I really love to smoke. I remember my first drag. I was twelve and It was during a half-time break at a Wednesday night Army Cadet meeting in Launceston. The cigarette was passed to me close to finished by a ginger, port-wine-birthmarked peer. He was trying to be kind by including me in the ritual with all the other spotty, angry, moronic cadets. I remember being surprised that the taste was an acquired one. Like a kid surreptitiously taking a long old hit from a bottle of gin, expecting it to taste sweet and divine but finding it unrewarding and bitter.
I can’t remember if I coughed with that first drag. I do remember a sense of shame. Perhaps it was this danger of shame that perpetuated more smoking thereafter. At first I just scored drags of charity from fellow cadets. Then it was a game of pooling meager financial resources with friends outside of the platoon, convincing the older sister of the hottest girl in our class to buy us a pouch of tobacco. Those pouches seemed to last forever and we would ritualistically run to an out of sight field after school, trying to roll and smoke without coughing. It always seemed a little ridiculous to me; knowing we were young and stupid and should’ve been spending our money on sweets. But that was the kick.
A couple of times there was a two-week summer camp that I went on with the cadet people. These camps were held in bizarre de-commissioned MOD facilities all over the country and our main drive prior to leaving Cornwall was to secure enough cigarettes and lighters to see us through the coming fortnight. For those two-week stints we were free to expand our social interactions with a bunch of strangers in the long summer evenings and free to smoke whenever we wanted.
We were also free to explore our dumb teenage sexuality with the handful of female cadets from Lostwithial, St Austell and other such exotic areas of the South West. It made me feel beyond my years at thirteen to be chuffing on a Superking in-between shooting big guns and running around like a maniac during the day, then kissing and feeling up rough cadet girls at night. On the frequent excursions into the miles of barren scrubland surrounding these old Ministry of Defence places we were each issued with a £1000 GP Rifle and told never to let them out of our sight. We literally slept with the fucking things in our decomposing sleeping bags, groaning every time the cocking handle dug into pale, cold ribs. One such night a girl crawled into my tent while I was half asleep and, after symbolically pushing my rifle aside, started kissing me. Fuck knows why as I was an awkward looking teenager. I didn’t really know what to do with her as she didn’t look all that great to me but I was saved by a spray of military flares appearing in the sky, signaling an exciting part of the excursion called the unexpected-mock-ambush. We were told to grab our boots and rifles, lay on the ground in some half-assed formation and fire blank rounds from our rifles into the unseen and unknown black of night. Each gun flash reset our night-vision back to zero, making walking off without tripping over tree roots or gorse bushes difficult. One kid got too close to another’s rifle and had his eye damaged by a blank round. Sometimes even firing blanks in good faith carries consequence. After ‘standing down’ I remember so vividly relishing in more plumes of underage tobacco. Despite coughing bronchially, smoking seemed to lend everything a sweetly sentimental pause.
If being an army cadet facilitated the start of a love affair with smoking, my involvement in music inadvertently reinforced the habit. I was fourteen in early 1998 when Mike and I finally found a guitarist to play our music with. Jon was four or five years older than us and didn’t smoke tobacco but did smoke weed. The first time I really got stoned was after our band’s debut show, playing a short set of bad Jimi Hendrix and Smashing Pumpkins covers to our friends at the local boozer. The bar served me beers all night (despite the fact I still looked like a child) so I was loose enough to think nothing of a spliff being handed to me. It soon became the natural progression of our smoking careers to obsessively get stoned and play music, falling heavily for the kick of more than mere nicotine. Cigarettes had become standard fair at school as I joined the crew who would head to the adjacent park every break and lunchtime to smoke with the other reprobates. This daily activity again made me feel a sense of belonging, the etiquette revolving around those who had tobacco on them offering either ‘two’s’ or ‘saves’ to those who didn’t.
I recall my parents smoking when I was small. I remember blowing in a full ashtray. The ash filled my eyes and I cried until my mother washed it back out. I remember my dad successfully quitting and the anti-tobacco mood at home causing me to precociously tell strangers in the street that they should quit. Yet I also remember loving the smell of visitors who would smoke in our house, and the glass ECC Quarry branded ashtrays that were temporarily revoked from under the kitchen sink where they now lived.
When I was fifteen I met my first girlfriend at a beach themed party in one of the pubs that would serve us back then. The theme element consisted of a ton of sand, dumped on the floor of the pub by some genius. The girl I met was wearing a denim jacket which I thought was cool and when we started talking she gave me an almost full pack of Marlboros, naively stating she was done with smoking. I ended up going out with her for three years.
For some reason I always thought I would grow some kind of desire to quit by the time I was eighteen. But smoking weed and then embracing other recreational alternatives with my peer group seemed to lead only to more cigarettes. To me it seemed like there was more to be punctuated. Then the emphasis changed again and tobacco became just a standard distraction while anxiously waiting for the evening to turn up. I didn’t quit at eighteen. Probably because I was fucking invincible from all that weird stuff we ate.
This attitude continued through life and love and university until I found myself living in one room of a shared house with an amateur actor girlfriend. Although my lifestyle was pretty healthy at this point I still loved my Drum Mild cigarettes. When one of our housemates, a famous drummer, introduced me to menthol filter tips, the romance began all over again. It was around this time that anxiety-induced panic attacks and paranoia started inhibiting my life and its social functionality. I found it impossible to handle myself in social situations or to be waiting to meet a friend somewhere without having a burning cigarette in my hand. It became a real crutch, like if I wasn’t smoking I had no right to be just standing there, waiting. I thought people might think me a criminal or terrorist if I were without the background-blending disguise of smoking.
My girlfriend didn’t smoke tobacco unless there was a little weed in with it but I still selfishly chuffed away in our little bedroom. This selfishness continued in the tiny West Ealing flat we took on in 2005. Here I agoraphobically spent all of my waking hours creating music for a degree course that was (miraculously) completed remotely from within the solitude of that one-bed flat above an electrical shop.
In 2006 I was still eternally broke and too ill of mind to hold down any proper job, so when a trusted friend gushed about the easy money he had made by offering his body to paid medical trials I got excited. He gave me the number of a research company called Paraxel and I nervously called them one afternoon. The lady who answered was friendly enough and explained a desperate need for volunteers at short notice. A new drug trial was to begin next week and they were willing to pay £800 for five days of staying at the centre and playing hamster. My heart sped and my testicles moved a little closer to the safety of my pelvis as she explained that if I was interested she could go through some basic intake questions right away to assess my suitability. The questions were as one would expect and, although I felt comfortable lying about my existing mental health, when she got round to asking after my daily tobacco intake I paused. Naively unrecognizing of the importance of this question I was honest, explaining I was the proud smoker of about fifteen cigarettes a day. I was horrified to be informed that this figure deemed me a ‘heavy’ smoker in the eyes of the application form and I was therefore unsuitable for the trial. I think I may have cried when I put the phone down, if not I certainly shouted a bit, wracked with the anguish of letting so much desperately needed cash slip away. Imagine how blessed I felt when, idly watching the news a week later, I learnt that this very same Paraxel trial had gone horribly wrong. The participants had unexpectedly experienced horrific physical reactions to the drug they were testing. Their hands and feet had initially swollen to elephant man proportions, turning black before digits started falling off. The long-term prognosis was even less glamorous; thyroid and lymphatic problems, possible premature death. The only one who escaped this fate was the lucky recipient of the placebo. So basically, smoking saved my life that day.
In 2006 the actor girlfriend and I split. I had been unable to shake the suggestion of my GP that it suited her paranoid and jealous inclinations for me to be too anxious to leave the house most of the time. I felt as though I’d never get better while living with her and so took a room alone in a large dilapidated house. It was situated in the quiet, heavily Japanese, West Acton and, as four fellow smokers already inhabited it, I fit right in straight away.
In November 2007 I met a woman via (don’t laugh) the internet when I was on a Bukowski kick working as a surly Postman in my beloved Acton, delivering mail to the terrifying square mile of housing estate there. I instantly recognised her as a more aggressive smoker than I had ever been and, although when we met she smoked Golden Virginia and normal filters, she soon adopted my choice of tobacco and learnt the joy of menthol tips. I reciprocated by following suit with her chain smoking. Our choice of ‘lifestyle’ further aided a codependently extreme reliance on tobacco, filling the gaps. Our love and (don’t laugh) marriage came and went formatively and destructively within a couple of years, but her legacy of smoking every waking moment has remained with me to this day. As does this fucking tattoo.
I love to smoke. I love the taste. I love the sense of punctuating a moment. I have continued on a self-destructive path, holding these ideals as gospel as I never wanted to live forever. But now forever gets closer every day, and brings with it the fear that life is worth the bereavement from the learnt behaviour of small pleasures and living for the next five minutes. This habit has driven more of my years on this planet than it hasn’t. The habit of a million moments I have appreciated and cherished both alone and in the company of friends, lovers, strangers and others.
I would be a fool to pretend that I will not always be a smoker; that if I quit I will not remain in eternal recovery. But I no longer wish to wait for an awe-inspiring shock to drive the start of this recovery. I’ve realized that such a shock won’t come before my health is fucked. Inspiration to quit must come from elsewhere; from fear when my bronchial cough wakes me from sweet dreams, or the fear of exacerbating the asthma of the woman I love who sleeps as I write this.
Fear is one thing, but I have always responded better to guilt. Perhaps my best chance of stopping smoking is to envisage all at once every soul who hasn’t been fortunate enough to choose a fate in the same way a smoker can. When so many have been, and are, and will be destroyed as children by famine or neglect or circumstance, I would be ungrateful to abuse and take for granted the enormous gift of life…..At least for too much longer.