I only smoked for a short period in my life - somewhere between the ages of 15 and 23. And really, I don't think I could ever call myself a proper smoker. Even at my most nicotine infused I probably smoked no more than five cigarettes a day.
Back then you could smoke everywhere of course. Not just in bars, but on tops of busses, in cinemas, even in airplanes. I always thought it was faintly ridiculous to have a smoking section on planes but hey...
The thing is though, I don't think I was ever really addicted to Nicotine.
So why did I smoke? Well...some of it was a desire to fit in...some of it was a desire to rebel. But I think more importantly it was the most incredible prop.
Standing alone at the bar? light a cigarette. It will give you something to lean on - something to do with your hands. And you'll feel less awkward, less embarrassed about standing there with no one to talk to.
Waiting for the bus? Light a cigarette. Pulling on the smoke will relive the boredom and give you a focus for your wandering mind.
And of course "needing a light" is THE best excuse for speaking to someone you find attractive. In fact, I'm convinced that a lot of my generation wouldn't have been born at all if our parents weren't puffing away like Serge Gainsbourg in his final years.
I've been a non smoker for 20 years now, and I've no intention of starting again. But it occurred to me the other day just how much the smart phone has become the modern version of the cigarette.
You're at a conference sitting on your own. You don't know anyone and you're waiting for the next speaker to come on stage. You feel a bit awkward, a bit out of place. What do you do?
Well if you're anything like me you'll reach for your phone. Sure we need to check our emails from time to time, to tweet, to text...whatever. But isn't a part of it just having something to do?
Something to make us feel a little less silly and a little less naked?
And I know I'm not alone. The other day I was waiting at the platform in a suburban station. Every single person I counted was looking at their smartphones. Were they just looking for distraction on the way home, something to make the time go quicker? Or is it more than that? Are we so afraid of being fully present in the moment that we reach for our favourite prop, our electronic security blanket?
In our culture, there is pressure to interact, to engage, to do...even if we are alone. To sit and just 'be' feels deeply alien...and faintly embarrassing.
And maybe a great prop, be it a smart phone or a cigarette, helps us avoid doing just that. Being naked, facing the world as it really is in all its boredom and mundaneness.
"You're never alone with a Strand", was one of the most famous strap lines in British advertising. It referred to a brand of cigarettes popular in the 1950s, advertised by a solitary man in a trench coat and trilby hat.
The trilby hat and the trench coat are long gone now of course, but maybe the cigarettes live on...in high resolution.
This blog post was originally posted on Linked In.