Thursday, 20 August 2009

Do You Fancy a Fag

I happened to be in Scarborough last week. In the town centre were some delightful young people working for a European initiative, and giving away promotional 'goodies', never a bad thing. I had my carbon monoxide blood levels tested (evidently low) and I wondered what they would have read had I still been a twenty plus a day man. (Would I in fact still be alive.) I have not smoked for over thirty years; most of us smoked in times gone by. How I personally 'learnt' the habit is no secret.
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 the role models for children, which in part explains our childish fascination in what we considered was ‘a grown up’ pursuit. 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, 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 was attempted 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 produced, 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 is much sought after as a provider of berries for wine making. As the seasons progress, the bush dies 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!
Did you ever smoke? If so, where did you acquire the habit? What are your memories of smoking in 'the good old days'.


Bernard said...

First try...behind the church after choir practice on Friday night.
Put me off 'fags' for life.
Next try, a pipe at university...I think this was an attempt at the 'intellectual' image rather than the pleasure of smoking.
My first pipe was a Harold Wilson look-a -like, followed later by a Sherlock Holmes.
Been a 'smoke free zone' now for 40 years.

Edith Sitwell said...

I use to buy Capstan Full Strength for my father when I was knee high to a grasshopper. Guess what? I never ever took up smoking. And to think I use to cross a main road and go to the corner shop to buy them for him unheard of nowadays.


ADDY said...

My grandparents used to smoke Woodbines in the war and right up until they died at a ripe old age.

Bernard said...

Twitchel….. Northern English term for a short footpath or side entrance

Gennel It is a covered alleyway connecting two terrace houses
Used regularly in Derbyshire. UK

Jitty An alley way connecting two streets.

I cheated Sir, found all the answers on-line at

(Make sure you don't spell twitchel
as 'twitchal'...I'll leave you to look it up)

Valerie said...

How well I remember the doc who diagnosed a sore throat as he peered into my mouth through that see-in-the-mouth instrument, him with a ciggy dangling from his lips, me with ash on me chest and smoke in me eyes.

Daphne said...

I've never smoked! And I'm glad too - - both my parents had strokes and so did my grandfather - - and I know smoking's a big contributory factor. But I know most people smoked when I was a child and, in the acting world where I work, most people did until very recently - some still do.

dabrah said...

I used to smoke, and really enjoyed it, but quit about 7 years ago. I'm glad I don't smoke now, since it must be so awkward when you're out. I don't have any exciting tales to tell. Almost everyone I knew smoked when I was a teenager, so it was almost natural to start smoking.

Anonymous said...

I still do smoke . Either cheap cigs or even cheaper cigars. Bloody love it actually. Great post by the way...

Strawberry Jam Anne said...

No, I never took to it Ken. Tried it a couple of times and decided it wasn't for me. Both my parents smoked Players Weights, giving up in their 50s. Dad died at 68 of cancer, Mum still going strong at 87. My children began smoking as teenagers - I stopped their pocket money and insisted that if they had to smoke it would not be in the house. They both gave up in their 20s. My husband smoked quite heavily until we met (both in our 40s) and then gave up during a serious bout of flu and never went back to it.

You certainly had fun with it when you were a youngster and it was very amusing to read all about it. Great post. A

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Apologies to all for late comments. Only just noticed. Pardon my rudeness. %th October.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Forty years, thats longer than I've been smoke free!

I remember capstan well. They apparently still sell extra strengh cigs in the new world. Disgraceful exploitation.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

What no one knows of course is why some get away with it, others dont. Genetic?

Great! You pendantic old devil, you.I reckon colloquial spelling varies as to where you live.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Unbeievable! Those were the days!

There is absolutely nothing to recommend it. Am taking at a stroke unit soon, evidently to most common denominator is smoking.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

At one time almost everyone smoked at the football (Derby County) Noew they have to go on the street at half time!

Love your comments . Do yoy EVER feel guilty. I bet you don't but youre a one off type of person I reckon. Thanks for kind words.

Grumpy Old Ken said...


Thanks for comments. Players Weights, I remember them well!

Unknown said...

Does anyone know the name of "The Pikelet Man" who came on his bike from Nottingham, selling them.Need to know his last name. trying to find the son, Malcolm ??
Thanks a bunch,

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