THE BLOG

My Smoking Shame

10/09/2014 11:30 BST | Updated 09/11/2014 10:59 GMT

One of the lowest points of my student career came in the early hours of the morning of Monday, January 21, 2013. I remember the date because, only a few hours earlier, I'd made a vow to give up smoking. No more one-offs, I'd told myself, and no more excuses. My new life as a non-smoker had begun and, to affirm my decision, I'd even stuffed the whole lot -tobacco, Rizlas, filters and my prized Zippo lighter - into the bottom of the kitchen bin, under a mass of crisp wrappers, vegetable peelings, and old teabags.

It came as something of a surprise, then, to find myself, at 2 o'clock in the morning, kneeling down in front of the same bin, quietly cursing as I sifted through layer upon layer of garbage to find all the things I'd so carefully buried. I laughed at the naivety of my earlier self. As if a little thing like a week's worth of rubbish could end my love of smoking.

For that's what it was: love. And, even after a year as a non-smoker, I'm still able to recall, with a distinct fondness, certain moments under the influence of this most unforgiving of habits. Like the time I ran out of both Rizlas and filters, and had to tear a page out of my Norton Anthology of Poetry to compensate, carefully dividing the page into Rizla-shaped pieces and lovingly rolling them, along with a few makeshift paper filters, into passable cigarettes before laying them out on the desk to dry. Or the time I tried liquorice papers for the first time, leaning against the wall and feeling like Johnny Depp whilst looking more like Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad.

There's only one thing these rose-tinted memories share: their inability to recall the driving force, the addiction, behind smoking; those memories of shivering in the rain in roofless smoking areas or of midnight walks to the petrol station or of having to repeatedly wash a smoke-infused hoodie.

I remember seeing a good example of smoking addiction in my first year of uni. It was assignment deadline day and I was posting my essay when one of my course mates walked in, looking miserable.

"What's up?" I said.

"Ran out of baccy with 1,000 words to go."

"Ah," I said, instantly sympathising.

For a smoker, at least for those I've known, writing without nicotine is much the same as writing without a pen--possible, but it'll take ages and probably won't make much sense. Smoking isn't something that can be placed on the back burner, or used as an incentive--it's an imperative. It's less a case of "I'll just finish this chapter and then have a cigarette" and more a case of "I haven't smoked in two hours. This is unbearable. I'm heading out whether I finish or not."

Of course, there are also the obvious health scares, examples of which are plastered onto every pack, but this was never the driving force behind my giving up. Many 21-year-olds assume they'll live forever, smoker or non-smoker, and the same was true of me. Gradual hints at diminishing health, like an occasional month-long cough or an inability to stay on a treadmill for longer than 15 minutes, were never enough to convince me to give up.

No, what finally did it for me was the growing uncoolness of smoking. As a teenaged English lit student, it's easy to look at the great, smoking writers of the past and attempt to mimic them, but this is to overlook the fact that, ultimately, these are people from a different era. Few poets would take opium to mimic Coleridge, so why should I take nicotine to mimic Hemingway, or Updike, or Capote?

The fact is that, while previous generations had the excuse of widespread ignorance of smoking's effects (indeed, at home we have a book from the early 20th century that includes smoking under its list of 'recreational activities'), the same cannot be said for us Millenials. We knew exactly what we were getting into; we even had the warning photographs to prove it.

And this feeling of guilt and shame is compounded by way in which smokers are slowly but steadily being pushed to the sidelines. University smoking areas which, even a couple of years ago, were bustling with cheerfully puffing students are now smoke-free zones, their 'stub it out' bins long gone.

After one of these closures I found myself sitting on a lone bench, head bowed, fingers numb, attempting not to blow smoke towards innocent passers-by. This, I decided, was not the Capote-sitting-at-a-typewriter-with-a-screwdriver-in-one-hand-and-a-cigarette-in-the-other type of smoking; no, this was merely the addict-on-a-bench type of smoking. This was far from cool.

Yet, even now, even a year on, I still find it difficult to look at my poetry anthology without a certain yearning.