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Noël Coward, the epitome of English cool

If the unholy triumvirate of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were to recruit a fourth horseman to its latterday legion of the apocalypse then I guess cigarettes could saddle up quite neatly. In British English, to retain something of the syntax of the saying, we’d probably make it sex and fags and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but Americans might just find that version a little bemusing for reasons that need scant explanation. Slang just doesn’t always carry across the ocean.


But, whatever we call them — over here they’ve been dubbed tabs or smokes or ciggies or even coffin nails — much of the last century attached a definite élan to cigarettes and those who use them. Gangsters and jazzmen, socialites and soldiers, detectives and deviants, high-flying sophisticates and gutter-snipe rebels filled their lungs and the air around them with plumes of blue smoke. Yet the age of the cigarette as signifier of the sensual, the urbane, the cosmopolitan, may almost have passed.


In recent weeks the great Hollywood screen-writer Joe Esterhaz, the man behind such screen sensations as Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct, has been voicing his own heartfelt plea against the dangers of smoking tobacco. Admitting that he has made a reputation shaping movie heroes who all too often use the cigarette as a symbol of cool, he now expresses, in Damascene tones, his deep regret that his screen creations have sustained the cult of the smoker.


Why should Esterhaz turn gamekeeper after running with the poachers for so long? Sad to say, Joe has fallen prey to a form of throat cancer connected to his own lengthily practised, now abandoned, routine. And, it is said, there is no better advocate for the forces who preach abstention than the ex-addict who learns the all too real consequences of his habit.


The film industry has played a huge part in glamorising objects of desire, and not always ones that are going to do us any good. In the 1930s, diamonds were granted an enduring allure by careful placing in films of the day. Cigarettes, too, then quite unrelated to the spectre of disease or death, were given a similar starring role in moving pictures watched by billions around the globe. Just as the lustre of diamonds became forever associated with romance, so lighting up was connected to notions of worldly, self-assurance.


So, it is hardly surprising that those messages, expertly communicated by the master marketeers of the day — men like Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays — had a lasting impact on our culture. By the 1960s, most of us in the West were happy to mix our pleasure with those curling clouds that choked our cafes, bars and theatres.


Several decades on, of course, the picture had changed dramatically. While the UK has not pursued the blanket bans of, say, California, it has nonetheless taken widespread steps to marginalise, if not outlaw, the cigarette user. Most trains and buses, all cinemas and many restaurants have imposed an outright ban on the practice, although our public houses retain a more liberal view of the habit.


But old obsessions die hard and I have been reminded of this — as a non-smoker, I ought to confess — in the last month or so. I’ve been at two major concerts in large halls where smoking was not permitted but the vestiges of the cigeratti have been unwilling to go down without a fight, if a scowling, rather surreptitious one, a flickering glow guiltily cupped in palm.


At Bob Dylan, in Manchester in May, then at Elvis Costello, in Edinburgh in August, a few burning dots in the darkness, like red stars in the night sky, provided memories of a time when cigarettes were an inevitable part of the rock experience. Like beer and dope, tobacco was also an omnipresent flavour at a live gig.


One individual who kept the nicotine standard raised to the last was a rocker who uniformly ignored smoking bans wherever he roamed. John Entwistle of the Who made a reputation as a man who played bass with a nonchalant ease but also managed to puff his way through many a cigarette while on stage. His death in June, from a heart attack, marked a premature end to a notable career. Yet it is hard to believe that the fatal surge that finished him off, at 57, was not associated, in some way, with his predilection.


Shortly after he passed away I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room reading, inevitably, a dog-eared magazine from the previous year. The journal was Punch, a famous old publication with roots in the 19th century, which ceased trading in the 1980s but came back in the late 1990s only to fizzle out again earlier this year. Its re-launch, masterminded by Harrod’s boss Mohamed al-Fayed, had re-located the comic magazine as a bastion of middle-aged resistance, a reactionary voice-piece for readers who had outgrown the sparky irreverence of its younger cousin Private Eye. In keeping with this house-style, Punch ran a regular column entitled “Sharing an ashtray with Š”, an unfashionable celebration of the smoker’s art.


In the issue I read prior to my dental check-up, George Bush, a target for our satirists, too, stared out from the cover, under a headline that read “When Howdy met Saudi”. But the celebrity filling his ashtray in this particular edition was John Entwistle himself, and what a committed adherent to the practice he proved to be.


“I started smoking on stage when they told me I couldn’t. I always thought:‘I’m going to what I want’. I’ve played a lot of non-smoking coliseums but nobody has ever told me I couldn’t light up,” he explained rather petulantly. “Nobody’s going to stop me smoking”, he added, complaining that “hardly anyone I know still smokes. The current generation of musicians are getting paranoiac about smoking”.


Sadly, while nobody might have stopped him smoking, something eventually did. I suppose when Townshend and co pleaded “Hope I die before I get old”, surviving into their late 50s wasn’t exactly one of the subjects on the agenda. But time moves on and Entwistle was far from an old man when he died, on the eve of a major band tour. He was though a relic, perversely proud to the last, of an era when to smoke was to be in step, when no self-respecting rock star would be any less than the all drinking, all smoking roisterer.


I hope, John, they do have celestial ashtrays in the next place. Or maybe that’s flawed thinking. Perhaps we should hope instead that the heavenly host who opens the doors to the eternal city is now working on the Esterhaz principle and has added a “no smoking” sign to the gates.

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