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14 August 2014

My tobacco of choice is “rich and mature” – which is more than you can say about me

Nicholas Lezard’s Down and Out column. 

By Nicholas Lezard

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.

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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.