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Cadets Bring Quality

On smoking.

I remember, I remember. My mother, cigarette in hand as usual, is driving her black Morris Minor 1000, a car that in fact looked more like a bug or beetle than the Volkswagen ever did, through the middle of Portsmouth on the English south coast. I think I am alone in the back, but perhaps my older brother is there too, trying to annoy me. Traffic is heavy and a fierce sun is flashing on the polished paintwork and chrome of dozens of cars. It is the wonderful, almost perfect summer of 1959, the best I have ever experienced in a longish life, so I must be seven years old. I am in my usual childhood state of near-bliss, with absolutely nothing to worry about and autumn’s return to school far, far away. We are near the city’s majestic Guildhall, recently rebuilt after suffering terrible wartime damage from German bombs. I am very conscious of this, as all my homes have been in or near naval harbors full of bombed sites, which at that age I find rather exciting and uplifting. But on the other side of the square is a huge billboard, unusual in my country at that time. It is dominated by a huge red triangle, in those days the invariable symbol of approaching danger on British roads.

It is the pictures which get my attention, and the simple words beneath them. On the left is an ashtray filled with cigarette ends. On the right a brass cremation urn, engraved with the letters “R.I.P.” The words say only “Ashes to Ashes.” Nothing else needs to be said. Now, perhaps I had already absorbed somehow, from school or adult conversation or a newspaper that research had found that smoking was deeply dangerous and quite possibly fatal. For by then this fact was quite widely known. But I think not, which is why the simple brutality of the poster filled me with genuine fright. My mother was going to die, and then be burned to ashes and put in an urn, quite possibly within weeks as far as I knew. I was even more prone to weeping then than I am now, and I was instantly in a storm of tears. I then began what must have been a very painful campaign, of incessant pleading, on the subject. I had already hated my mother’s smoking, ugly and smelly as I thought it. But now it was going to kill her, I was able to make out an unanswerable case against it. 

My brother, who would later smoke for Britain and then for the U.S.A., and would have earned Gold in the Smoking Olympics if they had ever been held, joined me in the struggle. One of our attempts to put our mother off cigarettes was to grill some garden weeds over an electric fire, chop them up, enclose the evil shreds in carefully measured and glued cylinders of white paper, and slip them into her cigarette packet among the real ones. The main problem with these things was that their contents tended to fall out, much as the tobacco falls out of “Victory Cigarettes” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The idea was that she would absently select one of these noxious tubes, light it, inhale, and immediately find herself so nauseated that she would abandon the habit forever. It did not work, though it also did not get us into trouble. The anti-smoking campaign was tolerated but not heeded.

We were perfectly right to be concerned, of course. In 1950, before I was even born, Professor Richard Doll had discovered a correlation between smoking and lung cancer so persuasive that he stopped smoking as soon as he was sure of his results. Yet, like the mad driver I once watched as he drove into the side of my car on the Moscow Garden Ring Road, while apparently in full possession of his senses, millions simply ignored what was in front of their noses. The British tobacco lobby encouraged this mass lunacy by claiming at first that cigarettes were actually good for you and then that cancer was probably caused by air pollution. A Dr. C.N. Smyth (I wonder what became of him) claimed in March 1959 (a few months before I glimpsed that terrifying billboard) to have discovered a “safe” method of smoking. He advised that to reduce danger, smokers should prick two holes in each cigarette with a pin. I am not making this up. “It is no crank theory,” he insisted. 

It is all astonishingly like the current campaign to claim that marijuana is all right, really, from the pseudo-medical claims (“an aid to concentration,” “a counter to hypertension,” etc.) to the deployment of John Stuart Mill in the great cause of the liberty to cause your own painful, early death. And by now commercial television had arrived among us, showing smokers as young, healthy and enviable— “cool as a mountain stream” in one case. This being Britain, the smoking habit was also portrayed as in some way connected with military and naval tradition and power. One brand of matches was called (may still be, for all I know) “England’s Glory” and bore a picture of a Victorian warship steaming through choppy seas. One dominant cigarette brand was called “Senior Service,” a reference to the Royal Navy. Or there was “Navy Cut,” decorated with a rather romantic portrait of a bearded bluejacket from the days of Imperial Might. Doctors smoked during home visits. Teachers at my school (several of them veterans of war) smoked in class, smoked while supervising sports and athletic exercises, and (I think) during meals. One in particular struggled to teach us the geography of the former empire (on which I am still reasonably expert) because he spent so much time coughing, something he did not seem to associate with the vigorous smoking he did at the same time.

Then there were “Guards” (my mother’s favorite despite our family’s naval connections, and despite the poisonous fakes which still from time to time turned up in the box), the packet design bright with military red. And in my head I can still faintly hear the advertising jingle, sung by a trilling choir: “Cadets bring quality to smaller cigarettes!” Alongside this chirpy branding, the ancient poor people’s gaspers survived, especially one with the very honest name of Capstan Full Strength. A 1970s colleague of mine, on my first newspaper, favored these, in utter defiance of fashion and wisdom. I have to say they did not seem to do him much good, though if you are going to smoke, you might as well do it properly. I have occasionally glimpsed the rather picturesque Capstan packet in backstreet shops near bus stations, but not lately. It had a diminishing market fifty years ago. What can it be like now? I cannot resist here mentioning the 1960 T.V. advertisements for a new brand of cigarette called “Strand,” after the sophisticated London street of grand hotels, theaters, and restaurants. It depicted a solitary man out on a wet night in a hat and raincoat, melancholy jazz-type music and the slogan “You’re never alone with a Strand.” But he was alone with it, and almost everyone who saw the commercial associated the brand with loneliness, darkness, and fog. They did not buy it. Such failures were rare. 

And by the time I reached adolescence in the mid-1960s, smoking cigarettes was not merely normal, but almost expected. I had never liked the smell, and made a few attempts at it (mainly in the failed hope of finding out why so many others wanted to do it) which confirmed me in my view that it wasn’t a pleasure. Yet throughout that era, you would hardly have known that cigarette smoking was a proven danger, that those who did it were appallingly likely to die of especially foul diseases. While I was at university in the early 1970s, almost everybody smoked, quite a lot. These were, by definition, educated people. They must have known it was dangerous, yet still they did it. It was as normal, as routine, as near-universal, and as socially acceptable as it would have been if nobody had ever said it was deadly. 

How did we do this? How did we carry such knowledge in our heads and do nothing about it? And how did it all change so much a few years later, to the point that the cigarette became a despised object and the smoker a pariah? Whatever it was, it was not reason. Reason had already failed. Reason, it seems, moves hardly anybody, by itself. But I will never forget that billboard.