I started smoking in 1976; I was 18 and it was the Spring Term of my first year at University, and I was in love with a boy called Tony. I had never been in love before and while Tony was not in love with me, he was very kind and I was his friend. He and I were sitting in a pub on the south side of Edinburgh, trying not to drink too fast because we had no money and it was 6pm. He was smoking and he offered me a cigarette. They were Embassy, the packet with the red stripe, traditionally known as ‘Embassy tipped’ in order to differentiate them from the blue-striped packet of Embassy Regal, which were really nasty.
I had never, ever smoked a cigarette before. I had friends at school who smoked; the toilets at Heriot’s in the early 70’s were called the ‘individual smoking cubicles’, but I had never taken that chance. But here, tonight, with this boy I loved, I thought, now is the time to try; you will hate it and it will make you sick; when you are sick, try not to vomit on Tony’s lovely embroidered cheesecloth shirt or his perfect jeans. I had probably had two half pints of lager and lime, so I took the proffered fag. And I loved it. I did not cough and Tony’s alluring outfit remained unscathed. I felt grown up and relaxed and sexy, so I had another and the next day I bought my first packet of ten, intending they should last a week, and the next day ten more, and then oooh…40,000 or so more before I stopped. For the first time.
40,000. I graduated from Embassy Tipped to Benson and Hedges in their lovely gold packet. Then Consulate, a lengthy menthol phase which was to be repeated much later. Dunhill when I was flush, and, on certain special occasions, Sobranie cocktail cigarettes, the beautiful packet, with its wholly gay contents, each cigarette a different pastel shade. Once, very drunk and very cold, I came home in my dinner suit to my student flat in Marchmont, and was found the next morning asleep, sitting in a rocking chair in front of the gas fire with the remains of a pink cigarette cold in my hand. Occasionally a Gitanes, which were of course very cool, but which I never liked. Stephanie brought back duty free Ducados from Spain, which were as rough as rough, like Marlboro but thirteen times stronger. Puff puff puff. Then I stopped.
In 1989 I had my appendix out – it all happened very suddenly. I went to school, then went to the doctor, then went to the hospital where I was kept in. All I had was the contents of my pockets, but my parents, of course, rallied. Five days later, still in the Eastern General Hospital, I cheerily entertained some debaters from the school who came to practise their speeches. The nurses thought this amusing and two of the other patients entered the argumentative fray and were beaten senseless by these two very clever 15 year olds.
The Eastern General was a dying institution, even then. On Day Six, due to be released the next day, I thought it was time for a fag and, of course, had some in my pocket. There was a smoking room along the corridor to which I repaired. It was disgusting, the walls coated with amber tar and the ashtrays never emptied. It smelled like death and there were, of course, dying men and women in it, smoking away. Then one of the nurses from my ward came looking for me; my boss had come to visit. She could not, she said, believe that I was sitting there smoking. These boys had come to visit me yesterday; what kind of an example was I? She was so genuinely sad that I gave my remaining cigarettes to a young man with learning difficulties who hung around asking everybody for cigarettes and I didn’t smoke again. Until.
Four years later, I am in the basement flat of a hotel in Newington; come to think of it I can only have been quarter of a mile from the pub where lovely Tony tempted me with the nicotine apple. I am with a group of former pupils, one of whose parents owns the hotel. We are drinking a bit and they are all smoking. One of them expresses a desire to take a picture of me with a cigarette in my mouth, and I allow that, taking a drag or two as I do so. Then I smoke, off and on, for a further 23 years, not necessarily all the time, and not necessarily many in any one day, but let’s say, conservatively, 75,000 cigarettes.
75,000. Then it’s 2016, and I have cause to have a medical – I am the Principal of Heriot’s and the school doctor gives me a diamond level examination. She is, by coincidence, an old friend whom I took on a school trip (different school) in 1987; so when she tells me off, she really goes for it. My chest has always been a bit rubbish; even smoking four cigarettes a day (the half lie I have told her, four being my daily limit, almost always exceeded) condemns me to emphysema, CPD and all other chronic chest ailments, not to mention the increased risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer. I am taken with her passion, and promise to stop. But not today, Lord.
However, a few days later, Mr F and I attend a wedding. It is a lovely wedding, a tea party in a tent; we have an excellent time but we are not warm and the next day both have colds, which turn into chest infections. Mr F’s goes away, but mine does not. I am not just quite so stupid or selfish to smoke when I can’t breathe, and I made it a rule, back then, to suffer a week of not smoking before I sought medical advice for anything to do with my chest. And this time, this time, miraculously, I simply don’t start again, with the doctor’s voice in my ear. Thank you, Allison. And no cigarette has touched my lips since September 16th 2016. It will be five years soon. This abstinence, plus, of course, retirement, and a warning about blood sugar, makes me likely fitter now than for twenty years. I realise the danger that these will be famous last words.
On the day I retire, I speak to the Senior School. I tell them three things in leaving them, these precious, special, shiny boys and girls – to try to be yet kinder; to seek to do a job they love, as I have. But they don’t, I suspect, notice these two because I start by asking them never to smoke. Since this entails revealing that I have, in the fairly recent past, been a smoker, and been one for a long time, this is a bit of a sensation. I say to them that if there is a single person among them, who as a result of my asking them not to, doesn’t start smoking, I will, on the last day of my career, have done the most important thing in it. This is neat rhetoric, I think, but also true. Of course, most of them are far too clever to take up smoking anyway, but I like to think there’s maybe…one…for whom it made a difference.
I like the new New Zealand model, the object of which is to eliminate smoking entirely in that lovely country in thirty years. As from a certain date this year, it will be illegal for anyone under 18 to smoke. On the same date next year, the age will go up to 19 and so on. The Scottish Government has shown a real willingness to tackle our country’s terrible health issues (though drugs are another story) so maybe when we are independent – or possibly before – they could try that model. Smoking is a horrible, addictive thing and it should be stopped.
And because of this I miss it. I think that if I am ever given a terminal diagnosis, the first thing I will do is buy some fags. If I am hit by a bus, my last thought will be of Mr F, shortly after my second last, which will be that I could have continued smoking for all those years. This filthy, deadly habit is so engrained that I will, of course, always be an ex-smoker rather than a non-smoker. And, incidentally, I don’t blame anyone but myself and the tobacco companies.