Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

How Old?

I went to bed last night thinking about age. Not my own age, but the age of other people. Those who were stars in my youth, and are still alive today.

I know how old I am, and when I was a teenager, I knew those film stars and singers were older that me. But as I have grown older, they started to get old. Very old. They did this seemingly without me being aware that there was still the age gap that existed when I was watching them on screen or stage. Of course, many have died too, but it is the living ones who are in my thoughts today.

Twitter has many users who habitually congratulate celebrities on their birthdays. There are others who mark the birthdays of famous people who have been dead for perhaps fifty years. Occasionally, the great age of some living stars that I expected to not be much older than me comes over as startling.

Olivia De Havilland, famous for her roles in films as diverse as ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘The Snake Pit’ was 104 years old this week. Yes, 104! In my youth, I was greatly attracted to the stunning actress Gina Lollobrigida. Today, she was 93 years old. 93? How is that possible? Do you remember Eva Marie Saint, the American actress? She was 96 today and was born one week before my own mother!

Genvieve Bujold is an actress I used to watch in films like ‘Anne of The Thousand days’, and Coma. She was 78 today. 78! And the delightful Leslie Caron, star of ‘Gigi’, ‘Father Goose’, and ‘Chocolat’. Wait for it, she was 89 years old on the first of this month. 89!

There is something very wrong about all this, and has it dawned on me what it is.

I am a lot older than I ever imagined.

More overrated actors

Last year, I wrote some posts about overrated and underrated actors and actresses. My opinions were just that of course, my own opinions. However, those posts were well-received, and did generate some debate. I promised to add more, but became consumed with posting photos, and compiling A-Z challenges, so I didn’t get around to it. Some of the choices that follow are bound to be controversial. I know in advance that I am in danger of naming some names that are currently unassailable, cinematic icons to many viewers.

But anyway, here goes nothing…

In another post, I nominated ‘Blade Runner’ as my (current) best film of all time. So, you might be surprised to find Harrison Ford on this list. But I never liked that film because of him, although it might be his best role to date. Like many other stars, including many that I really like, Ford tends to play himself, whatever the role. The problem is that he is not that interesting. Whether being an action hero in ‘Star Wars’ or the ‘Indiana Jones’ films, or the solid policeman John Book in ‘Witness’, Harrison is always Harrison, just wearing different clothes. In his romantic dramas, he still comes across as a caring cop, or someone from the Secret Service. He has certainly avoided typecasting over the decades, but it made little difference. He was and always will be Harrison Ford, whether in a film, or walking down a street.

Tom Hanks is loved by millions. He has played everything from a tough army officer in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, to a clownish cop in love with his dog, in ‘Turner and Hooch’. He has grown up in the industry, going on to play serious roles in later life, in films such as ‘The Road To Perdition’, ‘Captain Phillips’, and ‘Sully’. His name can sell a film, endorse a franchise, and make millions of people get a warm glow inside. He is the new James Stewart, the all-American down-home boy who symbolises all that is good. Many of the films he has starred in have been excellent, and I confess to liking most of them a great deal. But other than ‘Big’ (1988), I never liked any of those films because of Hanks’ acting talent. I liked them for other things in them, and for the other cast members. Who doesn’t love ‘Turner and Hooch’? But it’s the dog we love, not the humans around it. Who do I remember most, in ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Barry Pepper, as Jackson the left-handed sniper. Giovanni Ribisi, as the medic Doc Wade. Joerg Stadler, as the German prisoner who returns to kill Stanley Mellish. That’s who, and because they were acting. Tom Hanks was being Tom Hanks, playing an army officer. Sorry Tom, it has never worked for me.

This post is not just about Americans though. Britain has its fair share of duds, playing to packed houses, loved and admired by legions of fans. But like those mentioned above, it becomes debatable whether or not they are good actors, or just bankable stars. Roger Moore died this year. Best known to most people for his numerous outings as James Bond, he was known to me from my childhood as ‘Ivanhoe’, the chivalrous knight in a long-running TV series. He later went on to star alongside Tony Curtis in ‘The Persuaders’, after becoming known nationally for his other TV character, ‘The Saint’. He starred in more than forty films, and almost all of them were awful, unable to be saved by his wooden presence, and trademark raised eyebrow. He started his career as a male model, featured on knitting patterns.
He should have stayed there.

Being voted ‘The World’s Sexiest Man’, or being in the list of the ‘Top 50 Best Dressed Men’ might be something to aspire to. Also being undeniably good-looking and attractive to women doesn’t hurt. But in my book, that’s not enough to make you a great actor, not even an average one. That the British star Henry Cavill seems to have been able to use those social credentials to achieve some status as an actor is beyond my comprehension. I won’t even list the lamentable catalogue of films that have launched him into star status, but suffice to say that I have watched only one of them, ‘The Cold Light Of Day’, where he is forgettable, in a below-par film, opposite Bruce Willis. Sorry Henry, your credentials just don’t add up.

Just one more to close this particular post, but there will be more to come, I’m sure.

I will close with another controversial submission. Leonardo DiCaprio showed great promise as a child actor. He starred in two of my favourite modern American dramas, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’, and ‘This Boy’s Life’. He seems like a nice man, and has apparently avoided the personality defects that have afflicted so many actors who started as children. However, I just don’t get him. Take ‘Gangs of New York’ as an example. He was totally unsuited to the role, and playing opposite acting heavyweights like Daniel Day Lewis, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson, his shortcomings left me feeling embarrassed to watch his scenes. Adored by Scorsese, he was launched into films that he just didn’t sit right in, like ‘The Departed’, where he was once again acted off the screen by Jack Nicholson (who will feature later) and -almost unbelievably- by Mark Wahlbergh too.
In ‘The Aviator’, he completely failed to convince me that he was Howard Hughes, even though the film was stylish, and very good to look at. I have yet to see ‘The Revenant’, for which he won a Golden Globe. But when I do get around to watching it, that will be because Tom Hardy is in it. And he is a very good actor indeed. Sorry, Leo (and sorry Cindy…) but you are on my list.

Feel free to agree (or disagree 🙂 ) in the comments below.

Getting away with hats

I know I have mentioned this before, but I have always wanted to look good in a hat. When I was a teenager, hats were still the ‘done thing’ for men. I tried some, but always looked stupid. I just about managed a ‘pork pie’ hat in the Ska days, but even that was a stretch.

I really wanted to look like Alan Delon. He rocked a hat like nobody else, and he was also too cool for words, in every way imaginable.

Before him, I always admired Fred Astaire, and the way he looked so good in any hat imaginable. Perhaps you just had to come from those times, and be comfortable in hats? I soothed my frustrations with this thought.

But then I saw ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, and wanted to look as great as Warren Beatty, so relaxed in his 1920s hat.

Later, ‘Chinatown’ came along, and I could have kicked myself, as the balding Jack Nicholson just oozed class, in a classic hat. I had to give up. I was never going to look the part in a hat. Those guys could not be equalled.

wallup.net

John has kindly suggested that I might suit a hat like one worn by an Oxford Professor. Here’s an example.

Oxford professr hat

I fear that wouldn’t work for me though.

Going to The Pictures

In London’s working class districts, during the late 1950’s and well into the late 1960’s, you did not hear the phrase ‘going to the cinema’. It would always be ‘going to the pictures’, or the common slang term, ‘the flicks’. This was a hangover from the earliest days of silent film, when the flickering of the jerky, hand-cranked projectors, gave the experience this nick-name. My early memories of trips to the pictures date from about 1958, when I was taken to see films suitable for someone approaching their seventh birthday. By 1960, I was a veteran of hundreds of visits, and had seen all the blockbusters of the day, including ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Ben Hur’, and ‘Spartacus’. I had developed a love of film and cinema that stays with me to this day.
London was a grey place in those days. The swinging sixties were around the corner but there was little sign of them just yet. Post-war life was hard. The winters were cold, money short, and we were still surrounded by bomb-damaged buildings, and open flat areas known as ‘bombsites’. There was Television. It had two channels, was black and white, and finished quite early. The majority of the content was either too stuffy, or populist game shows and variety programmes. This was especially true during the working week, as all the effort to entertain seemed to be targeted at the weekend audience. Escape from this was provided by a trip to The Pictures. Cinema attendance at that time was immensely popular, and every showing seemed to be to a full auditorium. You did not have to travel far to see a film, from where we lived, at least. We were spoilt for choice , with at least five cinemas within a comfortable walking distance, as well as three more accessed by a short bus trip. There was also the West End of London within easy reach, with the biggest new films, and the most luxurious cinemas.

 

Those readers used to the current trend for the featureless multiplex, normally tucked away as part of a drab trading estate on the outskirts of the suburbs, can have no concept of the impact of the cinemas in London at that time. With the increasing popularity of films after 1920, most of them were built from around that date, up to the Second World War, in 1939. This meant that following the architectural fashion of the day, they were predominantly of Art Deco, or Modernist design. This was in stark contrast to the rows of Victorian and Edwardian houses where we lived. Even those destroyed by bombing would be rebuilt in a similar style, to retain their landmark features. And they were landmarks indeed. Usually on a corner plot, these cathedrals of film could be seen from a long way off. After dark, their white painted exteriors, and huge neon-lit signs, would shine like beacons, through the smog and gloom of the city. There was little else to match them, except perhaps some of the larger Department Stores, like Selfridges, or Harrods, but these were not places we commonly visited. A visit to the cinema was also comparatively cheap. With both my parents working, we could afford to go at least once every week, sometimes twice. As a treat, we would occasionally visit the West End Cinemas, to see a film in a new or different way. That could take the form of 70 mm projection, Cinerama, or early experiments in 3-D. The bigger budgets of films like ‘How the West was Won’, or ‘Spartacus’, would also justify the production and sale of souvenir brochures. These were expensive perhaps, but they were full of additional information, profiles of film stars, and stills from the making of the film. I would collect these whenever the chance presented itself, and read them over and over again. I don’t know what happened to them, and I wish I still had them today.

 

The experience of going to The Pictures began before you even entered the foyer. Outside, would be a uniformed commissionaire, in greatcoat and cap. his coat bearing tassels, and contrast piping. Here was someone who would not be out of place in a Ruritanian comedy, yet he would be a man of some bearing usually, perhaps with a military background. He would wear fine gloves, and give everyone a civil and deferential greeting as they passed. Posters for the film, and for the next week’s offering, would be in special frames outside the building. There might also be stills, and glossy celebrity photographs of the current film’s stars, and most exciting scenes. Thick red velvet ropes, suspended between gold-coloured posts, provided a barrier- at least a symbolic one – to wait behind, until the doors were opened. The very doors seemed like a work of art. Brass frames, flamboyant designs, so thick and heavy that it was necessary for attendants to open them , and secure them open after the audience started to file in. Then there were the names of the Cinemas. They meant little to a seven-year old Londoner like myself, but how exotic they sounded, how mighty and prepossessing, with their Greek and Latin simple nouns, or invented names, transferred to the streets of my youth. Odeon, Rex, Regal, Ritz, Gaumont, Trocadero. These names seemed to have never appeared before in my consciousness, and applied only to Cinemas. Even now, when I know their actual meanings, I still associate them with those old buildings, first and foremost.

 
Once inside, I felt as if I was entering a wonderland. We were greeted by uniformed usherettes, who in my young eyes, always seemed stunningly attractive, with heavy make-up, smart hair, and friendly smiles. They would inspect your ticket, advise you which entrance to take, and tear the ticket in half, so it could not be used again. As a family, we preferred to sit in the upper balcony, which was called The Circle. In the ground floor area, called The Stalls, the seats were on one level, so the sudden arrival of a heavy set, or tall man, or a lady who chose not to remove her hat, would mean that I would have to watch the entire programme though the gap in their shoulders. Upstairs, the seats were arranged in a tiered fashion, so no matter who sat in front of me, I would always be able to see. There was also a small surcharge for sitting in The Circle (unlike live theatre, where the opposite applies) , so it made you feel a little bit grander, as you made your way up the sweeping staircases.

 

We came from housing which was acceptable to us at that time. We did not have fitted carpets, central heating, or an inside bathroom. These commonly accepted facilities came later, when the terraced houses were mostly demolished, to make way for the new estates of maisonettes and flats that we moved into after 1960. The cinemas were a break from this. Carpet so thick, and of such quality, my small shoes sunk into it. Ornamental design on a massive scale; balustrade staircases of great width, enormous chandeliers, wall sconces to provide up-lighting, framed pictures on the walls. Even a visit to the toilets was an experience. Rows of shiny gleaming urinals, containing small blocks of sweet-smelling chemicals, lofty stalls, with locks that declared whether they were occupied, or not. Mirrored walls above large wash basins, and paper towels from chrome dispensers. They were immaculate; no vandalism was apparent then, it just wouldn’t have occurred to us.

 

Once through the doors into The Circle, subdued lighting provided a coloured glow to the surroundings. It felt as if you were in another country, or in a Royal Palace. More usherettes (they were always female then) waited to check tickets, and to show you to your seat, using the small torch that they carried to light the way. Once everyone was seated, overcoats folded, most hats removed, darkness would descend, along with the complete silence, punctuated by an occasional cough, that was expected of the audience. Noise was not tolerated at that time. Nobody chatted, there were no mobile ‘phones to worry us, even the cellophane packets of toffee popcorn (the only type available), or the small boxes of chocolates that we had been treated to, were opened with the silent skill of a master safe cracker, so as not to cause offence.  Smoking was allowed of course, anywhere in the building, and most of the adults, and even some of the younger audience members smoked freely; not just cigarettes, pipes and cigars also. There were ashtrays on the backs of the seats in front of you, and they would have been emptied between performances. This was not at all unusual or strange to the audiences of that period, and a ban on smoking would have been unthinkable then. As a result of all this smoking, a blue haze would appear above us, reflected in the ceiling lights, and later in the beam from the projected film. I actually looked forward to this, as I regarded it to be an essential part of the experience, something like The Northern Lights, courtesy of nicotine.

 

I was then ready. An early type of air-conditioning, about which I knew nothing, ensured that the cinema was cool when it was hot outside, and central heating provided cosy warmth on cold days. I always felt just right in the cinema, it was my home from home, and a better home at that. Though the film had not even started, there would be music playing. In some cinemas, even then, there would be an organist to entertain the audience. He would sit at some incredible conglomeration of pipes, keyboards, and buttons, which I generically called ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer’. In more modern establishments, piped music would be played. This would usually be the soundtrack to the film that would soon be shown, and would sound very loud and dramatic. Many films had a theme tune in those days, before the addition of pop songs and rap tracks became the norm. There was another chance to buy a programme, if it was that sort of film, or to purchase an ice cream, or drink. These were sold from deep trays, carried around the necks of yet more usherettes. Though they were probably the same ones that had taken the tickets earlier, I did not work that out for a long time. The tray’s contents were illuminated by a small light, and she would also have a small cash box. It was a portable, floodlit shop in miniature; purpose built for the venue, and to me, always fascinating. There would be a later chance to re-visit this lady if need be, during the intermission.

 

If a film was a large production, and lasted over two hours, it would break just over half way through. A sign on the screen would announce the interval, usually of fifteen minutes duration. People would shuffle along the long rows, mouthing their ‘excuse me’ to every neighbour, and head off to the toilets (called Lavatories of course) or to join the queue for refreshments. When less grand films were being shown, which was more usual, there would also be a break, as there would be two films in  the programme, so the intermission would come after the first, less important film, and before the film called the ‘main feature’. As well as two films, there would also be Pathe News, showing world events, Royal visits, or sporting triumphs, and sometimes cartoons. So it was a full evening of entertainment, and represented excellent value. At the end of the evening’s performance, the lights would be turned up, and you would be expected to stand, for the playing of the National Anthem. This may seem archaic now, but woe betide anyone seen sneaking out before the end. It was frowned upon. Britain was still a patriotic country in every way then, with a vestige of Empire, and a flourishing and loyal Commonwealth.

 

I would walk home, tired but happy, chattering to my parents about the film or films we had seen, perhaps clutching my glossy programme, and looking forward to the next time that I went to ‘The Pictures’.

Smoking

When I was very young, everyone I knew, with perhaps three exceptions, was a smoker. My Mum smoked, as did my Dad, my Grandparents, almost all of my Uncles and Aunts, and all the family friends. Smoking was normal. In the street, on the bus or train, in shops, cinemas, theatres, everyone seemed to be smoking. The only place I had never seen anyone smoke was in a church. If you visited someone in hospital, they had an ashtray next to their bed. Cigarettes were sold everywhere; in pubs, shops, railway stations, cafes, restaurants, and even from vending machines in the street. If you are under 40 years of age, you would find it hard to believe how acceptable it was to smoke.

Furniture was even sold with built in ashtrays, in recesses in the arms. Cigarette boxes were coordinated with other ornaments, and every room would have a selection of ashtrays, of all shapes and sizes. These ashtrays were usually the most popular gift to bring someone from a holiday, covered in sea-shells, or bearing the name of the resort where you had spent your summer break. Novelty cigarette dispensers were also popular, at least with the working classes. My Grandmother was very proud of a plastic donkey that she had received. It carried a box on its back. When filled with cigarettes, the large ears could be pulled forward, the tail would raise, and a fresh cigarette would appear out of the donkey’s rear end! This fascinated me as a child, and I would happily play with it for hours.

Cigarettes, and cigars, as well as pipes, were common gifts for Christmas and birthdays, and they were always well-received. In the build up the the Festive Season, the tobacco companies would prepare special gift ranges. Cigarettes would be packaged in larger numbers, in 50’s or 100’s. They would be sold in special tins, or large boxes with nice designs. Cigars were considered the height of luxury, and were much too expensive for the average worker. So, the companies made sure everyone could afford to buy some, by adding smaller packs, of 2’s and 5’s, or selling single cigars, in stylish metal tubes. All of these would be passed around in the pub, or at family parties.

Offering cigarettes to guests was as natural as offering tea, food, or alcohol, and it was often the role of the children of the house to make this gesture, while the adults chatted and made small-talk. I recall an onyx cigarette box, with matching table lighter and ashtrays. In my mid teens, I would offer this around to callers at the family home, and light the cigarettes of those who took one. Pipes are almost unseen these days. Then, pipe smoking was common, and a good pipe was an expensive item, frequently given as a gift upon Retirement, or when reaching a birthday of a certain age.

There were few distinctions on smoking between the classes, except perhaps for the brand of cigarette, the cost of it, or how it was smoked. Richer people, celebrities, and a lot of women, would use a cigarette holder. This came from the days before filter tips, when the paper, or small bits of tobacco, would stick to the lips, and lipstick would smear the end of the cigarette. In my circles, using a holder was considered very upper class, or effeminate, depending on the person. Smoking was not discouraged amongst the young. Some men felt that boys should be smoking by the time they were 14, or at least have tried their first cigarette by then. It was seen as a rite of passage, along with your first glass of beer, and losing your virginity. Is it any wonder then, that by the age of 16, I was desperate to become a smoker?

There were two main reasons why I had not started before. Although cigarettes were affordable to all, by comparison with today’s prices, I didn’t really have a lot of money, as I had decided to stay on at school. More importantly, I was afraid that I would cough, or smoke in a funny way, fail to be an accomplished smoker, and let the side down. I resolved that during the coming summer holidays of July 1968, I would buy some cigarettes, and give it a try, teach myself to smoke when there was nobody around.

I had already decided which brand to try. Benson and hedges, in the gold packet that looked like an ingot. Luxury personified, and King Size, so marginally longer than most cigarettes. They had a filter too, so would not be as harsh as the still popular ‘Plain’ , or non-tipped brands. I bought 10 cigarettes, and a box of matches. There was no question that the shopkeeper would serve me, as there was no age restriction on the sale of anything. A small child going to buy sweets would often be given the extra money to bring home cigarettes for their parents.

This was a time when a child could buy fireworks, knives, or anything that they had the money to pay for. I went home, and lit my first cigarette. I decided to read the previous weekend’s copy of the ‘Sunday Times’ newspaper as I smoked it. This somehow seemed appropriate. I had been studying every adult I knew for the last ten years. I knew how to smoke, what to do, how to hold it, even when to flick off the ash. And there I was, no coughing or choking, no ‘going green’ and vomiting. I was pleasantly light headed, felt totally relaxed, and enjoyed the whole experience. I was now a smoker. I had chosen a path that would affect my future, cost me untold thousands of pounds, and ultimately be responsible for my demise. I couldn’t care less. I was finally like everyone else. I could pass my cigarettes around to friends, and freely accept those offered to me. I would no longer be the outsider, the teenager who didn’t smoke, the only male I knew, over the age of 15, who wasn’t part of the mainstream. I had arrived.

At first, I didn’t let on to my parents that I had started smoking. In fact, I did not smoke openly in front of them for some years. This may seem a contradiction, after all the reasons I gave to want to start smoking but it had dawned on me that it would be too expensive to be perceived as a smoker. I would have to keep up with my parent’s phenomenal smoking rate, accepting and offering cigarettes with the same frequency that they were used to. I just wouldn’t be able to afford it.

If this all seems strange to the reader in 2012, you may have to look into the archives, watch some old films, or newsreels, to get some understanding of how smoking was just a part of life back then. Watch any footage of The Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) from the 1930’s, through to the 1970’s. You will almost never see him without a cigarette in his hand, or hanging from his lips. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Princess Margaret was usually seen smoking, as were other members of the Royal Family. Churchill, with his cigar, Roosevelt with his cigarette holder, Stalin with his pipe or Russian cardboard cigarette. These men won the War, so we were told, and they were all, always, smoking.

Every person of importance, every Film Star, or leading actor and actress, Television presenters, popular entertainers, politicians, soldiers, airmen, sailors, even some sportsmen. They all smoked. In the case of Film Stars and actors, they also endorsed cigarettes, appearing in advertisements for different brands. Product placement was widespread, as cigarette packets were being shown in every film or television programme. Even in historical films, set in the time before smoking was so common, you would see someone smoking a clay pipe, or a cowboy rolling a cigarette from what looked like newspaper and dust. If they could have got away with it, they would have had ‘Ben Hur’ lighting up after the chariot race. In war films, everyone smoked. Cigarettes, and their availability would be part of the narrative.

Brands would also be mentioned. ‘Give me a Lucky’, a reference to the American brand ‘Lucky Strike’, was a common line in film scripts. German prisoners would ask for cigarettes, then declare with a huge grin, ‘American tobacco-good’. Red Indians and U.S. Cavalry would smoke peace-pipes, with the wise old chiefs thinking for a while, then, upon exhaling a cloud of smoke, they would also say ‘ your tobacco-good’. Wounded soldiers, in films or in actual newsreels filmed at the front, would be given a cigarette before a bandage. Anyone due to be executed would always request a ‘last cigarette’; the most important thing that they could think of to do before death, was to enjoy that last smoke.

The advertising employed by the big tobacco companies had to be seen to be believed. Anyone who was not around at that time would be amazed at the quality and concentration of it. With the advent of commercial television, tobacco advertising had found its true home. Mini feature films, many years ahead of the pop video, extolled not only the benefits of a particular brand, but also the coolness and desirability of smoking. There had always been the hoardings and the newspapers but these were nothing compared to the opportunities that the film and TV industry opened up to the advertisers.

Like many of my generation, I can still recall the jingles, and the catchphrases, the individual scenes, and the association with brand colour, that dominated the world of advertising before the ban. Brands had a market that they aspired to, as much as consumers had a brand that they identified with. Rothmans and Peter Stuyvesant had airline associations. Jets arriving, pilots checking watches, lighting cigarettes for attractive hostesses in bars. Marlboro had a rugged image. The Marlboro Man, a modern cowboy, riding into the scorching sun of south western America. Some brands played on their name. Guards used cigarettes as cartoon Guardsmen, complete with bearskin hats. Senior Service traded on the association with the Royal Navy, using animated cigarettes playing the part of a crew on a sailing ship.

Some were less direct. The famous cinema advertising campaign for Benson and Hedges showed no cigarettes at all. It featured lizards, swimming pools, abstract images, with just a tantalising glance of a gold packet, in there somewhere. The importance of all this money spent on advertising cannot be stressed enough. Like a Pavlovian dog, I now recognise red and white as Marlboro, black and gold as John Player Special, green and white as Consulate, gold as Benson and Hedges, blue and white as Rothmans. I don’t ever need to see the packet, or catch sight of a cigarette. I am brand aware, until my dying day. Try to imagine the ‘Thriller ‘ video, with Michael Jackson smoking, and recommending a brand. Or Duran Duran all lighting up on the deck of the sailing ship, with the brand name emblazoned on the sail, and you may have some idea what I am on about.

None of the above is offered as an excuse, or an apology for being a smoker . I am well aware that many thousands of others, subjected to the same imagery, bombarded with the same advertising, or watching the same films, chose not to smoke. In many cases, it did not even occur to them to try. I had always wanted to smoke, and everything else was just confirming to me that it was a good idea.

At the time, most non-smokers that I met seemed pretty dull. All the people I wanted to be like, or to look like, or to be with, were smokers. Cliff Richard didn’t smoke but Jimi Hendrix did. Most pop groups would smoke live on stage, tucking the lit cigarette into the strings of their guitar as they played a solo. The biggest star entertainers of the day, like Frank Sinatra, smoked on stage, on TV, and in interviews. All the hard men and lovers in films smoked, and the non-smokers didn’t get the girl, or kill the bad guy. Look at the Spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood as the man with no name, chewing a cheroot, unstoppable, impossible to kill.

When I later joined the Ambulance Service in London, smoking had started to become less popular. Many of my colleagues had never smoked, and for the first time, I found myself in a minority in the workplace. However, I needn’t have worried, as I soon discovered that most of the Doctors and Nurses I met were heavy smokers, so I would have plenty of company for what became known here as ‘fag breaks’. I then recall hearing something about the stopping of sport sponsorship by the big tobacco companies. Then, there was talk of smoking being banned on all public transport, and airlines. Restaurants and cinemas started to have ‘smoking sections’, and companies began to make smokers use ‘designated areas’.

Civil Litigation had crossed the Atlantic, and every big company and organisation was getting worried. Could someone sue a place where I once worked, because they had allowed me to sit smoking, next to someone who later developed breathing difficulties? If someone saw an advertisement for tobacco at a football match, decided to smoke for 40 years, then died of lung cancer, who could the family sue? Suddenly, smoking was the new Leprosy. Places to smoke started to disappear fast, those havens falling like dominoes. Transport and planes, gone. Restaurants, gone. Public Buildings and staff rest areas, gone.

Then came the final indignity for the poor smoker. The British (and Irish) pub, traditional home of the smoker since tobacco arrived from the New World, gone. This was probably one step too far. The pubs have gone too. Thousands closing all over the Country, few new ones opening. The ones that still manage to keep going can be spotted by the fact that most of their customers are standing outside, smoking. The pavements of Central London, on any given evening, are blocked by the crowds smoking outside bars. Fun people smoke. Lots of drinkers like to smoke, and the vacancies left behind by the expulsion of the smokers, have not been filled by the non-smokers who complained in the first place. Pubs have pretty much become restaurants that serve drinks now, and one day soon they will be consigned to history, along with ashtrays on the back of bus seats.

A life spent smoking for 44 years. I tried all brands, then settled on the American style of Marlboro/Lucky Strike after all. With the exception of my wife, and my step-children, I hardly know anyone who smokes anymore. Strangely, few of those now gone died of smoking related problems, though my poor Mum suffered many years of breathing problems as a result of her lifetime of smoking. The taxation on cigarettes is making them harder and harder to afford. The cost of two of us smoking far exceeds our weekly grocery bill. As we have moved to a different house, we have decided to smoke in just one room. Otherwise, nobody will ever visit us again.

Former smokers amongst our friends seem to find it the most difficult. As for visiting anyone else’s home, be prepared to smoke outside, away from the doors, in any weather. If they get their way, the authorities will soon ban smoking in all Public Areas, even outside. A further ban in private cars will follow, and then your own home, probably for insurance reasons, you will be told.

If the Government really wanted people not to smoke, they could just ban the sale of cigarettes completely, destroy all the stock, and forbid the importation of tobacco. They won’t do that though, they have too many friends in the big Tobacco companies, and they need the untold millions in tax revenue. Truth is, smoking is not on a national decline. There are still around 15 million smokers, about 1 in 4 of the population. This is a smaller figure than in the 1970’s but still significant . It is more common in working class areas, and is increasing in popularity with young women. This is all probably a bad thing. I don’t pretend that smoking is not detrimental to your health, and I have to accept the very real possibility that I will die of something awful that is smoking related.

However, the Government has to realise that banning something in places, not allowing the product to be seen, and not permitting it to be advertised, it a sure way of making it seem more attractive to the young. In my day, I was proof that advertising and familiarity caused me to smoke. In years to come, it may well be that the opposite is true, and the youngster of today starts smoking because it is unseen, frowned on by their elders and betters, and it has become cooler than ever.

Got to go now, I really need a cigarette after all that.