It started at boarding school, in the 6th form, in those days of rebellion. I feared that sooner or later I would get caught by the school authorities. And that is exactly what happened one evening..
Over the preceding few months I had acquired a taste for completing the evening meal by inhaling tobacco smoke into my lungs. Leaving the dining hall after supper, me and my collaborators in crime would converge at the rear of the dormitory building, huddling together in the darkness, smoking cigarettes that we had purchased from the inhabitants of the neighbouring village who came up to the school's wire mesh fence to sell the cigarettes to us. Coins were passed to the villagers through the fence and in return cigarettes were passed to us, stick by stick. The villagers would sell other things to us too, sweets, biscuits, coke and the like.. But by the very nature of the arrangement, the supply of these items and the cigarettes was not guaranteed on any day. So it was wise to stock up on fags when the villagers turned up at the school fence with the precious commodity.
I thought it was cool to belong to this clique of students who were thought of as 'bad boys'. To be hidden behind the dormitory block seated on a rock smoking a cigarette in blatant defiance of the school's very stringent no smoking policy, surrounded by others who were doing exactly the same thing was not only exciting, it was 'hip'. And there was in my mind the thoughts about my suave and very 'sophisticated' older cousin whom I admired immensely...and he smoked! (He later died of throat cancer at age 45). Anyway, on this fateful evening I stocked up on cigarettes. We were in our senior year and we knew that we wouldn't be returning to the dormitory to go to bed at 9.30pm as the other students would. We were going to remain in our study rooms until well past midnight, and the cigarettes would definitely come in handy at that hour..
On my way to the study room after smoking, I briefly stopped over in the dormitory to retrieve my European History textbook and Shakespeare's Coriolanus, the two items I'd planned for my study time that evening. As I turned to leave the empty dorm I was shocked to be met at the entrance by the duty Housemaster, a tutor who was charged with the role of ensuring that students were complying with school regulations and were doing what they were meant to be doing, at the time they were meant to be doing it. This particular tutor was a terror, he had a reputation among the students and was feared. Anyway, he stopped me at the door and asked why I was still in the dormitory when I ought to be in my study room. Shakily, but still trying to sound as innocent as I could, I lied that I'd returned from the study room to the dorm to pick up my books. To prove it I leaned forward to open my rucksack.
Then I heard the Housemaster's voice say "Wait a minute, I smell something.."
He moved closer to me, sniffing audibly as he came, frowning..
"I definitely can smell tobacco on your breath", he said, "have you been smoking?"
I feigned surprise and then consternation at the thought that he might even consider that I might have been smoking.
"Me? No sir, I've never smoked a cigarette in my life...sir", my eyes wide in mock amazement, although what I really felt was a sense of alarm..
"Why do I smell tobacco on your breath then?" the Housemaster asked..
"Err, well sir, the man who sells sweets from across the fence behind there was smoking when I was buying sweets from him, so maybe it was he who blew his cigarette smoke into my mouth...sir".
"Let's see whats in the bag then, shall we.."
To my great horror, this man grabbed my rucksack, unzipped it and pulled out the contents. Sure, my books were in there, but so were my numerous cigarettes I'd just purchased so expensively.. Altogether, eleven cigarettes came popping out of my bag and I knew then that I was f**ked! I pleaded, I begged, I lied that I had never seen these cigarettes before, I didn't even know who put them in my bag.. I went down on my knees, but this Housemaster was having none of that. I was taken straight to the Principal's residence. The Principal's house happened to be within the school compound.
And so the next day at the morning assembly, I was called out to the front and arraigned before the whole school, disgraced and publicly shamed. The Principal announced to all the students and staff that I had acted dishonourably and with immediate effect I was to be expelled from the boarding house, indefinitely. And this was only three weeks before my A'Level exams were due to commence. I was young and my attitude at that time was to take it on the chin. I was a tough kid, I thought to myself.. In fact, I was invincible! I wasn't going to let this expulsion from the boarding house affect my performance at the forthcoming exam. I moved out of the boarding house that very same day, and moved back home to live with my Mum. I would attend school in the mornings and return home in the afternoons after school hours. This turned out to be a good thing, because although my Mum was angry at what had happened, she was sensitive, sensible and kind enough to know not to be unduly harsh with me, seeing as my exams were just around the corner. On my part I was defiant.
I put my head down and studied harder than I ever would have done had I remained in the boarding house. I was determined to prove to that Housemaster and the Principal that their boarding house was not all that. And that I could do just as well at the exam even if I came to school from home everyday. The outcome of all of this was that in the Upper 6th class of 60 odd students, only one student performed better than me when the results of the exam were finally released. But I had continued smoking, never once even considering the idea of stopping. Many of the really cool people I knew smoked, I thought, so why not? Mum was chilled out about it and apart from the occasional voicing of disapproval, she didn't seem to let it bother her so much.
Being away from the restrictions of the boarding house actually offered to me a lot more freedom and opportunity to smoke, and smoke I did, as much as I wished. And the fact that I'd performed well at those exams only deceived me further into taking a positive view of my smoking. Now, many many years later, I'm still dabbling in cigarette smoking. It is likely that I have already lost quite a few years of my expected years of life, having smoked all these years. And although I'm often told that I don't look my age, i.e., that I look younger than I really am, I wonder what it would have been had I not started smoking at all. Smoking is now a problem for me. It isn't the exciting, naughty, rebellious activity that it was when I first started out as a schoolboy. Quite a few people I have met have been repulsed by the fact that I smoke, even though I handle my smoking quite well, I think, because I try not to let it smell on my clothes, in my car or in my home. I dispose of the butt ends and the ash very carefully, and many others have been even quite surprised to learn that I smoke cigarettes, saying to me that I don't look like someone who smokes..although no one has been able to describe to me how a smoker should look. Now, however, I think of smoking as an utterly disgusting, filthy habit and would wish to quit smoking like yesterday, if I could.
In the UK, the cost of smoking is so high it is hard to believe. The government makes huge amounts in tax revenue derived from the money that we unfortunate smokers have to spend on our expensive but disgusting habit. The World Health Organisation recently released a new evaluation of just how dire the smoking crisis is. They say that tobacco use claims 5 million lives a year. I've had to have a few chest x-rays in my life, the most recent being about a year ago. But because each time that I've had an x-ray I've been told that my chest is clear, (which to me sounds a bit like, "Hey, carry right on smoking, you're doing fine"), I've never felt the compulsion to quit. Now if that is not self-deceit, then I don't know what self-deception is.
Okay, its December and once again I'm thinking that my New Year's resolution will have to be, to make 2010 a smoke free year. I've been doing this every year for the last five years or so, but I've only managed to make the 1st of January of any given year smokefree, predictably falling back into my unhealthy habitual smoking pattern from sunrise on the morning of the 2nd. Please join hands with me to make this dream come true this time around..