Innocent in Australia

A Scot down and under in Melbourne

Smoking in Australia: why Bach is the new black

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These days I wake up in darkness, fumble my way down a Fallopian-tube corridor, hair sticking up; I bumble into the office room, collapse into chair and whack “bach g string” into the YouTube search box.

I hit the arrow and sit back, just for a second, to let the music wash over me … Then Son-One shouts “dad daddy daaad”, and Son-Two … oooohhhh, yawn; and so the day begins, spilling over with pathos, bathos and whoever the third Musketeer was …

I’m not normally a man for Baroque classics, but I do like Bach’s Air on the G String. These past few early mornings, at least. It’s the blackness, the rain pelting against the windows (what do you think this is, Melbourne? Fricking Aberdeen?). I need something to soothe.

The G string, I’ve found, goes well with muesli and is incredibly family-friendly (Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 kids, incidentally, although 10 died in early infancy).

I find myself whistling it in the street when no-one’s around – the melody, the harmony, the droopy, descending bassline …

For purely auditory reasons, those old Hamlet cigar TV ads from UK have been on my mind, too; particularly the one with Gregor Fisher as the Baldy Man.

He goes into a photo booth, pastes his comb-over into position and poses mock-seductively for the camera; impatient, he leans forwards twice, missing the flash – kaboom – and getting increasingly riled. The third time, his seat collapses at exactly the wrong moment. PMSL, did you say? Next thing, he’s spitting a thick plume of smoke upwards to the strains of Bach.


The message is simple: sadness, frustration and carbon monoxide are all facts of life, but happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.

You have to wonder why Japan Tobacco called these cigars Hamlet. Was it to piggyback on the supposed greatness of will.i.am Shakespeare, or so that orange-fingernailed men in smoke-filled bookies could reflect upon the Danish prince?

And, if so, which aspect of his story? Procrastination (of the sort one employs when chewing a cigar and placing bets) will ultimately end in a premature, thoroughly avoidable, death, thanks to poison being introduced to one’s system; for good measure, your mum will ingest it, too, and your dad … well, he’ll get it in the ear. Happiness is an obscure poison called hebenon.

Jacques Loussier’s jazzy version of Bach’s G string was maybe just there to lift the mood.

Or could it be, as Freud joked to a student, that “sometimes a cigar is just a (mild) cigar”?

The UK’s ban on tobacco advertising in 1991 put paid to the Hamlet series, although it coughed its way through cinemas until 1999. That seems inconceivable now – such is the power of absence …

Ditto:

Smoking in pubs.

Smoking on buses.

Smoking in hospitals.

Smoking at the opera.

These high-culture associations still persist in Australia, where a pack of so-so smokes costs upwards of $18 (£12) – you have to be proper posh to maintain the habit. And a real art lover: the packs come with pictures to die for.

A close-up photo of advanced-stage mouth cancer, with blistered lips and pustulating sores, is one of my favourites; it’s a toss up between that and the socks-off, smile-for-the-camera gangrenous foot – who knew gangrene had such a rich colour palette? It’s quite extraordinary; those little black piggies hang on all the way to market …

Because the accompanying brand design gets in the way of these images, plans are now well in motion for plain cigarette packaging; the artworks, on a luscious backdrop of olive green and “poo brown”, will be far more connoisseur-friendly.

The brand name will still be there, but in a utilitarian sans-serif font. In time, smokes will be known only by their artwork, which (for copyright issues?) is hidden from sight in stores behind little black cat flaps. Can I have Brown Lung? Dying Girl? Clogged Puss Artery? Prized-open Eye?

The big wigs at Big Tobacco are less than chuffed, wheezing, sorry wheeling, out their big guns, smoking hot, to stamp out this move before it gets going. You’d think they’d struggle to find a consistent argument … And yet, there they go, emphysemasising the same point time and again, hacking up the same black gobs, spitting in the face of reason … Angry, did you say? They’re phlegming furious …

Plain packaging will, undercough, sorry, cut, the ability of responsible baccy merchants to price their wares fairly; in turn, we’ll see a deluge of “chop-chop” (illegal tobacco) in Australia, and, you know, cough, erm … oh yeah, young people will buy the fakes instead and … cough, cough, it’s just, cough, excuse me, it’s, oh … Oncolo … gee, wheeze, I mean whiz …

And this on the back of stupid TV ads that show people sneezing blood into handkerchiefs, crying snot. It’s a different way of doing glamour (a bit light on the humour for my liking) but, hey.

Not everyone supports the fact these ads are government-funded; they reckon they should keep their bloody noses out. When did repeatedly inhaling a potent cocktail of heavy, toxic metals ever hurt anyone? Sure, hydrogen cyanide was used in the Nazi gas chambers but FFS, hippies, war is war …

Actually, the nanny-state argument, especially coming from big smokey babies, is quite compelling: leave us to clean up our own chemo-induced mess; there’s nothing wrong with selling incontrovertibly carcinogenic products right next to the Chupa Chups; stop telling us what to do; where’s your Aussie belief in the fair glow?

Simon Chapman, of Sydney University, wants to introduce a license to smoke, limiting people to 20/40/60 cigarettes a day and charging incremental fees for the pleasure. Smokers would also have to pass a test “not dissimilar to a driving test” (fag, mouth, manoeuvre; three-point-burn; emergency stubb).

It’s a wild idea, but not without its disciples. As with the wheels-version, there would be a theory component to the license, which chain-smokers are referring to as “a Soviet‑style re‑education campaign”.

You can just imagine the poor darlings, shovelling snow in Siberia, their comrades falling over, their purple chilblained feet squeezed into roughly-hewn clogs.

Our smoker looks wistfully at his comrades Malborokov/cough and Peter Jacksonkov/cough, chained together like frozen lungs, before clambering frenziedly over a snow-rotting mound of bodies, resolved to escape or die trying.

And then sun breaks through the cloud.

Our gulag-hound falls to his knees and pulls a pin-striped prison cigar from his pea coat. The striking of a match on his emaciated ribcage coincides with the langorous bassline of Bach, the opening strains of the G string.

For the briefest moment, happiness seizes his soul.

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