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.

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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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