What ever happened to snuff?

Snuff hit Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Ben Duckworth discovers that it never really left.

Of all the things to still make in Britain – snuff. I don't know anyone who admits to using it but this eighteenth-century dandy's habit lives on. We recently learned that some MPs take a pinch from a box kept at the entrance to the House of Commons chamber. I wonder if any have sniffed a little on their return to Westminster? What do they smell in it?

Time to try it. In front of me on my kitchen table is a small tin of something resembling finely sieved soil. This dark brown matter is called Kendal Brown. It is a premium product in its market, loved by aficionados. A footman claims to Sam in The Pickwick Papers that “coffee is the best practice”. I don't fancy sticking my Co-op Fairtrade Italian up my nose so I get straight into the real stuff. Shoving my nose into the receptacle to sense its bouquet, I make the schoolboy error of exhaling afterwards and blow it into my eyes. This ends a brief thought about plunging my head into the pile like Tony Montana in Scarface. After dealing with my stinging eyes, I pick a pinch out and sniff it up sharply. It smells gently ancient and is less intrusive up my nostril than I expected. To my surprise, I don't sneeze.

This is British manufacturing in 2013, with a strong whiff of a time when the French dethroned their king and Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The pinch somewhere up my right nostril has been made in the South Cumbrian town that the product is named after, at one of the few remaining factories in the UK. It was produced by a 50-tonne machine that is over 260 years old - believed to be the oldest piece of industrial machinery still in productive use in the UK. In 1792, it was bought second-hand by a nascent snuff company started by an ambitious man called Thomas Harrison. Its unknown Georgian designer did not build it to crush and grind tobacco stems and leaves. Originally the machine, which somehow lacks a nickname, was constructed to make gunpowder in the north of Scotland. The two manufacturing processes are similar. Harrison, fresh from studying the art of snuff in Glasgow, had it dismantled and carried by horses several hundred miles south where it has remained ever since.

Bob Gregory is director of Samuel Gawith Limited, the company that runs the antique machine. Mr Gregory is a menthol snuff man: “It is very good for when you've got a bad head cold or a hangover. It clears the head,” he claims. The machine is old but some things have changed. Flavoured snuff is the company's idea of modernisation. Traditional Kendal Brown remains the big seller but nowadays you can buy mandarin and cherry favours. Their website boasts of 'NEW!! GIN & TONIC snuff' - a whole night out to be enjoyed up your nostrils. Gregory, a gregarious man with a habit of introducing Dickensian flourishes into his speech, assures me the flavours are of good quality. “If you buy a packet of wine gums, the flavour in the wine gums is the flavour we use in the snuff, so to speak.”

Flavours are added at the end of the process. Samuel Gawith have about five different base snuff products made from tobacco originating in countries like Brazil and Malawi. The best product goes into the pipe tobacco that the factory makes. Snuff is made from what's left.

“You don't need to use the finest of tobacco leaf,” explains Gregory. “Half of the character of pipe tobacco is what it looks like. You want it to look nice. You use the best you can afford. With snuff, it's a powder. As long, as it looks like powder, then everyone is happy. You've got very little straw coloured snuff, light coloured, light brown, dark brown, very dark brown and black snuff. It doesn't matter so much with snuff as long as the colour is right.”

Snuff hit Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. London tobacconists placed wooden model Scottish Highlanders outside to show they sold it – as if snuff were the shortbread of the 1700s. The paraphernalia became embarrassingly bling. Lord Byron spent 500 guineas on “seven gold snuff boxes” and “seven snuff boxes of gold and silver gilt” in one shopping blowout. Beau Brummel was able to open his snuff box and sniff using only his right hand. But snuff wasn't simply a fashionable accessory for young men who had it all. Other classes just kept theirs in simple boxes that haven't made it into the British Museum. Coal miners were keen users as lighting up underground wasn't an option if you wanted to live long. Snuff-addict Charles Darwin, his moustache “slightly brown from the habit”, stuffed some up a monkey's nose to study its emotions. “It closed its eyelids whilst sneezing; but not on a subsequent occasion whilst uttering loud cries,” he recorded.

Now in 2013, the habit of snuff-taking continues as an underground habit, a “secret society,” says Gregory. A few bars offer it as an edgy drinks accompaniment. Tins and tubs containing it are hidden out of sight in the four central London tobacconists I visit. The Society of Snuff Grinders, Blenders and Purveyors is sadly defunct, although it is said you can join the London Snuff Club through a Charing Cross tobacconists. Instead, a keen, swotty community exists at snuffhouse.org and online shops like mysmokingshop.co.uk stock hundreds of varieties. Gregory admits the over-40s are the dominant consumers but remains positive that “the younger snuff taker is showing a lot more interest because he realises he can take it wherever he wants – on an aeroplane, for example.”

He recommends I sprinkle some on a poached egg. “Quite tasty,” he claims. Out of eggs, I add some to a chilli I'm making. It seems like something a cowboy might do. It's unclear what the Kendal Brown added in the final tasting, but the colour looked good.

 

A sketch of a bewigged barrister taking snuff, by Alger, c1880. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ben Duckworth is a freelance journalist and former editor of Total Politics magazine.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism