An extract from 'A Childhood Revisited' amuses and horrifies me. How disgusting we were. And to pick up discarded 'nub ends' doesn't bear thinking about. How I ever got to seventy plus years I will never know.
In the years after the war the majority of adults smoked. Nor was the habit merely the prerogative of the workers at the bottom of the social order. It was not unknown for the local doctor to be puffing away at a Capstan Full Strength or similar whilst he attended to the coughing, wheezing unfortunates peering through the haze in his gloomy waiting room, which was of course provided with an ashtray. Will’s Woodbines, known universally as coffin nails, Players Weights, Park Drive Players Navy Cut, the choice was endless. Almost everyone seemed to smoke, and everywhere. Crowds at football matches, customers in shops, even teachers in schools, sometimes non-too secretly. No consideration was offered or given to the minority who were not addicted to the gruesome habit. This meant many children, some already fragile and often sickly were exposed to passive smoking, including in the home, though the term had not been invented until many years after the war. Smoking was the norm, smokers were role models for children, which in part explains our childish fascination in what we considered ‘a grown up’ pursuit. And so entrenched was the tobacco habit that many children, myself included received, in their Christmas stocking, white, sickly tasting sweet cigarettes, complete with red tip in imitation of the lighted real thing. Imitation cigarettes that we practiced inhaling and proudly held aloft, blowing imitation smoke rings for all to see. Is it surprising we yearned for adulthood and possession of the real thing? But adulthood was too far away and patience was a virtue beyond our experience. Thus our approach to such forbidden pursuits was ingenious beyond our years.
A disused stone cow trough provided privacy from prying adults. An iron bedstead on top, liberally covered with branches, leaves and all manner of debris meant a den that was indescribably cosy. A hole in one corner allowed entry to this most secret of places.
Here we enjoyed diverse delights, one of which was the art of smoking; smoking was adult, smoking was exciting. The dangers of smoking were naturally unknown to ignorant adolescents, not that it would have made any difference. Besides, death from suffocation and the risk of being burnt alive in so confined a space were at least as likely as the risk of contracting the dreaded ‘C’ word from inhaling tobacco. Not that tobacco was necessarily the only ingredient smoked.
First attempts involved an acorn, a straw and dried walnut leaves. The acorn was discarded and the acorn cup carefully drilled at the base. The straw, around four inches long, was inserted into the hole in the cup and hey presto, a pipe evolved. The next step was to carefully break up the collected dry walnut leaves, using thumb and first finger. The small, parchment like particles were inserted into the prepared pipe. Matches were produce; having been secreted one one’s person for days prior to the ‘happening’ and the smoking mixture was anxiously ignited. Long, experimental ‘draws’ on the straw produced clouds of smoke, much coughing and occasionally glowing leaves flying in all directions. A fearsome prospect in an area that measured no more than eight by four feet, containing at least two small boys and miscellaneous bedding of straw, grass or hay.
We nevertheless persevered, moving on to the delights of the elderberry bush, at first sight an unlikely smoking source. In spring the bush was much sought after as a provider of berries for wine making. As the seasons progressed, the bush died back, leaving dead, woody bark. We carried lengths to our hideaway. There we carefully stripped the external wood, exposing an internal pith surprisingly cigarette like in shape and appearance.
A piece of wire was pushed down the centre of the pith to make a hole and the operation was complete. We lit the makeshift cigarette, the results were almost indescribable. White or grey smoke abounded, flames sometimes singeing throat and tonsils. Whereon the offending incendiary would often be dropped, causing anguished cries in the semi darkness amongst the straw or hay carpet; wherein the smokers would search, panic stricken, eyes streaming, for the glowing butts, lest our secret camp became our tomb.
Because such tobacco substitutes were not even remotely in the Woodbine or Park Drive class, not surprisingly alternatives were sought. The alternatives usually took the form of nub ends procured by the dubious practice of walking along pavements and picking up any discarded cigarette ends. Several small boys could soon accumulate a small paper bagful. We would return triumphantly to our lair where the cigarette ends were stripped and the paper discarded, there being no filter tip in those days. Pipes would be produced, this time real pipes bought from local jumble sales or ‘borrowed’ from unsuspecting adults. The pipes were filled with the tobacco gleaned from the cigarette ends. Matches would be produced and a real ‘smoke’ would result. A ‘smoke’ fraught with both obvious and unimagined dangers, but enjoyed just the same, in part due to the illicit nature of the event itself. Eventually, as the years progressed, we moved on to the real thing, Woodbines, Park Drive and Turf, and, when funds allowed, the luxury of Passing Clouds. Happy days indeed! Though less than happy when on occasion a filter less cigarette unexpectedly welded to your top lip; careful detachment immediately became the order of the day, rushed removal of cigarette from mouth resulting at best in a portion of the lip itself being permanently attached to the cigarette. Even worse, burnt fingers and a red hot cigarette end flying through the air might suggest that the joys of cigarette smoking was a less than perfect pastime.
And, away from the prying eyes of adults, when the cigarettes were smoked, we secretly learned of the world of grown–ups. Illicit books and magazines spirited away from adults were produced and eagerly examined. The Adventures of Pompeii and the Woman of Rome were avidly devoured and mental notes taken. Naturalist magazines were ogled, naked breasts and pubic hair causing an uncomfortable yet exciting stirring in adolescent loins.