Cigarettes vs. Books

In 1946, a year before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and four years before his death from a ruptured artery in his lung at the age of just 46, George Orwell wrote a short essay for Tribune titled ‘Books vs. cigarettes’. In it he attempted to dispel the notion that the reading of books was somehow an expensive hobby, well beyond the means of the average working man, who nevertheless spent a considerable amount of his income on cigarettes. To do this, he carried out an inventory of his own library, which came to a total of over 900 books, costing approximately £165 and fifteen shillings in the money of the time. Over the course of his (tragically brief) lifetime he estimated that this came to the sum of roughly £25 a year, or nine shillings and ninepence a week. Nine shillings and ninepence in 1946 would buy you 83 cigarettes (Players brand).

Now 83 cigarettes a week might sound a lot to a non-smoker, but the average smoker in Scotland consumed 13.5 cigarettes a day in 2012 – down from 15.3 in 2003, and 18.1 in 1995. I use Scottish figures as being broadly representative of the UK as a whole for two reasons: firstly the Scottish Health Service make such figures freely available; and secondly, Orwell was living on the island of Jura at the time he wrote the essay. But Orwell himself smoked considerably more than that. He states that he smokes six ounces a week, at half a crown an ounce, or £40 a year. Far more than he spent on books.

Six ounces a week… it’s a lot. Since the general – if haphazard – adoption of the metric system in the UK, while we weigh ourselves in stones, which are made up of pounds and ounces, we tend to buy loose tobacco in grams, and cigarettes in packs of 20. Given that I roll my own cigarettes, it’s easier to work out my own consumption in grams. I purchase a packet of 25 grams roughly every four days, or a little under 50 grams a week. Each packet costs £8.50, or about the same as a paperback. So I can buy two books a week. Six ounces would be 170 grams, indicating that Orwell’s consumption of cigarettes was over three times as much as my own. I estimate that I smoke about 20 cigarettes a day, exceeding the average Scot by some margin. Could he really be smoking over 60 a day? No wonder he was ill.

This is the sort of thing that one uses as a mad kind of justification, when one is addicted to cigarettes. It’s a half-thought (I’ll come back to them later), a kind of duality which defies logic. On the one hand one thinks – well, at least I don’t smoke that much. So it can’t be that bad, what I am doing to myself. The other, even more illogical thought, is something like celebrity association: Orwell smoked this much and was a great writer; ergo great writers must smoke this much. I admire Orwell therefore I too shall smoke. And let’s not think about premature death from lung disease. (Like I said, a half-thought. One that doesn’t quite contain the inherent logic to make it all the way to a conclusion under proper rational scrutiny.)

Half-thoughts are important because much of addiction comes down to associations. They are a knee-jerk reaction, a hot-headed impulse, which one reaches for in haste as a given response; a kind of hastily cobbled together rationalisation that doesn’t actually contain enough sense to hold up if examined. Here’s an example of a half-thought: Smoking is bad for you. Yes, but I am a bad boy rebel who never did anything I was told, therefore I shall smoke. Well, the short answer to that is that if you continue, you won’t be a bad boy much longer. Here’s another, very common among smokers: I get stressed and irritable when I don’t have cigarettes. So I need to smoke to remain calm. Well, here’s the thing with that – you get tetchy because you are addicted to the cigarettes and get withdrawal in between them. By prolonging the addiction and continuing to smoke, you end up in a vicious circle or perpetual tetchiness just about staved off by the dose of nicotine you are craving. And finally, on the subject of half-thoughts, the most deadly of all: Yes, cigarettes are fatal, but life sucks. So what if I die? We all have to some time. It’s that winning combination of introspection and self-destruction, taken to absurdity. It only takes a few moments of being in agony, chest gripped by a pair of ragged claws, where you shift position endlessly to free yourself from the pain, to think: actually, no, anything is better than this. I don’t want to feel this, on and on, until death.

Pain. It’s a great educator. But we are also capable of immense, almost risible self-delusion. I’ve had chest pains for years. Over a decade. And yet I continued to smoke. Worse – I actually gave up for three years, but started again. Sure enough, chest pains returned. Well, there’s pain and there’s pain. A minor discomfort, an ache somewhere, could certainly be a sinister precursor of something, but if it’s not actually disabling it’s easy to dismiss it. Just a twinge – it’ll pass. I get two distinct kinds of chest pain. One is a pinching sensation in the vicinity of my heart. It feels like a tube is blocked or an artery perhaps being squeezed. It can be a sharp twinge or a dull ache, but the effect is the same – I feel shaky, off-kilter, and somehow very unwell. I have to sit down. It usually passes after an hour or two.

The other pain frightens me more, because it is incapacitating. It’s like a band tightening around my chest, as if my ribcage can hardly contain whatever it is in there that’s trying to get out. It’s got its claws in me – I can feel them. It spreads across my back and surrounds me in a 360 degree vicelike grip. Nothing helps. I try shifting position, or lying on the floor. It moves a little, retreats slightly perhaps, and then returns with a vengeance. I have tried slathering my torso with embrocation – a warming red Tiger Balm. I’ve tried hot baths. Nothing works. I lie groaning (I’m usually horizontal when it strikes), turn over on my side and feel the pain move to fill the space. I roll onto my front – the position I usually fall asleep in – and it presses down on my ribs at the front from within. There’s no getting away from it. I swear off the cigarettes, hope to hell and back that I get one more chance, that this is just an aberration, a one off, yet again (how many chances do you think you get, you dumb bastard?), and that it will go away. I make a mental note to visit the pharmacy and pick up some nicotine patches in the morning. But I don’t. The next day, pain-free once more, I will fire up the first cigarette of the day with my coffee, inhale deeply, and I’m back smoking again. Sheer madness.

How? Why? What thought processes go into this contemptible act of suicidal self-delusion? I’m interested. I need to know. Well, I say to myself, I can’t write unless I have a cigarette. But wait – you can’t write a lot of the time even when you do have a cigarette! It’s not like I smoke while writing anyway – the smoke gets in my eyes, the cigarette between my fingers is an annoyance, and anyway, I prefer to smoke outdoors. So perhaps that’s it – the regular breaks. The finishing of a sentence or paragraph, quick change of scene, moment of reflection, then back to it again, somehow refreshed. I wrote 35,000 words once over three days, half a novella, back in 2005, and it was quite good really – I’m still more or less happy with it. But in 2005 I was a non-smoker. I quit, as I mentioned, for three years. I started again as a result of depression. I was in New Zealand, just broken up with a girl, alone on the beach in a town called Napier, and it felt like the end of the world. What am I doing here? Walking past two guys opening a packet of cigarettes and lighting up on a bench I stopped, turned, and said: ‘I’m sorry – do you happen to have a spare cigarette?’ Yes, of course, here you go – the solidarity of smokers. I coughed a bit, then felt the dizzying headrush, and a slow, warm smile spread across my face. Ah, this is what I was missing without even knowing it. You’re never alone with a cigarette.

I’m an all or nothing kind of person. I never did anything by half in my life. I was addicted to alcohol. Yeah, I’m an ex-alcoholic. Some people say that that’s a non-sequitur – that if you were an alcoholic, then you are for life, so you can’t be an ex-alcoholic. I view it differently. I lived a different life then, I was a different person; one whose actions I don’t understand or even recognise. I knew I had to stop, not because it was killing me, but because I was in hell. My life had shrunk to a park bench or a shop doorway, a can of high strength lager or a bottle of cheap wine. And that was it. The dry heaving, the shakes, the amnesia, the waking up with a black eye and no idea how you got it, the waking up in a strange town and no idea how you got there. Yes, that is how bad I was. Everything that was wrong with my life came down to alcohol. So I gave up. I went to an AA meeting, they all read out of this great book that was written by the founders of AA – two doctors in 19th century America who were both themselves alcoholics – and every word this group of people said, every line in that book that they read out, was true of me too. I knew I had to stop. No more self-delusion, no more only drinking every other day, or only taking a tenner down the pub. Just, stop. So I did. It was hard. Not the cold sweats and the paranoia and the obsessive thoughts of drinking, but the mental game of chess that you end up playing with yourself, trying to convince yourself why it’s OK if you have another drink, knowing full well it is not. It was hard, but I was young and strong and lucky and determined, and I did it. I’ve been sober 14 years now – I never imagined that was possible, but it’s true. And I’ll never drink again. Nor do I ever want to, these days. I got my life back.

So why would I then want to chuck it away on a half-thought justification, to roll up some tobacco in paper for five minutes of dubious pleasure combined with inevitable self-disgust? Habit? Routine? Who knows. I say to myself – well, I contain monsters. I can be so moody, so difficult, that sometimes the only thing to do is shut myself away from everyone else until it passes. And I smoke furiously, banishing demons, sucking great gobbets of foul chemicals down deep into my lungs and expelling them with a sigh of release. I fear not having that outlet, that release, that masochistic self-abuse. I fear my own lack of balance, of being stuck in a red hot anger at everything, unable to rationalise, detach, examine. I have a mean streak a mile wide. You know those ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters? I’m Irish. We don’t do calm. I’m a quick-tempered Celt, an irascible Aries, and I’ve got issues, dammit. If there was a pill I’d take it. They don’t tell you that in the quit guides – it’s all about breathing more easily, having more money, smiling more whitely and of course hopefully not dying of a fatal and excruciatingly painful illness because you left it too late. They don’t say: how do I ground myself? How do I get some kind of equilibrium in a world that is see-sawing out of control? How do I hang onto my sanity, my self-control, without this most enduring of psychological crutches? How do I control my hair-trigger temper, reset my brain from whatever dark alleys it has led me down?

Back in New Zealand again, circa 2008. I was hiking in the Southern Alps on my own – just myself, a tent, and the wilderness. Ever since I’d bummed a cig off those guys on the bench in Napier I had been smoking these little cigars – Cafe Creme. Initially it had been one a day, after dinner, with coffee. Then it went up to three – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then a few in between. Soon I was on a pack of ten a day. It was getting expensive as well, so one day – fool, dullard, nitwit – I bought 25 grams of Drum tobacco. It was horrid – it tasted thin and nasty after the cigars. I decided to head into the bush, an Outward Bound course for one. No cigs. But still, I had that packet of Drum in my pocket setting off. Just in case, you know? In case I went mad in the wilderness, in case I decided in a flush of temper that yes, I could descend that sheer rock face, or leap that chasm. I also had a tin of the Cafe Creme cigars in the top pocket of the rucksack. For a treat. For emergencies. Whatever. I had visions of lying in a glade with a broken leg, waiting for the whump of rotor blades from a rescue chopper, and lighting up a cigar with a slow smile as Bach’s Air on a G String played in the background like the Hamlet ads on TV. Come and save me from myself.

I came across a mountain hut after several hours of climbing, and went in. It was empty. Sitting at the bare wooden table in the diminishing cloud of sandflies that had followed me in, I took the packet of Drum out of my pocket and put it on the table. I looked at it for a while. Then I went over to the store cupboard and peered inside. Matches. Candles. Some hard tack biscuits. A jar of Vegemite. I placed the unopened Drum between the Vegemite and the back of the cupboard. A gift for some unsuspecting smoker who was running low. Imagine their delight. Rising, I swung my pack on, walked back outside, clumping across the wooden porch, and headed on up the trail. That night I camped in a small glade with a brook running through it. The wind was picking up as I unrolled the tent, but it was a strong, geodesic design – a Mountain Equipment Dragonfly, for the record. I sat in the lee of it and smoked a final Cafe Creme with a mug of malty tea before turning in. I had five days to go before I got back down to civilisation, and a total of 6 cigars, now five. No problem, I thought.

Some time in the night I had a dream that I was lying on a board and a giant was shaking it, trying to shake me off. Or maybe it was a trampoline. I reached for my watch and saw it was 1.30am. The wind was shaking the sides of the tent hard. I tried to go back to sleep, but it was impossible, and I lay in the darkness with the canvas flapping back and forth. The wind grew stronger still. One corner of the floor began to lift up, and I moved my leg to keep it down. But it wasn’t working – the wind was actually getting under the tent and lifting it. I lay on my front and tried to hold onto the ground to stop the tent flying away. I was a shade over 12 stone, and it was actually a struggle to keep the tent on the ground. It was a very long night.

I must have fallen asleep again, because when I awoke there was a thin, grey light shining through the green canvas. But the wind was still yammering away at the sides. I was due to go over a sadlle that day, a high, exposed ridge between two peaks with no cover. I got into my Goretex and peered outside. The wind nearly took my head off. When I went to fill the water bottles from the brook I got blown over twice. And this was in a soft, sheltered paddock. No way I was going over the ridge that day.

What do you do with yourself over a 24 hour period sitting in a small green tent, where if you leave its shelter it will blow away, and if you pack up and hike you will blow away too? Well, you could always have a cigar. I did so – at seven o’clock in the morning. A few hours went by. I watched the dizzying corkscrew dance of a sandfly on the inner mesh, and reached out a finger to squash it. Lunch was a miserable concoction of sodden biscuits and ‘Valuemetric’ cheese. And of course another cigar. I slept. I wrote a bit in the diary. I slept some more. Dinner was noodles and pepperoni, washed down with some more tea and, yes, another cigar. In the morning I had three left, and now four days to go. Does not compute.

The next few days were some of the most memorable I’ve ever had. I walked over snowfields and descended through moss-green forests, clambering over slick branches and root systems, past primordial tree ferns, and waded through countless rivers. The woods echoed to the limpid whistle of the tui, which could sometimes be seen flying across the path from tree to tree, its white neck like a ruff against the glossy black of its feathers. I was utterly alone, and despite being continually wet through, smelling rather rank and with a nagging blister on my right heel, I was deeply happy. I would have breakfast in the mornings and quickly start walking, to avoid any cravings for a smoke. The only one I would have would be a cigar after dinner, after the washing up of the Trangia in some chilly mountain brook, when I felt I’d earned it.

But on the last day I had no cigar to look forward to. I had contemplated cutting one in half, but all or nothing – I smoked it all the night before. That day I walked for 14 hours, crossing a mountain range and descending into a river valley at dusk. There was a hut there, and even when I was two miles out I was checking for signs of life. Perhaps someone had a cigarette? The hut was a shock after the wilderness – it was full of people. I found two guys smoking on the porch, and sidled up, on the cadge. Could they possibly spare a smoke for a solo wanderer? Of course. They were Israeli, and were smoking Marlboros. God, the headrush. My knees almost buckled, and I slid down the wall with a soppy grin.

“Wow – looks like you really needed that!” one said. Hell yes.
Later they asked me where I had come from. “Over the saddle,” I told them. “Day before yesterday.”
They looked surprised. “What about the cyclone?”
“Ah, I guess that’s why it was so windy.”
One of them joked about me wanting a cigarette so badly that I crossed a mountain range in a cyclone to buy a pack. He wasn’t far wrong.

For whatever reason, these things have got their hooks in me pretty deep. I mean, I’m not short of willpower. I’ve hauled my arse over assault course after assault course, marched for days without sleep, kept going way beyond what any rational, sensible person will do, when you are just hanging on by your fingernails (sometimes literally). And I never gave up. Go on, tell me I’m weak-willed – after you’ve got addicted to alcohol then given it up cold turkey. After you’ve done the things I have done, led the life I have lived, then you can tell me, and maybe I’ll listen, but not before. I use cigarettes; I am a user. It’s the word for a drug addict. I know I have to cultivate that same negative mental association for them that I did with the booze; that they are holding me back, fucking me up, and that hopefully I can catch it before it’s too late. I’m an ultra-addict. When my world starts to slip out of control and I can sit down and watch my hands shaking and feel my heart racing, I know I reach for a cigarette to get a handle on it all. I told myself that I didn’t want to still be smoking at 40. It felt like some cut-off point. Well, I’ve negotiated and rationalised and consulted with the lawyers, and somehow gone 11 months of being a smoker aged 40. Maybe I meant after 40.

So I need to do something else. Suck a mint, or do some breathing exercise, or work out or something. I used to cycle like a demon – a hundred miles in a day. More, even. Those who have seen me in the buff know that I’m not in bad shape – it’s a minor miracle, really, given some of the excesses of my life – and yet I look at myself in the mirror and see someone who is fading away, getting thinner and thinner, made cadaverous by nicotine. That’s good, if a little dysmorphic. That’s the association I want to cultivate – that these things are killing me before my very eyes, and that I’ve got to get a grip on it. I’ve smoked three cigarettes during the writing of this piece. Actually that’s not true – it’s only been two, but I know I’ll reward myself with another one when I finish, then come back and re-read it. And tomorrow morning, if there’s anything left in the packet, it’s going in the bin. I’ve got the nicotine gum, I’ve got some weird electronic faux-cigarette that has a filter like a proper tailor-made and is good for 200 hits, and if I can stop stressing about getting through the rush hour on Friday night without losing the plot with the lumbering crowds who get in your way the whole time, or manage not to use dark arts to scrag some besuited twat who decides to walk straight into me with a shoulder barge while snarling a phoney muttered apology, or be good company and laugh with my friends while I am screaming for a fag and munching Nicorette like a grumpy ungulate in a shrubbery, I shall be alright. I want to live. It’s time to give up. And buy some more books.