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Peter Ashley


Cigarettes in Literature (PHOTOS)

Posted: 08/15/2012 2:39 pm

A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want? - Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was in good company as a smoker. In fact, amongst the great writers of the last 150 years it's well-nigh impossible to find anyone who didn't rely on tobacco to see them through long hours scratching away with a pen or tapping at a typewriter. Dickens, Thackeray, Henry James. Joseph Conrad. Virginia (how apt) Woolf, W.B.Yeats, Evelyn Waugh. Nearer our own time T.S.Eliot, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, and of course dear Beryl Bainbridge who famously didn't follow her mother's example of only smoking two Craven As at Christmas. Literature is wreathed in the blue smoke of tobacco. One can't imagine the writers of pulp fiction not being hunched over a Remington with a Lucky Strike sending drifting shrouds into the light beams of their desk lamps, just as it would be impossible not to see their characters, both good and bad, not ingesting nicotine in their pursuits.

And so when I came to look for literary references for my eulogy for the cigarette packet- The Cigarette Papers- some smoking heros and anti-heros immediately came to mind. Lt.-Col.William ('Bill') Tanner, (aka Kingsley Amis), reminds us in his The Book of Bond that Ian Fleming's 007 was equipped in Casino Royale with personalised cigarettes made from Balkan and Turkish tobacco by Morlands in Grosvenor Street. With three gold bands round the butt. If these weren't at hand the fall-back was always Senior Service. (The same packet that John Betjeman sees gliding across a rock pool in his poem "Delectable Duchy," although the poet's choice were the pink packets of Passing Clouds.) Fleming also devoted virtually a whole chapter to Player's lifebelted 'Hero' sailor in Thunderball, and Len Deighton made his nameless hero continually reach for blue paper-packeted Gauloises in everything from The Ipcress File to Billion Dollar Brain. The author himself is pictured on the reverse of the hardback jacket for Only When I Larf with one held poised at the ready.

Fictional spies we would expect to have twenty-somethings stowed away next to the Smith & Wesson and Minox camera, but it's sometimes very surprising where cigarette brands will suddenly appear. In The Virginians, William Makepeace Thackeray has someone say "There's... no better brand than the 'Three Castles.'" Which was perfect for Wills of Bristol who promptly brought into reality what was a fictitious brand that came with its ready-made advertising tag. I think I shouted for joy when I came across Gold Flakes being lit up at an impromptu picnic in John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance. JCP smoked his way through writing his dense and magical novels until he died. At 90.

Sometimes the imagery of cigarette packets takes hold of books quite literally. One thinks of the pack pastiches on the covers of Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries, but for me the showstopper is designer Tony Meeuwissen's brilliant idea for a Penguin edition of Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar. On the premise that Wild Woodbine would have been the cigarette-of-choice for his northern lads, and a character gets called "Woodbine Lizzie," Meeuwissen turned a packet of 10 into a book, front and back.

As I moved along the library and tobacconist's shelves for literary references, the more I became enchanted with the whole idea that something that was once such an innocuous occupation had also given us a startling gallery of culture in pictures and words. Walter Scott's novels turning into cigarette brands- Waverley, Kenilworth; Burn's poetry appropriated by manufacturers P.J.Carroll for Sweet Afton. All of it now a memory as ephemeral as drifting blue smoke as the design of packaging for a perfectly legal product is destroyed by the Tobacco Police so that it can be press-ganged into service to promote government health propaganda. The Cigarette Papers is my "remembrances of things past."

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  • Will's Gold Flake

    In reading John Cowper Powys' novels, with their densely detailed almost magical properties, it comes as a complete surprise to suddenly come across a familiar brand name. When I first read<em> Wolf Solent </em>the words 'Lyles Golden Syrup' leapt off the page like a row of asterisks. And only a few pages into <em>A Glastonbury Romance</em> a young couple are found picnicing by a Norfolk river and the boy produces a packet of Gold Flake.

  • Gauloises

    Len Deighton's nameless hero in his first novels, from <em>The Ipcress File </em>to <em>Billion Dollar Brain</em>, always had a blue paper pack of Gauloises to hand, and constantly used them to punctuate his often terse and cynical statements. Deighton got his mate Raymond Hawkey to design his book covers, and those for <em>Funeral in Berlin</em> and <em>An Expensive Place to Die</em>, with their detailed observations of objects, were hugely inspirational for me.

  • Senior Service

    John Betjeman was always very adept at dropping trade names into his poems. Innoxa, Kia Ora and another cigarette, Craven 'A', all appear in his poems. He smoked Passing Clouds himself, with a laughing cavalier puffing away on the pink packet. The poem <em>Delectable Duchy</em> bemoans litter on a Cornish beach, where the Senior Service carton keeps company with empty crisp packets.

  • Churchman's

    Monica Dickens' <em>The Heart of London</em> perfectly describes the capital city of 1961. Her novel centres around characters in the albeit unnamed Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove areas of London that would be affected by a new motorway that turned out in reality to be the Westway. I didn't have to look very far in my collections to mock-up a shop counter where Mrs.Angel could gossip about a customer buying Churchman's cigarettes.

  • Player's

    Ian Fleming devoted a small part of <em>Thunderball</em> to a girl telling James Bond about her love for the sailor who posed with a lifebelt and other nauticalia on her packets of twenty Player's Navy Cut. The chapter is headed 'Hero', and tells of how her cardboard companion introduced her to a world beyond Cheltenham Ladies College. Player's were once made in Nottingham, and I always believed that characters in D.H.Lawrence's novels must smoke them. Certainly they must have done in Alan Sillitoe's <em>Saturday Night</em> and <em>Sunday Morning</em>.

  • Chesterfield

    Liggett & Myers Chesterfield cigarettes are referenced in Ian Fleming's <em>The Spy Who Loved Me</em>. I think James Bond was thinking he wouldn't be able to get his stand-by Senior Service in the United States, so was resigned to Chesterfield. Still, they later enjoyed an interesting pedigree, being promoted in big colour ads by Ronald Reagan, in his swansong of Hollywood acting before the big walk-on part in the White House.

  • Woodbine

    This is designer Tony Meeuwissen's front cover for <em>Billy Liar</em>, Keith Waterhouse's tale of a fantasist unable to break out of his complicated existence in a northern town in order to realise his dreams. This is an exact replica of a packet of ten cigarettes that was enormously popular amongst the working class. Just substitute 'Billy' with "Wild Woodbine" and 'Keith Waterhouse' with W.D.&H.O.Wills. Bristol & London, and you have the front of the pack. The back cover, as you might expect, is a reworking of the original. How fortunate that Penguin's trademark orange matched that used for the packet.