Drags, queens and lots of other puffs

March 18, 2005

Many years ago, I plotted to put on a museum exhibition titled The Ethnographic Ashtray . Drawing on the fact that cigarette smoking had spread rapidly round the world since the First World War, it would document the way that different cultures had reacted in their invention of the ashtray.

As an object of minimal design demands, the ashtray would become the perfect vehicle with which to display style. Cameroonian Grasslands ashtrays are covered in spiders, North African in geometric obsessions, Torajan in woodcarving motifs accidentally established when a menstruating woman sat on a plank. Alas, it was not to be. "Funding" prevented it, for smoking and its money had already become unclean.

Since then, passive smoking has been invented to whip us all into line, and one of the keynotes of this book is the way in which we have all been manipulated for or against a personal act that has been the most flexible of signs. Sophistication can be marked by bad breath, liberation by an addiction, nationalism by a foreign import and women can declare themselves variously prostitutes or career women by sharing the same smoking practice.

The coverage in this book is not as global as the title pretends - there is an Asian bias - and it is a book of its time in that the usual postmodern obsessions intrude. So we have not just Jewish smoking but gay smoking, black smoking, Orientalist smoking, operatic smoking, jazz smoking and lengthy coverage of cinematic smoking. Only lesbian smoking is left out in the cold, but it is there to be read in the cropped hair and stout footwear of the illustrations. And just as smoking books of the past century would often use the packaging of cigarettes and cigars, this one comes with a final health warning, "Marlboro Man and the stigma of smoking", alerting us with shock that in shunning smoking, we may even be guilty of the ultimate crime of discrimination.

Many of the essays are excellent - Allen Roberts on sub-Saharan Africa, Timon Screech on Edo Japan, and Allan Brandt on Freud's sinister nephew, Edward Bernays, who sold out his psychoanalytic birthright to the tobacco industry for a pot of messages. Inevitably, there is discussion of the historical spread of smoking, the interaction of various forms of consumption - medical, ritual or luxurious - of different substances, some "modern", some "traditional", the appropriation of the foreign and vice versa.

Barry Milligan brings several of these together in his elegant discussion of opium dens in Victorian London, showing how they were signs of imperial anxieties, with writers of fiction and the yellow press constantly reworking and inflating the same thin material. Oddly, he does not mention the displays of sinister Orientals and a complete opium den at Madame Tussaud's, which probably did much more to inflame the public imagination.

Similarly, smoking's various relationships with rules of etiquette and the law are reviewed, as in Timothy Brooks's "Smoking in Imperial China". He correlates its spread with the arrival of the new Manchu dynasty but curiously does not develop the point, as other writers have, that tobacco smoking was forbidden by the previous rulers precisely because they feared that its invigorating and health-giving properties would most benefit their rivals from the frozen North. Opium smoking was then forbidden by the precedent-obsessed legal system as a variant of tobacco.

The link between smoking and sociability weaves like a thread through the essays and is engaged full-on by Matthew Hilton, who notes the paradox that smoking occurs in groups but also has the ability to complete a lone individual, quoting Charles Kingsley to the effect that it is "a lone man's companion, a bachelor's friend, a hungry man's food, a sad man's cordial, a wakeful man's sleep and a chilly man's fire". Smoking, it may also be noted, transforms time. By adding a cigarette, the Japanese salaryman's "doing nothing" becomes "taking a break" and so is sanitised.

In what is perhaps the high point of the book, Daniel Gilman offers an outstanding and subtle analysis of the way in which the question in Japan is not "to smoke or not to smoke", but rather whether one is smoking correctly - "clean style" - both as a way of reconciling government monopoly with perceived health risks and incorporating the practice into Japanese culture, making it a route to spiritual and social development.

This contrasts nicely with Screech's treatment of the Edo period, where excessive smoking was a mark of the kabuki-mono or "bent people". "These were dandified thugs, who... wore fancy clothes (probably importedI), were rude to their elders, roughed people up for money, and often slung crucifixes around their necks as the final insult."

The subsection on cinema deals in the usual icons - James Dean, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart - and seems oddly dated. Perhaps it has been done too often before. Dawn Marlane's discussion on "emptiness" in La Maman et la Putain suffers from the tedium that always attends frame-by-frame squeezing of significance out of movie clips.

The magpie reader will find many little gems here. For example, as Linda and Michael Hutcheon show, the Seville cigarette factory already played a role in the European erotic imagination before Bizet found Carmen employment there. It housed hundreds of bold young working women who dealt with the heat by partially undressing. A permit was needed by any male entering, and it became the main tourist attraction of Seville, guarded by jostled, perspiring soldiers. No wonder they smoked.

Nigel Barley is a writer and anthropologist, and was formerly a curator at the British Museum.

Smoke: A Global History of Smoking

Editor - Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 408
Price - £29.00
ISBN - 1 86189 200 4

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