentence, and have become an ex-smoker in the sentence after that – and so on, 40 times a day. If anyone ever asks me, I’ll say that I’m a smoker. And even if I haven’t smoked a cigarette for 10 years, I’ll probably still call myself a smoker. And an Englishman even if I’ve not lived in England for 20 years. And a Roxy Music fan, even though the last time I saw them was in 1979.
We are not things. We are not this or that. We are not smokers or non-smokers or ex-smokers. We are transient beings, who are always becoming something, ceasing to be something else. We are not here or there, but everywhere. We cannot be fixed, like butterflies pinned into display cases.