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Revisiting a pack of fond memories

ANYONE out there still smoke?

If so, I salute your indefatigability (though I may deny saying that later).

News wafts up our nostrils that top medical experts Asda are working with Her Majesty's Nationalist Government to help smokers quit. I mustn't mock Asda. The move seems well motivated and, for the record, they do a good curry.

It's just that I got to thinking: who still smokes? All my friends used to, as did I. None of us does now. It's extraordinary really. To think we all used to do something so irrational.

But lately my friends and I have become nostalgic for smoking. We didn't do it like sad addicts in an opium den. We all said that, actually, we enjoyed it.

How so? Broken down, it is, like much of human life, absurd. We burn some vegetation in a little stick and inhale the smoke for a hard-to-define pleasure that involves making the breath visible. Neat trick in a way, though arguably tiresome when repeated 20 times a day.

Ah, but there was more to it than that. There was the way it made you narrow your eyes, for a start, giving you a shrewd outlook on the world.

Smoking encouraged you to look mistily into the distance. And where do misty distances lead? That's right: to philosophy. Smoking made you think.

A health expert spits out his Asda curry and objects: "It didn't make everybody think. I don't want to sound snooty, but many smokers were and remain from the lower classes. Their smoking was of a bovine nature."

Smoking ruminants aside, that's a fair point, even if its accompanying curry-spit has stained my shirt front. All the same, however tenuous, the link between smoking and thought remains. True, in many cases, the thought may have less to do with epistemology and more with the 2:30 at Kempton Park. But a thought is a thought is a thought. At least I think it is.

Apart from which, the pack in your pocket was a personal salve. A comfort. Didn't matter where you were in the world, or how stressful your situation, you could reconnect to your inner self by fondling that packet, removing one of the sticks and, literally, taking a breather. But it was a breather that left you short of breath.

Asthmatics aside, breath isn't a problem when young. We've bags of the stuff. Smoking helps turn it into hot air, of which there is much to expend in the teenage years.

In that uncertain time, it's important to belong. There's a desperate urge to conform, preferably with non-conformists, and smoking provided a small bond with others. You could pacify a bully with a fag. You could get a bird.

By the time I was growing up, in the grey 1970s, the established truth of a health threat made fags a forbidden fruit, and therefore all the sweeter.

For many years, smoking was the only hobby I had. Had there been night classes in the subject, I'd have signed up. I smoked roll-ups too, with their suggestions of purity and self-reliant craftsmanship.

Meanwhile, I took writing (of sorts; small-w writing) for a vocation, often as not unpaid (and unwanted), and could not conceive of spewing forth volcanic musings in the absence of fag ash.

But all good things, like life itself, must be stubbed out. And, in the end, only those with a death wish smoked.

Yonder hero, who still stands there alone with a fag, who is he? A thrawn sort perhaps, saying eff-you to the suffocating world of common sense. There's a form of freedom in smoking. Your life. Your death.

Alberto Moravia wrote: "It is what we are forced to do that forms our character, not what we do of our own free will." Common sense forces you to stop smoking.

One of Moravia's characters compared her unfulfilled plans to the contents of an ashtray. Billy Connolly used a similar analogy for life: "full of little douts."

No doubt about it, though: smoking is a peculiar pastime. Pricey too at seven quid a packet. You could get two Asda curries for that.

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