I remarked a few days ago after reading it that “The Pleasure of Smoking” had struck me very forcefully as the title for a study of confirmed smokers. It rather subverted the ubiquitous “Smoking kills” shouted out on every cigarette packet these days. It was like reading “Vive la France” scrawled on a wall in occupied Paris.
It reminded me of how, a few years ago, I had laboriously copied a Catalan independence slogan that I’d found on a wall in Barcelona into a notebook I kept for such purposes. It had next to no meaning to me, but when a day or two later, my notebook happened to fall open on the reception desk of the hotel where I was staying, the receptionist behind the desk reacted with visible shock. Clearly it meant far more to him that it did to me.
My response to reading this subversive message had been to take it and amplify it and re-broadcast it on my own blog as “The Exquisite Pleasures of Smoking.” After all, there must be a great many people who only ever glance at the currently advertised title of my blog, as read on Facebook or elsewhere. I do the same myself, sifting through innumerable titles every day that I encounter in dozens of websites. Yet each one of those titles is a message in itself, which will be read, absorbed, processed, filed. The title is arguably the only thing that really ever gets read. A bit like the menu outside an expensive restaurant is the only thing in it that most people standing outside will ever consume.
On a good day, my blog will attract about 1000 views (although I don’t know whether this will be 10 people each viewing it 100 times). But there are quite likely to be 10 times that number who only read the title, as they glance through Facebook or somewhere else. And my titles are often rather enigmatic (not that there is really anything wrong, per se, with enigmatic titles). And so perhaps far more attention should be given to the title above a piece of writing that to the bulk of the writing beneath it. (An example of this might be found in a book (by an author whose name I forget. Jerry Rubin?) which had the title: “Do It!” I opened the book and read a little and rapidly concluded that it was completely vacuous. No matter: the entire content was contained in the title.)
So today I’ve been toying with the question of what title to employ above today’s piece. What might be the most subversive message I could send – subversive of Tobacco Control, that is? I toyed for a while with the idea of something like “The Enduring Delights of Smoking Tobacco”, but also explored the idea that smoking a cigarette is “taking a little time for oneself”, or the idea I often have that cigarettes (and also pipes and cigars) are living things, and You’re Never Alone With A Strand. This is something that always seems
a very important thing about cigarettes: that they are living things and little friends. One of the objections smokers have to e-cigs is that they’re cold and dead and plastic and heavy (although I can imagine all sorts of ways in which e-cigs might be brought to life. What about an e-cig with an liquid crystal display wrapped around it, that comes to brilliant, sparkling life when inhaled?) The warmth and the fire and the smoke of cigarettes is no different from that found in the glowing warmth of a coal fire, or even a single candle, and is not very well replicated in coal-effect electric fires. The idea that people smoke to get a nicotine fix is an extreme reductionist view – so extreme, in fact, to be entirely empty – perhaps like saying that the only purpose of the Earth is as something to stand on. Well, yes: it does provide that facility – but it has a great many others.
The only problem with the little friends that are cigarettes is that they die after just a few minutes – or, rather, they need to be stubbed out, killed, or otherwise euthanized when they’ve got too old. Cigars aren’t really very much better, although they usually live far longer. I think that there’s a case to be made that pipes are the very best of friends, and they can last a lifetime, and are really only sleeping between smokes. Furthermore the warm bowl of a pipe, cradled in the hand, is a genuinely hand-warming thing. Einstein used to keep his well-chewed pipe in his jacket pocket: where else would you keep a very dear little friend?
There’s also something elemental and primitive about smoking. Hand-rolling cigarettes is a bit like building a campfire in a forest clearing, by gathering twigs and leaves and logs. It’s an ancient ceremony. It connects us with all our ancestors, going back hundreds of thousands of years. There’s nothing ‘modern’ about smoking. And nothing ‘progressive’ either. Which may be one reason why ‘progressives’ detest the practice (but doesn’t explain why they also detest ‘progressive’ e-cigs). To inhale smoke into one’s lungs is to enter into a lost ancient world of scented and smoking hearths and oil lamps and altars.
There are any number of good things that can be said about all the varieties of different ways of using tobacco. And they need to be said. And dispersed into the world like seeds, as the titles of books or articles or blogs.