Zimbabwean tobacco growers and merchants inspect tobacco at the start of the annual selling season in Harare, 2010. Photo: Getty
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My tobacco of choice is “rich and mature” – which is more than you can say about me

Nicholas Lezard’s Down and Out column. 

I like to think that it takes a lot to unsettle me but actually that’s rubbish: it takes very little to turn my world upside down. The other month, I wheezed up to the counter of the local fags-and-mags shop for my twice-weekly packet of Cutters Choice, the roll-up tobacco smoked by connoisseurs.

There’s something different about its packaging, I thought as I took it. I discovered what it was soon enough: it had been wrapped in an extra layer of plastic. This plastic was in the familiar design but beneath it – the tobacco packet proper, as it were – was an entirely new one, depicting a field of tobacco plants in rows (or, more strictly speaking, files) and behind them a row of misty hills. A bit shit, in other words, qua design but a) it was nice of the company to prepare its customers for the redesign by phasing it in like that; and b) it was still the same stuff inside.

This is important. One afternoon, about a decade ago, when I’d decided that Cutters Choice was the stuff for me, I rang the customer services number on the packet. “I have a question,” I said. “Why is your tobacco so good?”

I hasten to add that I was completely sober but I was also completely bored. The person on the other end, who had clearly not been expecting this question, shunted me around a few departments until someone said something about the moisturising agents in the tobacco, or some such, and I thanked him and hung up, hardly able to believe I had done what I had just done.

Anyway, boredom and smoking going together like cheese and crackers, I found myself scrutinising the new packet at some length. I noticed that the blend was established in 1856, almost exactly 140 years before I had ever heard of it; that it is “rounded”, whatever that means; and that this is the brand’s “smooth blend”. This, like the “fresh” in “fresh-cut sandwiches”, is entirely phatic, given that one has yet to see a tobacco company describe its product as rough or jagged, although I have smoked some Kenyan cigarettes that felt as though someone had thrown a lighted firecracker into my lungs.

There’s a lot more text now, perhaps to forestall the kind of inquiry I made that wasted half an hour of the company’s time ten years ago. Before we open the pack, we are invited: “If you would like to share your perfect rolling experience with us, email us at . . .”

Hmm. I am trying to imagine my perfect rolling experience. I suppose high on the list would be one in which the paper doesn’t tear and the tobacco doesn’t conceal knots and tangles that make smoking the damn thing like trying to suck a marble through a straw; and, taking the longer view, one that doesn’t give you cancer, emphysema or heart disease.

Opening the pack, you see more guff about “what makes the perfect roll” and the misty hills now have three shadowy figures in the front, none of them apparently smoking or rolling. “Is it the anticipation, the mood, or the moment shared?” Search me, squire. We learn that the tobacco is grown in Zimbabwe and there is a diagram like something out of The Day Today, telling us the tobacco is, among other things, “rich and mature”, which, I reflect, is more than I am.

It is while I chuckle about this – the wheezy, gurgling chuckle of the smoker – that I remember something I noticed on the back and check it again. There’s a box just above the “UK duty paid” rubric, echoing it in shape, but empty. And above that, the words “This pack belongs to” – and then, as if to scramble our minds completely, in small capitals, “for adult use only”.

At which point I find myself utterly discomfited. For what use only? The packet, you see, recalls in its dimensions the last thing I saw with a space declaring “This belongs to” – a schoolchild’s pencil case. For a dizzy moment, I imagine myself writing, tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth in concentration, “NICK L” in Biro in this box, defending it from school bullies in break or in the dinner queue. “Look. It says here. It’s MINE. In MY WRITING. Get your own.”

The manufacturers may be many things but they are not fools, so if they’ve accepted the advice of a marketing guru to do this, who am I to say they shouldn’t have? There’s only one fool here and that, dear reader, is me. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.