6. Smoking

When I was young, my father was caretaker of a dance-hall. On a Sunday morning I helped sweep-up huge piles of Woodbine packets from the night before. ‘Woodbines’ were a cheap brand of cigarette popular in the North East. In other part of the country it might have been ‘Players Weights’ or ‘Park Drive’.

At that time almost everybody smoked cigarettes, a pipe or cigars (on special occasions). Both my parents smoked, although my mother did not smoke many and would never smoke in the street. I smoked cigarettes, a pipe and finally small cigars until I was about 62/3. Smoking was permitted almost everywhere: at home, on public transport, in theatres, cinemas and in the workplace. Each of these would have ash-trays often full of stubs/butts. Old black-and-white films show the light from the cinema projector ‘beaming’ through the cigarette smoke.

There were countless brands of cigarettes all with their particular ‘macho’ appeal and logo. Initially there was no such thing as a filter-tip and there was a routine of tapping the end of the cigarette on the packet to prevent bits of tobacco getting in your mouth. British cigarettes came in a cardboard packet of 10 or 20 with a slider, although Woodbines also came in paper packs of 5 which tobacconists sold with a match for 2d (1p). American cigarettes were never really popular in the UK as many were ‘toasted’, but they came in paper packs and it was the ‘height of cool’ to tap the pack so that only a single cigarette emerged (with many a red face when they all fell on the floor). Then there was the ‘roll-your-own’ brigade who purchased loose tobacco in a tin or pouch, along with special tissue paper and ‘made their own’ sometimes by hand, but sometimes with a special machine. This ritual still persists as I write, perhaps because it is cheaper as the size is determined by the maker. Filter-tips arrived on the scene as long ago as the 50s or 60s, when it first became clear that smoking was not healthy, and companies bragged in their advertising about how their particular tips removed the nasty things without spoiling the taste.

Smoking was, and to some still is, a sign of manliness and even I have succumbed to tricks like lighting two cigarettes at once before handing one to a girlfriend. Being first to light a lady’s cigarette was a contest between pubescent males and some older ones. I did to my eternal shame once use a cigarette holder for a time.

The paraphernalia of smoking now only seems to appear on auction sites and TV antique shows, but there was a lot of it about. Apart from cigarette holders mentioned earlier, there were cases, lighters; expensive and cheap, table and pocket; matches in boxes, large, small and in books. Pipes came in many shapes and many materials, clay, wood, metal stemmed, with cleaners, reamers and racks. Tobacconist shops selling nothing else were the smoking equivalent to off-licences for alcohol. Most have either closed altogether or adapted into tobacco/newsagent/sweetshops.

Gradually it became clear that smoking is not healthy, but it was a long time before some form of regulation was imposed. The first of these I can remember was that the upper deck of buses became smoke free. Little by little, most places were made smoke free and as I write this in 2014, only the home and the car are accepted places. People do still smoke, but mainly out of doors.


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