The smoking guns of Eng Lit

All working Singaporeans aged up to 50 will have to buy annuities. The government fears they might otherwise run out of savings as people live longer now. But that’s a risk that could have been avoided in another way. The government could have lifted the tobacco tax.

Perish the thought and long live the people? I wholeheartedly agree –- but consider this:

What do the following have in common: Oscar Wilde, Henry
James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis?

Every one of them was a writer and a smoker.

The writer, AN Wilson, who makes this point in a Telegraph blog, writes:

Is it mere chance that the lifetime of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618), who introduced tobacco-smoking to England, was also the time when the great story of English literature really began? Milton — a smoker — and Ben Jonson — a smoker — ensured that the Elizabethan glory-age was not to be a flash in the pan.

I have been racking my brains to find a single non-smoker among the great English poets or novelists of the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. Possibly, Keats had to lay off the pipe tobacco a bit after he developed tuberculosis.

Otherwise, from Swift and Pope to Cowper and Wordsworth, from Byron to Charles Lamb, they were all smokers.

Tennyson only stopped smoking in order to eat and sleep…

Robert Browning… quickly adapted to the new cigarette craze…

C S Lewis… smoked 60 cigarettes a day between pipes with his friends.

Tolkien was a pipe smoker.

Of course, smoking wasn’t universally approved of even then. Thomas Carlyle’s wife allowed him to smoke only in the kitchen.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas de Quincey would have been, of course, jailed or halfway-housed in Singapore for opium smoking. So indeed would have been Sherlock Holmes.

But it was almost de rigueur for writers up to the 1960s to be photographed with a cigarette or a pipe. I remember the old Penguin paperbacks with tiny photographs of the authors. Sartre could be seen wreathed in smoke, Camus with a cigarette stuck in his mouth. Kingsley Amis can be seen with a pipe on a Times Literary Supplement cover.

No wonder literature has declined in popularity. It can be so unhealthy.

But apparently writers too are seeing the light and stubbing out. Wilson writes:

Heroic Beryl Bainbridge keeps on smoking for England, but will there be any more writers in the years to come, following in her heroic steps?

Heroic indeed, my wife would say. Not that I would be caught dead with what she sees as a coffin nail. She doesn’t hold with smoking.

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