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Smoking Ruins

Canadian soldier lighting German prisoner's cigarette, Passchendaele, Nov. 1917.  Photo (partial) found on Eport War

Canadian soldier lighting German prisoner’s cigarette, Passchendaele, Nov. 1917.  Photo (partial) found on Eport War

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Smoking Ruins

George Bowling’s Churchill-like cigar-smoking sets the scene for a meditation on the hazy future of Britain, the smoke becoming a metaphor for the mystical process of seeing into the future.

As in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell’s fellow soldiers in Homage to Catalonia build up trust and camaraderie through the act of smoking and sharing cigarettes. In one scene describing the street fighting after the Communist takeover of Barcelona’s telephone exchange, Orwell gratefully acknowledges the “small act of heroism” performed by a fellow militiaman, who is able to procure two packs of Lucky Strikes during the fighting.

Later, Orwell shows that camaraderie among smokers apparently trumps the ideologies that the war is being fought over, as he shares tobacco with a wounded Assault Guard, part of an outfit Orwell had battled against. “He was friendly and gave me cigarettes. I said: ‘In Barcelona we should have been shooting one another,’ and we laughed over this.’”

Fighting and smoking in Spain took an enormous toll on Orwell’s already fragile health. He developed a nasty case of bronchitis, which caused him to hack up blood and sent him into a hospital for several months. At the hospital, it was confirmed that he had tuberculosis, as well as bronchiectasis of the left lung and fibrosis of the right. This news did not cause him to quit smoking, but it did help him come up with an idea for a new novel, which he hoped to write as he convalesced. It would be called, most fittingly, Coming Up for Air.

cover art

Coming Up for Air

George Orwell

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Oct 1969)

Coming Up for Air would be something of a departure for Orwell, who seemed of a mind to turn inward—to himself and to the more innocent England of his youth, a place he prophetically saw as endangered by the coming world war. There are only a few smoking scenes in Coming Up for Air, but they each represent an important facet of the story, in which a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman named George Bowling takes a vacation from family life in order to revisit the countryside of his youth.

Bowling smokes cigarettes out of habit, and cigars when he wants to celebrate or think deeply about something. Often, Bowling’s Churchill-like cigar-smoking sets the scene for a meditation on the hazy future of Britain, the smoke becoming a metaphor for the mystical process of seeing into the future. Smoke also comes to represent Bowling’s fears that England will be destroyed in the coming war, the fumes of his cigar suggesting the smoking ruins that would come to dominate the urban landscape of England after the 1940 Blitz bombings, which occurred only three months after Coming Up for Air was published.

Just as smoking helps Bowling visualize the future, it also connects him to his past, as when he looks up an old flame named Elsie, and finds her working (where else?) in a tobacco shop. As an excuse to observe her, Bowling follows Elsie into the store and asks for a pipe, even though he has no use for one. As she hands him a pipe, their fingers touch briefly, yet Bowling feels “no kick, no reaction.” The past is gone, Bowling finds—up in smoke.

As Orwell predicted in Coming Up for Air, real-life England was soon embroiled in World War II, which brought with it paper shortages and financial trouble for book publishers. Orwell, who had yet to make much money on his novels, turned to writing film reviews, columns and essays for periodicals.

Orwell was a prolific and gifted essayist, but he wrote very little about tobacco in that form. His one essay that deals with the subject, “Books vs. Cigarettes”, compares the amount spent on cigarettes with the amount spent on books by the average working-class Brit. The essay, which really has little to do with smoking, makes the case to factory workers that reading is not an expensive hobby.

The case is made well enough, but perhaps more interestingly, “Books vs. Cigarettes” gives a concise record of Orwell’s own tobacco consumption. Orwell in 1946 states that he smokes six ounces of Player’s tobacco a week, spending 40 pounds a year to sustain the habit, 15 pounds more than he spends on reading material. With most hand-rolled cigarettes containing about a gram of tobacco each, Orwell must have smoked close to 170 cigarettes a week, a little more than a pack per day. 

Not a wise pastime for someone in as poor health as Orwell, yet there is evidence that he felt unable to write without cigarettes. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, a largely autobiographical character, says “he could no more write without tobacco than without air.” In another 1946 essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”, Orwell describes his reviewing process as one where “the room grows colder and colder while the cigarette smoke gets thicker and thicker.” With smoking tied in his mind to writing, it’s no wonder he continued the habit, even while his lungs turned black and feeble.

Josh Indar is a recovering journalist who currently writes novels and short stories. He lives in a little college town in Northern California, where he tutors homeless & foster youth and plays in a band called Severance Package. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. email:

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