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Last Updated: Friday, 3 August 2007, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
Smoking, my lost love
Shadow of a man smoking outside

By Clive James

Peppermints. Nicotine patches. Mini cigars. All were tried - to little success - in a quest to ditch what at its peak was an 80 a day habit. So what finally worked?

At my age, achievements become few and small. One enters the era of tiny triumphs.

The other morning, as I walked along slowly beside the Thames on my way to my favourite coffee bar - walking slowly because I was deliberately minimising my impact on the environment - I reflected, in the style of one of those old essayists who were always reflecting on narrow areas of experience that turned out to have a wide area of implication, I reflected, as I walked slowly upstream beside the south bank of the Thames and turned up the spanking new glass-lined avenue that calls itself More London, I reflected that the now virtually complete restrictions on smoking would have driven me to violence if I still smoked. But I don't, so they haven't.

Clive James
Groups of people smoked at each other - occasionally they talked to each other but you could tell they were talking about smoking

I did it. I finally quit. Two and a half years ago I smoked my last tin of cigarillos, and although I still dream of taking them up again on my death bed - more of that later - I am now at one with the non-smoking world. I almost pity, instead of envy, those who are still caught up in it.

Outside the entrance halls to the tall glass buildings of More London - what a name, so exactly conveying that it has less of everything - there were groups of people smoking at each other. Occasionally they talked to each other as well, but you could tell they were talking about smoking. Some of them were arriving late for work and were having a quick one before they went inside. Some of them had arrived for work earlier and had come back outside for the first smoking break of the day, or perhaps the second.

Cigarette butts surrounded each group in a sort of fairy ring. Already these fairy rings seem to be moving further away from doorways, and one foresees the day when the fairy rings disappear altogether.

In California it was already happening 10 years ago when it was decreed that you not only couldn't smoke in the outside section of the restaurant, you couldn't smoke within 50 yards of the entrance. When the entrances were less than 50 yards apart, smokers in Bel Air had to walk to Hollywood Boulevard before they could light up.

Now it's happening in Britain. It's already happened in Scotland, where any space with three walls is designated a non-smoking zone. After that law came in, you could see otherwise sane-looking people counting walls and you knew that they were smokers.

Cough yourself inside out

I was just such a smoker from my early teens until my early 30s, quickly working up from a 20 a day habit to the dizzy 80 a day peak that some so-called experts declare impossible because you would have to wake up in the night.

Butts litter the ground in Paris
No butts
But of course I woke up in the night. It was an expensive habit but I never subsequently thought of suing the manufacturers to get my money back. Revenge on the tobacco companies was always a branch of the compensation culture that I thought especially ungracious, like suing a host for having served you champagne before you fell into his swimming pool.

At the age of 11 it was already clear to me that inhaling cigarette smoke was likely to do to my lungs the same thing that it had done to my Uncle Harold's.

Coughing himself inside out, Uncle Harold would reach for the next cigarette. By the time I quit, I was doing the same. Impressed by the news that if I stopped cold before I was 35 it would probably undo any damage I had already caused, I didn't have another drag for 13 years. But I missed it every day, so how, you might be asking - and if you're trying to quit you'll certainly be asking - how did I manage it?

I used the off-set method, i.e. I spent the money on something else, something that I could see accumulate instead of burn away. The same amount of money I would have spent a week on cigarettes, I spent on recordings of classical music. They were all on vinyl in those days and eventually I built up a collection weighing a couple of tons, almost as much as the pyramid of the butts of all the cigarettes I had ever smoked would have weighed if they had been swept together in the one place, which would have had to be as big as Trafalgar Square.

Clint Eastwood with cigarillo
Clive wanted to be like Clint
As I sat there listening to, say, the Mozart String Quintet K 516, I could reflect that its limitless sublimities almost outranked the pleasure of sucking on the 50th filter tip of the day.

But there was the catch. I was still thinking of that pleasure, and eventually I took up smoking again, but this time with new hopes of smoking in moderation. I had been impressed by the way Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns chewed a cigarillo instead of saying anything.

Taciturnity had always been among those dreams for myself I knew to be hopeless, but I correctly assessed that he smoked far fewer cigarillos than he would have smoked cigarettes. Alas, the same was not true for me, and within a year I was chain-smoking the little cigars, often carrying a third tin of 10 for when the first two ran out.

Smoke on high

So it went on for a further 20 years on and off, and usually more on than off, while the final whistle was blowing for smokers in the Western world. The cigarettes which had been the only stable European currency in 1945 gradually but inexorably became branded as evidence of the lethal conspiracy of big business against populations helpless to choose their own fate, and the freedom to choose death was rolled back under the imperative to lead a healthier life.

Woman smokes outside a pub in England
Joining the outsiders
Eventually even I was convinced, and I gave up again, partly because of my job. Flying all over the world to make films for television, I was sometimes faced with 13 hours in the air without a smoke. The 13 hours might as well have been 13 years. After most of the airlines turned on the non-smoking signs for keeps, a smoker who wanted to keep his fires burning had to plot a circuitous route across the globe, and often he would have to fly with an airline that allowed not only cigarettes in the cabin, but live chickens.

There was also the matter of a cough that became harder to conceal from my family. The smoking I could conceal, or thought I could, by going out into the garden for a quick dozen drags before always burying the butt in the soil of the same pot-plant and sticking a peppermint in my mouth. Why a man thinks the sweet stench of peppermints from his mouth will off-set the foul reek of smoke in his clothes is a question that has so far puzzled science. Anyway, it soon transpired that only I was fooled.

So I would give up for another year, off-setting the money this time with a plan to spend the same amount on health food in order to halve my weight. Having doubled it, I would hit the cigarillos yet again.

Lost love

Finally it was the Australia run that spelled the end of my smoking career. After 13 hours we arrived at Bangkok airport and I raced for the smoking room. Smoking room was a big name for a small Perspex cubicle that was opaque from the outside because of the grey pressure of the fumes within.

I still quite like the idea of taking a crate of cigarillos with me when I go into the nursing home, but that day will be further off now
I opened the door, saw all the other smokers sitting there face to face in two tight rows, and I realised that I would have to smoke in the standing position. Then I realised I didn't have to light up. All I had to do was breathe in. It was the moment of truth.

But then, I had always known the truth. The truth is that I love smoking. Hence the failure of all my attempts to give it up, because every method I used was predicated on the assumption that a desire could be eliminated once it was seen to be absurd.

I tried nicotine patches and kept sticking them on until they joined up at the edges. I looked like the flesh-pink version of the jade warrior. There is a book out now which teaches that every cigarette you have from your second cigarette onwards does nothing for you except raise your nicotine level up to what it was. Possibly so, but in my case it also satisfied a deep longing, the memory of which lingers like lost love.

So how did I finally quit? I learned to smoke the memory. When the longing hits you, don't try to repress it. Savour it. The actual thing wouldn't be any better. In fact it wouldn't be as good, because it would last only as long as the cigarette or the cigarillo, whereas the memory lasts as long as you like.

Reflect on the frivolity of your desires all you wish, but you will never conquer them unless you first admit their urgency. And since I'm being positive in this series, let me record that I feel better. I still quite like the idea of taking a crate of cigarillos with me when I go into the nursing home, but that day will be further off now than it would have been if I hadn't stopped lighting a fire in the lower half of my face every few minutes. I would have been in the same condition as the pot plant. The pot plant died.

Below is a selection of your comments.

A non-smoker can never understand the addiction that is nicotine, surely if it wasn't for all the tax cigarettes generate they would be banned as Class A drugs. I tried giving up many many times, without success. Eventually the thing that made me give up was when a smoker kissed my new born son, and I when I picked up my child I could smell the cigarettes on him. It takes something that significant to change you. The fact that I was killing myself was not enough of an incentive, but the thought that I could harm my children was the catalyst I needed. When I see parents who smoke now, I truly wonder at their selfishnous.
A, London, UK

Thanks for a true appraisal of your victory to stop the nicotine sticks . For me, it was the hardest time I ever had to stop cigarettes after smoking for 35 years. I went "cold turkey" told everyone I worked or lived with that I would act crazy(during nicotine withdrawal)and did so for about 3 months.i.e. light headed & cranky. One can do it as in my case a friend suffered from smoke related bladder cancer from cigs that alerted me to stop from his pain. It has been 12 years since the last time I smoked.
Michael Jack, New York,New York USA

Clive you are right. All things not only smoking, normally turn out to be more enjoyable as fantasies than in reality !!..I too, owned an 80 a-day habit, but kicked it by not putting a fag in my mouth - yet still dream of that initial puff every day....!! it never leaves you....
Rory, Croydon, Surrey

For as long as you think of cigarettes as a long lost love, you will crave to be reunited and sooner or later, you'll take it up again. The simple truth is that they have no redeeming features and we just kid ourselves that we get some value. Allan Carr's book is pure genius. 3 or so years and I've stopped counting because I don't miss them any more :)
Sean Rodden, Sydney, Australia

I gave up smoking after 30 odd years, just over 11 years ago. I still crave a little for a smoke. I just packed up one evening and that was it. I hate the smell of smoking now, and I am sure I will never start up again. Aren't I?
Frank, Banbury

With the right weather conditions 80 a day is not so unreasonable. The only way to successfully quit smoking is to quit smoking successfully. To do that, one must quit smoking. So, if you want to quit smoking, quit. I don't know what all the fuss is about. I smoked 30 a day for 5 years; then I quit and that was that. You doesn't need a good reason or a patch or will power ... you will only end up smoking again because reasons change; because patches just keep you on the back-burner until you can cope with the guilt of lighting another cigarette; because will power is nothing but hot air (2nd law of thermodynamics will bring you right back to the ashtray). If you want to quit, quit.
Nao Yoshino, London

Yes, always a wistful sort of dreamy golden view back to when the ciggie was lit, before and after every significant, insignificant or imaginary event worthy of hastening the beginning of the end. See? When one does not smoke, one has more lung power to write impossibly long, meandering sentences and maybe even recite them out loud without passing out! Well written, quite smitten, and having been several hundred thousand times bitten by the keen nicotine dream as well, loved the article. I, too, look forward to that day, when learning I have some fatal disease (old age?) and that my time is near, will have my bed wheeled down to the local liquor store or gas station, there to finally once again light up, dreamy contentment on my face, as I inhale, exhale and expire...
Erkht, Fairfax, California

Ah, the Bangkok airport smoking rooms. They didn't cure me of smoking, but they did cure me of regular smoking and desperately seeking the smoking room wherever I land! The next one can wait...
simon ferrigno, herne bay

Environmental impact of tobacco production is rarely considered, as in this article!
Colin, Bournemouth UK


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