Smoke & Mirrors

Grandpa smoking.

I’ve never smoked but I spent my childhood in smoky  rooms, surrounded by grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, all smoking.

Bronzed fingers, yellow nails, picking at cellophane and gold paper. Those fingers flicking at lighters, pressing a fresh cigarette to the orange glow of another already underway, or pushing one through the bars towards the orange-purple flames of a gas fire. Those fingers hooked around cigarettes, lifting them to lips that kissed me goodnight or spat into tissues to wash my sticky face.

The smoke itself had a warm smell of home, not the wholesome smell of a wood fire but sweeter and dirtier. Like an animal. It created its own fog, sepia toning as practical effect, until breathing was like chewing and my eyes ached and ran wet. And there was no escape: “Shut that window, it’s bloody knottling.”

There were ashtrays on tables, windowsills, the arms of chairs, all full of smooth grey dust and bent filter tips, some with lipstick stains. Ashtrays were souvenirs, gifts and ornaments — the lozenge of green and red glass, the magic machine with the button to open the trap, the porcelain Whitbread promotional piece the size of a toilet seat, the vintage car with the red plastic seats — and yet nobody could ever find one, which is how cigarette ended up in tea cups or the empty foil trays from Sunday’s jam tarts.

All the houses were tanned brown, nicotine jam on every smooth surface, from fireplace tiles to the smoked grey plastic lid of the Hi-Fi. Scrape it with a nail and it would come away, pleasingly, in curls. There were burns in odd places, like either the tracks of tiny meteors or wormholes, depending where and how the tip of the fag had landed.

Player's No 6.

Smoking was a mode of personal expression: Uncle Ernie’s meagre roll-ups, Grandpa Newman’s stubby naval non-filters, Dad’s attention-grabbing pipes, his mate Mark’s cigars, all made some sort of statement. Some brands were ladylike, others masculine, and everyone had a preference.

I asked my Grandpa Roland what he wanted for Christmas every year and he always gave the same reply: “Packet of fags.” (Players No. 6.)

We woke to morning coughs — to the sound of lungs trying break the belts that bound them with a hack, hack, hack, rattle and release, and then repeat. Later there were inhalers and oxygen tanks, and yet still cigarettes. Give up smoking or you will die, the doctors said, and most of my relatives looked from cigarette to doctor and back again, and took another drag.

I sometimes miss the smoke, the smell, and especially the smokers, happily smoking, sharing cigarettes to show their affection for each other, sitting in a cloud they made together.

But, like I say, I’ve never smoked.

The Comprehensive Club

The Comprehensive Club (exterior)

Do you know the Comprehensive Club on Pall Mall? It’s an extremely exclusive institution whose members are required to have attended a non-selective state school.

It’s housed in a plain brutalist building built in around 1964, and quite discreetly advertised. The bar is a pub, the restaurant a canteen, and instead of leather armchairs and grandfather clocks it’s all knackered but comfortable sofas, and plastic school chairs. There are TVs and lots of noise and if you want a cup of tea, there’s the kettle, make it yourself.

But for some reason – I’m vague on the details – membership is much sought after by posh types. They grovel and beg to be admitted but, no, they’re simply not the right sort of people. It sometimes seems as if the committee takes a perverse pleasure in humiliating them as it turns them down in favour of someone from one troubled council estate or another. The chair can sometimes be heard to mutter, “Taste of their own bloody medicine…”

"Guests must be signed in the visitors books at all times."

Other than the comprehensive school requirement, the rules are quite simple. First, only fifteen new members may join in any given year, based on their personal achievements, and bearing in mind the circumstances of their upbringing. Secondly, members must avoid wearing jackets, ties, black tie, gowns, or any other symbols of formality at any time. And, finally, it is a serious offence to do anything to belittle, embarrass or otherwise ‘lord it over’ (those are the words in the constitution) any other member. If someone wants to eat chips with their fingers, mind your own business.

But beyond that, despite having been a member for 25 years or so, I’m not entirely clear about how it all works – about the practical details. Where does the money come from? Surely the members can’t be expected to pay huge fees, unless it’s only for people who’ve somehow got rich, which would hardly be desirable. I’ve never been asked for a penny. Another thing: what does it offer that the real world doesn’t? Why not just go to the pub, or a café? And isn’t the idea of an exclusive club, even on these terms, just a bit… wrong?

Truth be told, I go there less often these days. I don’t need it as much as I did in my teens and twenties when I found it a refuge – somewhere my manners could never be too clumsy, my tastes never too crude – and, at the same time, a delicious means for exacting revenge against the public school set. In fact, as the weight on my shoulders has lifted, and the wounded creature that used to whisper in my ear has become less insistent, I sometimes wonder if the Comprehensive Club ever existed at all.

Clatter, Pop, Hiss, Clang

Industrial wasteland.
Bridgwater c.1999.

Through the scratched visor I can see my hands in heavy duty gauntlets fumbling another dented aerosol into the cradle and slamming down the handle. The nail on the end of the lever pierces the can and the gas escapes with a satisfying bang, followed by a nosebleed of Hammer Horror red as the penetrant dye inside leaks into the oil drum beneath. I give it a shake to release the last of the liquid and hurl the crumpled shell into the skip at my side with another pleasing sound – this time, a cymbal crash.

This was my summer job between school and sixth-form college – puncturing cans that for one reason or another hadn’t passed quality assurance – and I rather enjoyed it. For the first time in years, and for the only time for years to come, I didn’t have revision or reading to do, and the mindlessness of the task suited the state of my post-GCSE brain.

For a dorkish introvert like me the situation was perfect, too. I’d worked on the shop floor in the factory proper for several stretches and found the constant supervision and chatter more exhausting than the labour itself. Out in the yard, it was different. Once or twice a day the foreman would appear from the side door to ask me how it was going, or just give a questioning thumbs up; sometimes someone would turn up with a fork lift and dump another load of cans into the TO DO box, usually with obvious glee at my misfortune; but mostly I was left alone. Looking through a chain-link fence and out across blonde-tipped wild grass, I could breathe.

River scene in black and white.
View along the river Parrett to the Wylds Road Industrial Estate c.1997.

Well, breathe is the wrong word. I had to wear a forest green body suit, coarse on the inside and glossy out, to protect me from being sprayed with solvents. The mask preserved my eyes and also insulated me from the worst of the fumes, but meant I could hear myself respire, and had to peer through a warm fog of my own making. It was hot in there under the kind of summer sun I’m sure they cancelled after about 2001 and I sweated like tinned ham.

Because it was so hot, my favourites among the dinged and mislabelled cans were the ‘air dusters’ which when popped gave out a magical breath of cold wind, dusted my gloves with ice and chilled my fingertips.

Oddly, doing this job is the only time I’ve ever been high. At the end of the day I had to clean my suit, removing the grey, sticky layer created by one puff after another of solvent, dye, orange-scented label remover, varnish, lubricant, and any number of other goops and greases. I did this job in a stairwell using rags and a can of the firm’s strongest ‘degreaser’. My induction, which took about five minutes altogether, included a stern warning to do this with the door open, which having grown up on anti-glue-sniffing propaganda in the 1980s I took very seriously. But one day, somehow, the stop slipped and the door betrayed me, gliding soundlessly into its frame. Innocently, I kept spraying until the job was done, but when I stood up my legs had disappeared. I knew they were there, I could see them, but I was hovering above the ground. I smirked, then frowned, then giggled, then felt sick. I realised what had happened and drifted out on to the shop floor. Oddly, nobody noticed that I was levitating, though I was sure everyone was looking at me – all those eyes! I bobbed up to the first person who crossed my path and said, earnest as ever, ‘I think I’ve abused solvents by mistake.’ As they guided me outside, manoeuvring me like a loose barrage balloon, I oscillated between laughter and seasickness. I gave someone my Klix key, I think, which is how I ended up with a beige plastic cup of foul, powdery vending machine orange pop which definitely tipped the scale from hilarity to nausea. My legs rematerialised after a few minutes along with a crushing headache. I haven’t felt inclined to repeat the experience.

For months after I finished the job I dreamed about it – a looping cinemagraph of concrete and blue sky soundtracked by the distant digestive grumbling of the factory and the clatter, POP, hiss, clang of one can after another.