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Backwords: When Life Was All Pipedreams

…In my National Service days, non-smoking types were few and far between. We boys in Air Force blue were not known as the Brylcreem boys for nothing. But alongside the jar of hair cream you could almost guarantee to find a packet of Woodbines…

Mike Shaw recalls the days when smoking was commonplace.

I was introduced to smoking by my parents at a very early age.

It was in response to my impassioned plea to Father Christmas when I was only four or five years old.

Nothing pleased me more among my presents that Christmas morning than the smoker’s set.

There were cigarettes, cigars and at least one pipe. And the fact that they were all made of chocolate was quite secondary to me.

For weeks afterwards I marched around like a grownup, puffing imaginary smoke rings and tapping imaginary ash off my fags.

In my make-believe world I was already a man. A member of what seemed then to be an almost universal band who scarcely ever had a cigarette out of their mouths.

Several more years passed before I began smoking for real, and I have no vivid memory of exactly how and when that occurred.

It could well have been one occasion when I was still at primary school -- in other words no more than 11 years old.

My best mate then lived near the school and was the precocious son of a fairly well-off accountant known to have a liking for high living.

On a day when his parents were both away he invited me to join him “for a bit of fun” at his home.

And, within minutes of opening the front door, there he was. Sitting in an armchair with a cigar in one hand and a tumbler of whisky and soda in the other.

At secondary school, smoking -- especially among the older boys -- was fairly common, although the punishment if you were caught was the cane or detention, or both.

Teachers were known to prowl around the grounds during the dinner break, on the lookout for pupils sneaking a crafty drag behind the tennis courts or in the air-raid shelters.

By the time I joined the ranks of the workers I was well and truly addicted. As were hordes of others who used to sit upstairs on the trolley bus to work, coughing and spluttering amid a thick haze of tobacco smoke while they “enjoyed” their first coffin nail of the day.
In my National Service days, non-smoking types were few and far between. We boys in Air Force blue were not known as the Brylcreem boys for nothing. But alongside the jar of hair cream you could almost guarantee to find a packet of Woodbines.

Some of my billet buddies smoked like the proverbial chimney. One in particular, whose bed was opposite mine, was utterly incredible.

As a fairly sound sleeper, I usually woke during the night only if some clumsy airman kicked the bucket or blundered into the stove while on his way outside to the ablutions.

But, no matter what the hour, every time my slumbers were disturbed there was the glow of a lighted cigarette from the other side of the room.

I never did discover whether he was an insomniac who smoked a fag instead of counting sheep or a smoker so addicted to the weed that his body clock woke him up every half hour or so to let him know it was time for his next drag.

It was also during my time in the Forces that I learned there were different styles of cigarette smoking.

Some held the fag rather elegantly between first and second fingers. Others used a sucking motion as they grasped the fag between thumb and first finger. And one bloke never took his cigarette out of his mouth from lighting up until he threw away the docker, occasionally creating the remarkable sight of ash two or three inches long.

By the time I reached my early twenties I was a 20-a-day man who also puffed on a pipe as well.

Amazingly, I gave up at the age of 24 without any difficulty.

I have tonsillitis to thank for breaking the habit. For three weeks I was laid low by swollen tonsils that completely put me off reaching for a fag.

The illness was unpleasant, the consequences dramatic.

By the time my throat was back to normal I had resolved to wait until I felt really desperate before going back to smoking.

And, would you believe it, the moment of desperation never came.

My body and my pocket joined together in breathing a huge sigh of relief.

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