Can't get no satisfaction

Smoking in British Popular Culture 1800-2000

October 20, 2000

Fine overviews of Lady Nicotine have appeared of late, notably Jordan Goodman's Tobacco in History (1993); media studies have endlessly deconstructed cigarette advertising, and smoking's sex appeal has been wittily evoked in Richard Klein's Cigarettes are Sublime (1995). Yet, oddly enough, no serious analysis has yet been attempted of the rise (and fall?) of the smoking habit in Britain. Coming from the angle of material cultural studies, Matthew Hilton has made this his objective, and he has realised it very well.

Greatly helped by a supple and jargon-free prose, Hilton makes a complex tale clear through a confident narration of its successive phases. The old stagers in his story are those classic traditional smokes, the cigar and the pipe. Always conspicuously extravagant, the cigar was indelibly the signature of the aristocrat and the flamboyant toff (Churchill) - or, less reputably, the bookie, the showman, the nouveau riche. For its part, thanks in some measure to its naval and country associations, the briar came to stand for a trustworthy muscular manliness: pipe smoking exuded an honest steadfastness of purpose.

How then did Hilton's hero - or rather villain - that runaway modern success story, the cigarette, come to dominate the smoking stage? Hand rolled and costly, the slim, delicate cigarette initially figured in British culture as the effeminate, diminutive plaything of the dandy, the debauched aesthete, the louche aristocrat, the languid guards officer. It bespoke a decadent hedonism: "A cigarette," judged Oscar Wilde, "is the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?" Introduced in the 1880s, the Bonsack automatic rolling machine made the cheap mass-produced article possible. For companies such as Wills, this opened up prospects of limitless new popular markets in the age of the masses, but posed a dramatic image problem. A couple of decades of heavy advertising, Hilton shows, overcame that obstacle: tobacco firms rapidly learned to sell their brand-name products to the male working population at large (hitherto largely clay-pipe smoking) by presenting them as affordable commodities confirming the smoker's personality. Choices - to smoke or not? roll-your-own or ready-made? and which brand (Woodbines? Capstan? Players' Navy Cut?) - and the very ways you took a drag: all these were sold as expressions of a self that was imaged as decisive, tough, sporty, calm and, not least, English to the bone. The assured sense of individuality associated with the elite smoker was preserved, while the cigarette's effete and exotic connotations were expunged, especially once the typical buyer became the factory worker or the chain-smoking Tommy Atkins in the trenches, soothing shattered nerves with his gaspers. All the way down to Andy Capp the message was: you are what you smoke, and how you smoke them.

Validated as masculine, cigarette smoking inevitably became sexy and Hilton explores a gallery of macho images, from Bogart to Bond, though his book is more sparsely illustrated than one might hope. And once it was established as the preserve of the adult male, so, as with the vote, everyone wanted to get in on the act. Hence the habit was taken by women, as they broke out of the doll's house - from Bohemian ladies in 1880s Chelsea to flappers and later generations encouraged by the sophistication of a Dietrich or Bacall on the silver screen. And juveniles too - most recently ever-younger teenage girls, one group among whom smoking rates are rising today. To smoke defines what it is to be grown up.

Hilton thus invokes a "politics of individualism" to explain the unique success story of the cigarette: it became the ultimate cheap commodified personal luxury ("Players' Please"). That is a concept that equally serves, in his view, to explain the relative resilience of the culture of smoking following the lung-cancer revelations in the 1950s. A few smokers stuck their heads in the sand and denied the health evidence; most have opted to live in a world of "cognitive dissonance", in which lighting up goes on despite the dangers.

And why? It is because, Hilton argues, as before, smoking can be regarded as "being yourself", doing your own thing, being cool - nowadays even showing you will defy the nanny state and its "health fascism" - combative attitudes fostered, of course, by the tobacco lobby and its media friends. Initially, I felt some scepticism towards Hilton's mantra-like invocation of "liberal individualism". On reflection, however, I grew persuaded of how the same identity-creating cultural configurations that launch the mass-consumption cigarette finally protected it against deadly reality.

There are many things that Smoking in British Popular Culture does not attempt. There is not much on the tobacco companies themselves, or, more surprisingly, on government policy and intervention - today's laws and deals with regard to advertising and sponsorship are nowhere made clear. And, this being a history of representations, actual experiences are rather neglected. Hilton gives us much about Sherlock Holmes, but virtually no analysis of working-class autobiographies or assessment of smoking and the working-class budget.

On occasions a more subtle account of the working of socio-cultural forces is called for. For instance, Hilton is insistent as to the role played by a stereotyped "individualism" in upholding a smoking culture, and by implication he criticises the pusillanimity of governments in standing up for the public health. But he has virtually nothing to say on the great silent revolution that, within the past decades, has made so many workplaces and public spaces smoke-free zones. How did the scare-image of "passive smoking" take off? And how far, one wonders, are such enforced shifts in habits actually affecting overall consumption levels?

International contrasts would have been welcome. Was smoking similarly "patriotic" in non-imperial Sweden or Switzerland? Does US anti-tobacco puritanism shed any light on the British experience? And here and there the book would have profited from being less tobacco-fixed. Hilton rightly shows how smoking is becoming the ultimate fix of those least able to afford it, eg the unemployed: a comparison with junk food would have clinched the point.

Overall, however, Hilton's book splendidly fulfils its promise. Much is condensed into a small compass, the balance of information and argument is adroit, the tone is assured, and the chronological sweep is illuminating. If Smoking in British Popular Culture holds no great surprises, at least, unlike Oscar's cigarette, it does not leave one unsatisfied.

Roy Porter is professor in the social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute.

Smoking in British Popular Culture 1800-2000

Author - Matthew Hilton
ISBN - 0 7190 5257 2 and 5257 2
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £49.50 and £15.00
Pages - 284

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