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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.

Categories: Books

Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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