(revised, abridged & annotated)
Blame it on those godless natives: damned injuns! 'Twas they who first pushed the stuff on an unsuspecting English tourist. He, in turn, must have smuggled it back to dear old Blighty in his diplomatic bag. Raleigh's servant was a bit of a wet blanket. Seeing his master smoking (& reasoning there could be no smoke without fire), he went & doused Sir Walt with a bucket of water! That notwithstanding, smoking spread like wildfire. Of course, it seemed harmless enough to begin with. In those far off days, no-one foresaw the multi-million dollar Tobacco Industry that would develop. Who could have guessed the geometrical progression from the occasional calumet to the compulsive cigarette?
Enter James I, self-appointed guardian of the Common Weal. Best-remembered for authorising the version of the Bible recently subverted by today's stylistically-insipid translators, this canny Scots polymath is perhaps less celebrated as himself an author. Among his works was a polemical treatise on a burning question of public concern, published anonymously in 1604 & boldly entitled A Counterblaste to Tobacco.
Now our present Monarch (God Save Her) contents herself with an annual uncontroversial Christmas Message. Not for her the propagandising pamphlet. Over the course of 400 years, the King's & Queen's English has become genteel. Our own Good Queen Bess eschews strong language. But Old King Jamie wasn't one to mince matters. He relished describing the manifold horrors of the noxious nicotine. The very pages of his king-sized diatribe smolder & fume with a righteous indignation decidedly holier-than-thou (if thou hapenst to be a smoker!) Hysterical denunciation of 'the killer weed marijuana' seems almost mild-mannered compared to J.Rex's execrations against the inhalation of baneful baccy:
A custome lothsome to the Eye, hateful to the Nose, harmefull to the Braine, dangerous to the Lungs, & the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.
Unholy smoke, begad! Modern medical opinion supports his view of tobacco's deleterious effect on health, but contemporary theologians would no doubt consider smoking more venial than zealous Jim allowed.
However, smoking is smoking, was & ever more shall be so. We recognize what he was on about (though the filter-tip has since superseded the clay pipe in popularity.) His remarks on the addictive nature of nicotine are well-observed & just as true today as yesteryear:
many in this kingdome have had such a continuall use of taking this unsavourie smoke, as now they are not able to forebeare the same, no more than an old drunkard can abide to be sober, without falling into an uncurable weaknesse & evil constitution.
Even prior to inflation, smoking was an expensive pastime. He talks of some smokers 'bestowing three, some foure hundreds pounds a yeere upon this precious stinke' (ah priceless phrase!), 'which I am sure might be bestowed upon farre better uses'. Such an appeal to economy has a perennial validity.
Costly it might have been, but smoking was fashionable. It was manly to smoke. Those who didn't would be considered unsociable. Pity the poor wife, who must either smoke like her husband 'or else resolve to live in a perpetuall stinking torment'. We know the predicament. It seems that little has changed but the language.
Everything's there in gruesome detail, including an x-certificate exposť of 'an unctuous & oily kind of Soote as hath bene found in some great Tobacco takers, that after their death were opened up.' Autopsy reveals high tar content, in pseudo-scientific parlance. Yet how much more dramatic it sounds with a Jacobean turn of phrase!
For all their forcefulness, his words failed. Action spoke louder but equivocally. Within a year of A Counterblaste, a Tobacco tax was introduced which ever since has provided a useful source of revenue for the Realm. Punishing the purse hardly deters the hardened smoker. It didn't pay to ban such a profitable commodity as Tobacco, so its consmption remained a socially-sanctioned self-indulgence. Besides, illegalisation would merely have ensured its blackmarket availability & given it the tempting aura of a Forbidden Fruit (as in the case of Prohibition Booze & other outlawed drugs.)
The present-day official attitude is no less ambiguous. H.M.Govt. Health Dept's Warning embodies blatant hypocrisy: one could just as well say that every Government Health Warning carries a packet of cigarettes! Admittedly, cigarette adverts may no longer appear on TV, but still they loom large on cinema screen, roadside hoardings & in newspapers, colour supplements & shop windows.
The anti-smoking lobby lacks a spokesperson as prestigious & outspoken as England's first Stuart. Intervening centuries have merely made the vice more inveterate. Today in Britain, millions of people 'measure out their lives' with cigarettes, 3 inches at a time & 20 to the packet. That one-last-cigarette-before-giving-up suffices to ignite the funeral pyre. Fag ash to ashes! And leading this merry Dance of Death: Tobacco Companies, grim reapers of profit. Acrid whiff & gasper's reek have become as pervasive as the air we breathe. 'No Smoking' notices make smoking seem the norm. There are more places where you can smoke than where you can't. The ubiquitous image of those thin white tubes is part of the scheme of things. The cigarette has taken its place in nature, & in one advert is even described in terms of natural imagery ('cool as a mountain stream'). Current iconography disguises cigarettes as everything but honestly what they are. Adverts never show the dirty ashtray full of fag-ends, the smoker's cough is not heard on the soundtrack.
The manufacturers omit to mention what's involved in cigarette production. it's convenient to forget that plantations of Tobacco, a monoculture cash crop, use land otherwise needed to grow food. Let the natives eat their wages! Smoking is a luxury in a hungry world, but don't feel guilty as you puff away. You can salve your conscience by shopping at Oxfam. And never mind if Strontium 90 is used on assembly lines to measure & regulate the precise quantity of tobacco fed into each neatly standardised, symmetrical cigareete. Those who don't like the idea should roll their own. Giving up smoking won't make the world less radio-active.
Of course, these up-to-date instances & arguments aren't to found in King James' version, & many of his obsolete ideas have been left out. A Counter-blaste to Tobacco could do with a twenty-first century counterpart. If only Prince Charles would pick up the gauntlet & turn his hand to video...
Raving Reporter Files...
A - Z