Saturday, 11 June 2016

#21 THE SMOKING GUN



                             






I once calculated how many cigarettes I must have smoked in my life, that is between 1964 when I started smoking properly, and 2000 when I stopped for good (so far, so good). Let’s do the math:
Approximately 25 a day  (sometimes 10, sometimes 40) x 7 = 175 per week (more likely 200) = 10,400 per year  x 36 years = 374,400.  What a truly horrific thought. I believe that’s an underestimate as smokers, drinkers and users always lie to themselves and everybody else about how heavy their habit is. And I now remember a long period in my 30s when the daily rate was 30-40. So allowing for this, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve smoked half a million. 

So by rights I should be dead: if I get through to the end without some dormant lung cancer flowering I will have dodged half a million bullets. Of course, there is the small matter of the triple bypass for the clogged arteries, so I didn’t get off altogether, but unless you have a problem with a few junior surgeons playing keepy-uppy with your heart, that’s minor compared with lung cancer (you didn’t say that at the time. Ed). The point is, why have so many people, worldwide, played Russian Roulette with cigarettes when the link to cancer has been established since the early 60s? Almost any substance taken into your lungs in that quantity would be toxic: this one is toxic and addictive, a lethal combination.

Increasingly, groups of smokers huddled in the cold outside their office buildings are looking like some marginalised caste of untouchables. How stark the contrast with the 1930s when the habit was the very epitome of cool, and most people smoked. I remember the attraction, the whole repertoire of my father’s behaviours around smoking which defined him as a man:

removing the cellophane from the packet, opening it and pulling out the silver paper in one swift integrated movement; tapping each end of the (untipped) cigarette on the packet, the one hand choreography of retrieving the lighter, flicking it open and igniting it, dipping to cup the flame (even indoors), bringing it to the cigarette and drawing deeply, the exhalation of the smoke with the sigh of satisfaction. Very seductive. No wonder we couldn’t wait to do it, no wonder we stole cigarettes one-by-one and took them to our secret hiding place.

Our gang had a lair where we were safe from adult eyes. There was a big area of rough ground, totally overgrown, at the bottom of South Lodge Drive.  We created a narrow tunnel through the bracken and brambles and high grass, maybe 20 yards of it, and then fashioned an open area – a room - where we could all sit, but still enclosed by a ceiling of vegetation. So we gathered there to try our fathers’ cigarettes for the first time, half expecting to vomit, as the folk-lore told us, and not noticing that one of our number, in an excess of cool, had lit his, then thrown the match over his shoulder. Suddenly, one side of the room was ablaze, the flames licking up towards the ‘roof’. Instinctively we ran – or rather scrambled on hands and knees, falling over each other without ceremony or consideration just desperate to get out. When we did, looking back, the flames over the room were 7 or 8 feet high and spreading every direction, perhaps even reaching the housing estate soon. There was no choice and pretending innocence, knocked at a house to dial 999. We weren’t caught and we didn’t confess: no harm was done, we’d just helped to clear the land for the housing development which soon followed.  But I’ll never forget the feeling of fear in that tunnel as the less athletic boys delayed us while the flames pursued us and seemed to be winning.

That should have turned me off but it didn’t.  As soon as I got into CND, where everyone smoked, on marches where cigarettes defrayed the monotony, to college where it was de rigeur in the Common Room, Bar, or at parties, it simply became a habit and by then the chemical addiction had kicked in and so I was hooked. I was concerned about the health aspects but not enough. I only smoked low tar cigarettes and made regular attempts to give up. Over the years I tried cold turkey, cutting down, acupuncture, self-hypnosis and nicotine chewing gum (which – in a flight of imagination, not raw experience – I would say was like chewing a condom that has been wiped round a full ashtray). All of them worked, for a matter of weeks; none of them survived the long game.

What finally did it was a visit to the doctor, complaining of a persistent cough. He was aghast at my smoking habit and sent me off for a chest x-ray. There was a delay in forwarding the findings for some reason so that it was more than a month before I got the call from the doctor to come in and discuss the results. He sounded grave, which added to the noticeable increase in anxiety I had over the period. He also looked grave; he said “It is appalling news. With your frankly suicidal level of consumption of cigarettes your lungs are nevertheless completely clear, and so you are an appalling example to smokers everywhere that some people can smoke as much as they like and get away with it.

“OK I’m sorry for that little trick," he said, “but I wanted you to imagine, just for a moment, the fear you should be feeling at the prospect of a really horrible death long before your earthly span.  For God sakes, man, you are a father and your children will always need you, and you will want them and your grandchildren around you, not grieving over your body”. Unprofessional, in a way, but it worked. 

And so I tried to distill everything I had learned from previous attempts to give up into a Greatest Hits version, which turned out to be very simple. Most importantly, I decided it had to be done principally through will-power. I reasoned that however effective gum or patches or anything else might be, those wouldn’t be handy when someone offered you a cigarette at a party, or anywhere else. Then you’d only have will-power so it was better if you cultivated that. I’m not knocking the other methods, just saying that I feel more secure if the effort has come from within me and my own resources than an artificial add-on.  So this is how it goes:

1)   For a month cut down a little each day. Then you will have put in place a number of strategies for managing (substitutes, rewards, postponing, distractions etc. but most of all weaning yourself off the bio-chemical aspects, coping with withdrawal symptoms and unlearning the habit).
2)   Just decide that you’re going to give up, throw the rest of that packet away and…stop
3)   And I mean DECIDE. No ‘I’ll try’, ‘I’ll see if I can’, 'See how it goes). Just decide that that was the last cigarette you’ll ever have in your life, bar none, just as you’d have to if you had got cancer, or ought to if you had emphysema or heart problems. Because you might well be on the way to having those things, its just that you’re cutting them off in the early stages.
4)   Just decide that you’d rather not smell of cigarettes all the time, have smelly clothes, bad breath, smelly hair and dental problems – and that people kissing you didn’t mistake your mouth for a car ashtray.
5)   Do not under any circumstances beg cigarettes or puffs from others
6)   Try and find someone to do the whole thing with you. For the first couple of months, avoid the company of smokers
7)    Put your cigarette money aside every week for a year and have a free holiday in the Caribbean.

The packet of cigarettes which cost 10p in 1964 now costs nearer £10.00. The greater part of that rise has been relatively recent, but taking a mid-price of £4 as an average means that I will have spent in the region of £100.000. This is why I couldn’t afford that Aston Martin – but could have done.

I wish you well with your efforts. I used to love smoking, but not smoking feels like an escapologist throwing off the chains and stepping out of the sack. Honestly. No more subterfuge. No more mild panic when you run out of them after opening hours and have to drive round looking for a garage. No more anxiety, well-suppressed but always nudging you, that you may be shooting yourself in the chest, daily.









I love the BBC, like I love the NHS: they are beacons, National Treasures, and are amongst the things which we are most proud of, quite rightly, because they are revered across the planet. But on the EU Referendum, the BBC has failed us, miserably, and with possibly the most dangerous consequences: a hammer-blow to our economy and our society.

Following its Charter, and very anxious not to offend its political paymasters, it has striven for its customary ‘balance’, between LEAVE and REMAIN. Equal airtime, always following a spokesperson for one side with another from the other – though interestingly showing much less vigilance over their own spokespersons’ biases (notably Laura Kuensberg), it has produced a fake equality between the rivals. It has elevated the Brexit position from a minority view to one on a par with Remain. This is not a democratic process it is simply an exercise in the power of the media. Constantly exposed on TV as equally important, that is what it has become. Think about it: We have the majority of most of our major political parties on one side, backed by the Governor of the Bank of England, the IMF, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the majority of international economists, Obama and other world leaders, - the list is endless.

On the other side we have some three politicians, with absolutely no concrete evidence that leaving the EU will be anything other than a disaster. They each have their own personal agenda but two of whom have their sights firmly fixed on a Downing St address and one of which speaks with such fervour about EU, despite having only scrambled on the Leave bus as it was leaving the depot a few weeks ago: a blatant piece of opportunism that was cynical even by his own standards. The opportunism of chancers who see a way of personal advancement, riding to prominence and political power on the backs of the masses' knee-jerk opposition to any more immigration, for reasons which have some connect to racism, xenophobia, and cultural threat. Not exactly a crusade, and certainly a dishonest and squalid one It is no less objectionable than Enoch Powell’s populist prejudice of the 1960s and 70s. Not surprising then, that Leave finds amongst its supporters UKIP, The British National Party, the English Defence League, and Britain First. But the media has made the Leave policy so respectable that this lunatic fringe is quietly discounted or obscured.

While appearing to be fair, equal status exposure is profoundly undemocratic. If they had followed their usual procedure, when minority parties get exposure – in proportion to their importance and support –as when the BNP gets a political party broadcast, while the majority parties get many, this situation would not have happened. We hope the BBC mirrors reality, and it usually makes a reasonable fist of that. This time it’s been smoke and mirrors: fake equality has elevated one side to a point where it threatens the prosperity of the whole society. This is not abstract: We are perilously near the brink of one of the most misguided political misjudgements of our era and the media have brought us there.








 I've been impressed by the testicular cancer campaign encouraging men to scrutinise themselves closely for early signs and symptoms of the disease. Paradoxically, I had never actually done it myself, so I did. I found a lump, neither huge nor tiny. The GP said it could be a number of things, but the possibility that it was cancer meant it should be investigated quickly and he would book
me in for a scan at the Royal Free. That was last Thursday. On Friday the hospital called me to say I could have the scan today, Sunday. That's service for you.  So much for the for the NHS's
imminent demise.  No panic, yet, I'll save that for when I get the results, if necessary.  I have no idea how long it had been there, or whether it was in fact a listening device, planted by aliens from Planet Zarg, while I slept. Dodging bullets seems to have been my sport of choice in the last few years. Long may it be so. But if you're a man, check yours now, and if you're a woman do it for him: that should persuade him. That would just be like a spoonful of honey with that horrible medicine, when we were kids.



As a rule I don't talk about my genitals in public, but I thought I would make an exception on this occasion: I imagine that there are many of my male friends who have been as remiss as I have in self-examination, who might be spurred to do so now, and be glad that they did in the long run. Others may just say 'balls to that', I suppose. Ignorance is not always bliss.










ENGLAND 1  RUSSIA 1.      Who writes these scripts? Same old, same old. Cruelly, it wasn't, it was just one of those things. England dominated the first half with crisp, accomplished football and should have gone in at the break two or three goals up. The Russians collected themselves at half-time, heeded their manager's talk of transfers to Gulag Athletic, and emerged to give a decent performance. But England went ahead with an excellent free kick from Dier, deservedly. They maintained their composure, played compactly and kept possession, victory was within their grasp. Russia differed. In time added on, they equalised, 3 points became 1, and countless parrots vomited in unison.

Some time ago I noticed that watching England was very like watching Tottenham, in that these kinds of scenarios were played out with monotonous regularity. Now the parallel is real: nearly half the team are Tottenham players. But that doesn't explain the failure, they were amongst the best players on the pitch. Danny Rose had a first class game at left back, his only failing being about six inches shorter than the Russian he was supposed to mark and it was his header which stole 2 points from us. I of all people cannot take him to task for his vertical dimensions. And if team-mate Harry Kane, who can usually score goals by sneezing, had performed with his usual precision, the Russian goal would have been a consolation prize, not an equaliser. Now for Thursday against buoyant Wales, with Gareth Bale, Superstar, ex-Spur and scourge of defences everywhere, playing against 5 of his former colleagues. What could possibly go wrong?





















                        It was, after all, the venerable Stephen Fry who defined 'countryside' as
                                                           'killing Piers Morgan'.  QED   


















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