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

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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