Well, nobody loves an ashtray. But only when it has fags and ash in it. Otherwise an ashtray is an ornament; a small dish, depending on the size of it. As ornaments I have somehow collected them: at a recent count I discovered that strewn about my house are 63 ashtrays only a few of which are employed for their original purpose. There are indeed some which would never, must not, be used for stubbing out fags. Of the latter I include the following: an ashtray designed by Salvador Dali (mass-produced admittedly but still lovely), two in a rococo style by Limoges, one from Raffles Hotel in Singapore, another from Harry's Bar in Venice, and an original Bernard Leach. But why the 63?
I don't quite know how the collection started but I know why it grew. Chums bring them back from holiday. When friends come back from abroad they deliver expensive bottles of wine for my brother Brian ('We'd better get a vintage', they say, 'you know how Brian thinks he's an expert'), they shower my elder brother Richard with expensively produced maps of the locality where they were, for him to frame elaborately because he travels widely himself. When it comes to me the same lot just say to themselves 'At least Jack's easy: just get the wee shite an ashtray.'
So they do.
The hell with it, I like ashtrays anyway. And more, I like, enjoy, have peace with, smoking. I like cigars, cigarettes, and all the items which go with tobacco use. I like cigarette cases, holders, boxes, lighters, pouches, jars, all the paraphernalia of smoking itself.
When I was 13 years of age, I wanted a job for the then endless summer holidays. Back then, in 1958, there were a number of tobacconists and in Glasgow the foremost one was George Murray Frame's, its headquarters being situated at the corner of George Square. It was a very large place and possessed a magnificent exterior, with gleaming brass topped by shining windows. In the windows themselves were marvels of the smoking culture of the day. Wonderful sculptures of Meerschaum pipes, their stems made of amber and jade. Glittering solid gold Dunhill and Dupont cigarette lighters in velvet-lined boxes. Ebony and jewel-encrusted cigarette holders such as Holly Golightly would flourish. Silver and platinum cases and mother of pearl inlaid cigarette boxes.
Talking of Miss Golightly, George Murray Frame's was the Tiffany's of tobacco, almost literally, for its window displays had enough luxury as would have satisfied Mappin and bloody Webb. A door away was another Murray Frame's which sold umbrellas and walking canes and rather expensive gifts and also had a magnificent underground coffee shop, in those days a major feature of business life and which were called 'smoking rooms'. In there,
and in other such places which were dotted around Glasgow, a great deal of business was indeed done. I can remember seeing Lord Fraser, then the richest man in Britain, completing a deal in Frame's coffee shop with Sir Isaac Wolfson over a coffee, and a wee illicit whisky from Hugh Fraser's ever-present hip flask. (In those days a contract was signed by a handshake and a dram.)
The reason why I was there to witness this encounter was that I was taken on as a messenger boy by Mr George, the rather mature son of old Mr Murray Frame himself. (It was another age. Mr George went to see my father for his permission to employ me. It was indeed another age. Both men thought my chutzpah was commendable. Today the social work department would be investigating us all.)
Thus I was introduced to the romance of tobacco. I mean that, romance. Back then as a 13-year-old I thought, as everyone else did, that cigarettes were cool. Frankly I still do. When, a couple of years back, I produced yet another not very well-selling book ('The Compendium of Nosh'), I was photographed for a publicity shot and I was told not to be seen with a cigarette in either mouth or hand. It would, I was told, put off would-be buyers of the book. All of my other books had me with a fag in my gub. All of them were by much smaller publishers than the horribly august and world-wide publishers John Murray. All of them sold much better than the dreadfully presented 'Compendium'. I could tell you much more about that disastrous publicity campaign and doubtless shall in the future.
But I can tell you this. If anybody doesn't want to buy a book on the basis that the writer smokes cigarettes then they shouldn't be allowed to be taught to read. Hitler didn't smoke, was teetotal and vegetarian. He also didn't like cats, but that is by the way. Churchill and Roosevelt both smoked, drank like fishes (and were famous cat-lovers). I don't know if you entirely catch my drift but I am trying to shape a proposition to you out there: fags have freedom attached to them in a sort of a way. Fag addicts might be slaves to the weed but they are rather more inclined to democracy than the anti-tobacco Nazis of our age. And yes, Hitler did write a best-selling book. It was called 'Mein Kampf' and the Germans of the day bought it in their hundreds of thousands. In a few brief years the same avid 'Aryan' book-buyers were to share in the blame for the deaths of many more Jews of Europe than the entire tobacco trade in the same time. If you think that is a cheap shot from me, all I can say is that the statistics bear me, dreadfully, out.
Here I am not going to say too much about the fascism of the anti-smoking jihad which smokers such as myself have had imposed upon us in recent years. The freezing cold and rain we are put out into outside pubs and restaurants and private clubs. The idea that parks and the outdoors in general should be free of the appalling sight of a cigarette-smoking degenerate like myself. There is not much point. The song 'Cigarettes and Whisky, and Wild, Wild Women' was about cigar stores and taverns and brothels and eventually the prohibitionists and the American Female had their and her way. The war against all three brought about organised crime and the world-wide drugs trade. Sadly I am not exaggerating and, indeed, have not gilded the lily of my argument throughout this little essay. I have just ended this piece of prose by stubbing out a cigarette in an ashtray. The Dali one in fact. It is not as surreal as you would think.
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