SMOKING | Blogging a dead horse

Blogging a dead horse

Is a barrel of naked monkeys more fun than a barrel of hairy ones?


Lawrence Gray decides that he needs a new vice!


I have reached an age where my life expectancy is less than the amount of time it takes for one’s bad habits to catch up with one. Statistically I should look forward to another fifteen years, possible twenty. I have failed to have a heart attack in my fifties or develop cancer in my sixties, so I figure that nothing short of skydiving will push me towards the wrong end of the bell curve. I feel like I could last another thirty years and for some reason thirty years seems a lot less depressing a prospect. Genetically speaking I am on pretty certain ground as my grandparents and parents died in their nineties even though, if my relatives are anything to go by, the last ten years of that could be in a state of frustration and constant doctors’ appointments. But that of course, won’t happen to me. I’m immortal.


So, given that my fate is pretty much assured, I thought I should take up some bad habits. Perhaps I should drink more. I am a good drunk. Other people when drunk are often not very good at it. Their benders end in arguments, violence and vomit. They also end up fat, wrinkled and looking for a liver transplant, but me? I become affable, not necessarily talkative, but capable of conversation with strangers and capable of being amused by other people’s wit, charm, looks, and outrageous opinions. Having seen videos of myself drunk I perhaps am not quite as rational as I believe myself to be, but without alcohol I am not social. I am solitary and irritated by other people. They interrupt the flow of my thoughts, never share my interests and all too often are not witty, beautiful, wise or charming. In fact all my miserable moments have been down to people! Mosquitoes are a close second, but insecticide is legal whereas homicide, not so much. But stick a few gins in me and humanity becomes beautiful. However, I already have my fair share of alcohol. My lockdown treat is a Friday night bottle of wine with my wife, but the main pleasure is a social one and merely sitting with the wife drinking seems less necessary. I already know she is beautiful, wise and witty and alcohol makes no difference.


So what other vice can I entertain? Gluttony? Well, yes. I like food, but I like drama and the sense of occasion of haute cuisine rather than junk food. Not that I could not murder a decent burger with blue cheese topping right now but I live in Malaysia where haute cuisine and decent junk food are rare findings. Every Malaysian however tells me that Malaysian food is the best in the world. This is where I need a decent slug of gin to stop myself from rolling my eyes and pointing out just how awful luke-warm, sodden shrimp paste-laden food is. If I had not lived in Asia for thirty years and pretty much eaten every kind of cuisine on the planet, I would doubt my judgement but no. So despite there being plenty of half decent seafood and Indian restaurants, Gordon Ramsay’s well-seasoned oeuvre just does not exist, thus gluttony here would be just about getting fat.


With food and booze off my list of life threatening vices, I’m left with smoking. There have been studies suggesting that nicotine staves off dementia, though maybe that is because ciggies kill off people before Alzheimer’s sets in. I have never been a smoker despite the teenage belief that casually flipping out a cigarette would impress teenage girls. A few puffs and all I felt was that I had inhaled smoke. The relaxant that nicotine was supposed to be, never kicked in and persevering merely made me sick. How this could be highly addictive was a mystery to me.


You would have thought that the amount of secondary smoke I must have inhaled by the time I reached adulthood primed me for a good addiction. My father sat in his armchair filling an ashtray while watching TV. My grandfather bellowed out huge swathes of smoke from his pipe. Christmas’s descended into a smoky haze as cigars were pulled out. And every cinema had an ashtray on the back of the seat full to the brim, and one was as fascinated by the smoke rising through the light as one was in Walt Disney’s cartoon dwarfs.


Despite its obvious popularity, smoking was eventually branded deadly and suitable only for the misfits who wanted to stand around back entrances hunched and puffing in the rain. It became uncool long after I had missed the moment when it would have been seen as a right of passage. But then the Shisha Bar came along where one could believe that bubbling smoke through water, somehow made it safe. Better still, the apple mint flavouring, the shiny glass bulb, and the ritual of some swivel hipped tanned Turk preparing the pipe, attracted women in droves. One now had a whole social scene resplendent with tapas and a room full of young women channelling Sex and The City and a super-model dress sense. If that had been my teen scene, and my granddad had stoked up a hubbly bubbly with his old shag, I would probably have succumbed to its charms.


Not that I did not try. The Shisha Bar hit Hong Kong when I was in my fifties and the vibe of a Shisha Bar found a role for me! I was a Mr Big on the block! I still did not care to inhale but I could at least puff on these contractions with no ill effect and with a jug of sangria I became wise, witty and the ever-approachable centre of attention of the bold and the beautiful. Even so, clouds of perfumed smoke were just that to me. Just smoke. The deep inhalation and satisfied slump that others took from the experience, never quite hit me. Wired energy was more my style, and for that matter, was the tone of most of my restless friends. Bursts of obsessive sleepless work coupled with a search for the next earner are the hallmarks of most freelance lives. Snooze and you lose, is the motto, but as I said, I am at a funny age. When I hit sixty we retired to Malaysia where laid back is considered too much effort and left me with bouts of twitchy indolence repurposed as YouTube projects awash with irony.


Other humans recommend things like meditation as a means of calming the troubled soul, but its woke comatose vibe just sets me off on a tirade against patronising entitled middle class virtue-signalling hypocrisy and I am chewing the carpet again. So I decided that despite my experience, I should seek the good smoke! The Shisha Bar had welcomed the fifty year old Silver Fox, and so, what would welcome the Grey Grizzly in his sixties? The slogan that
it is more than a cigar, it is a smoke, began to make sense. A cigar is supposed to encourage a calm appreciation of the good things in life. A cigar is an old man’s self-satisfied stance whilst on the brink of his well considered last and lasting contribution to the world. It gives one the mental strength to think of the final act and how to make it a masterpiece. Or something like that! But the only cigar I had tried had felt like inhaling the contents of an old mill chimney-stack, which was not a pleasant experience. YouTube came to the rescue though. I discovered that one is not supposed to inhale! Fantastic! And given the amount of nicotine in a cigar, one could suck up the smoke and let it deposit the drug in one’s mouth. Thus they were safer than cigarettes and on a par with shisha for a reasonably pleasant taste. I convinced myself that it was worth a try.


I purchased a box of cigars. The box looked very nice. The cigars had a substantial look and feel to them, though smelt somewhat like the contents of a horsebox, which perhaps was meant to be a comforting aroma resplendent of images of stallions frolicking on stud farms. At least that is what I told myself. So I braved that initial waft and worked out how to cut the ends and get a decent drawer from the things. I had Cuban cigars, which I understood to be the best, and had checked what to expect. I was supposed to relish the smell and the flavour, savour those chocolaty over tones, those hints of vanilla, a smidgen of hay, and then let the smoke slowly drift out of my nose to gain that sense of nirvana that a good smoke was meant to offer.


What the aficionados failed to mention is that when there was an inch of ash on the end, the slightest move sends a cascade of ash and sparks over one’s keyboard. And the flavours as mentioned never really emerged, no matter how much I tried to tell myself they existed. All I tasted was that ash. And the smoke seemed to go mostly into my eyes rather than anywhere useful. I persevered with the box and tried to convince myself there was a pleasant buzz around about the fifth puff though I could not be certain. What I could be certain was that a big cigar usually ended with a good clear out of the bowels, which might be a good thing given the enforced sedentary nature of my present lockdown life but it lacked what a vice has to have, Coolness and Style!


Maybe it was the type of cigar that I had, the type deemed suitable for beginners. So I stumped up the cash and got in some heavy duty, villainous looking things that I am sure that Winston Churchill must have left his teeth marks on. Well-matured and rank with nicotine, they were supposed to be the bee’s knees. I tried to imagine myself casually walking into a boardroom, lighting up a big one and projecting the sort of power that Lew Grade, cigar chomping British Media Mogul of the last century, must have projected. Maybe such power requires a steady sense of disappointment coupled with the grimace that a bitter flavour leaves one with. Where is the buzz? Where is the drug-induced lapse into pleasure?


How anyone can get addicted to this stuff is still a mystery to me. One can only assume that to appreciate them one really needs a big leather armchair in a Whitehall Club full of ministers of state who’s idea of fun is to parade about the moors waiting for some Scotsmen to waft a few grouse before their shotguns. The smoke they blow thus goes right up someone else’s backside and says “I burn money” and you little oiks run around doing as I say. That must be their appeal for the actual thing itself without all the accoutrements seems to me to be just a bundle of leaves that one sets fire to. Alas, the corridors of Imperial Power are somewhat closed to me and even if one merely carries an unlit cigar as some sort of badge of authority that might fool people, those days are long gone. And so, in the end, cigars are just not cool enough for me.


Which brings me to wondering what vice I can get addicted to? What pleasure am I missing out on that medical science has forbidden, or legislated out of the range of the masses? What thing has the requisite image that creates the self-satisfaction I crave? Alcohol, it would seem, is the only thing that actually works, though here in Malaysia it appears to be far more disapproved of than any of this dull and deadly puffing. But it only really does its job in a bar, and a bar of a certain high-end quality at that! And the damned things are closed and frankly there have never been that many that I felt enhanced my own little sense of self-worth. But if they were open, suddenly the image of a grey haired old geezer with a flat cap stuck in a corner with a pint of mild comes to mind rather than that of a man at the centre of something happening. And being at the centre of the action, that is the thing that is truly addictive. That is the thing one truly craves!


All suggestions for some suitable bad habits are welcome. My imagination has run out. I have no idea what is cool anymore. Nor who I should seek to impress. The wisdom of age has highlighted that everything is just a performance, and an actor needs a play, as some of my actor friends now bemoaning the closure of theatres would tell you! Dementia begins to look like a decent option. But before that I would like to try a double dose of Astro-Zenica, with the additional booster of young blood, otherwise I can see some TV news puff piece about an attention seeking Skydiving ancient looming on the horizon.