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A Shout From The Attic: Youth And Confusion - 4

...When we lit up in public, heads turned to see what was on fire. We didn’t keep on smoking the stuff for long because when we had the cigarettes (if it be lawful to call them that) in our mouths, a mere tilting of the head backwards caused the contents of the Rizla tube to slide rapidly into our mouths...

Ronnie Bray recalls youthful smoking experiments.

When Chubby Checker gyrated and sang, "Let’s twist again … " it revived an almost forgotten memory of the ‘twist’ I knew long before "The Twist."

For some of my compatriots, smoking was the rite of passage from which children emerged grown up. As I had started smoking at ten or so, and stopped about a week later, I couldn’t subscribe that principle. To me, being grown up meant going to Gledhill’s Tea Rooms in the Beast Market at the bottom of the old town.

Leaving aside cigars, there was a horse I had yet to ride in the Smoking Stakes, and that was solved jointly by my childhood friend, Peter West, FW Woolworth’s thesaurus, and Dodd’s the herbalist, and, it was grimly rumoured, the purveyor of dark potions whose names were softly whispered to the accompaniment of fingers tapping the sides of noses, and whose functions were silently mouthed but not spoken out loud.

Woolworth’s provided the ‘containers for the thing contained,’ like the sky described by Wordsworth’s phrase, "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky", but instead of being the sky, the 'thing' was a Briar Pipe of second quality, sold in their New Street paradise for half a crown, in spite of the gilt wooden letters on the red field above their wide shop front proclaiming "Nothing over sixpence."

This was an superannuated boast, like Edward Stephenson’s grocery stores whose painted fronts still boasted ‘two shillings and ninepence in the pound dividend,’ in opposition to the Co-op whose dividend had been two shillings and sixpence, but those days were gone for the Co-op and for Stephenson’s, but the signs remained to taunt poor folk and make them shake their heads and mutter emphatically, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Them wer’t days!"

Potter’s via Dodd’s, eventually, supplied the thing contained, in the form of Potters Herbal Smoking Mixture, but that was the second 'thing contained.' The first 'thing contained' was an impressively thick stick of black twist that looked deceptively like a stick of liquorice, but when cut into small pieces and stuffed into our pipe bowls and ignited, operated as an emetic rather than a laxative for which, besides its heavenly taste, liquorice was noted.

Pete and I stood in the queue outside the Grand at the beginning of Manchester Road, and lit up in the balmy air of an early evening whilst awaiting admission to see Lex Barker swing through the trees in search of 'The Green Goddess.' We lit the crackling stuff, and then inhaled deeply. Inhaling was called doing the 'swallow,' and it is largely due to this misnomer that smoking never really caught on with my little circle of friends, for swallowing the pungent fumes made one retch, whereas inhaling merely produced apoplexy and serious coughing.

Neither of us looked at the other, but together we fought our way with streaming eyes to the kerb and synchronously discharged something nasty into the gutter. If the International Olympic Committee had introduced synchronised … never mind!

That night we smoked no more, nor thought of ever doing it again, but a short time afterwards through the intervention of some malignant demiurge we were introduced to Potters Smoking Mixture and with a pack of Rizla cigarette papers and a box of Bryant and May’s Pilot matches, we set up in the fumigating business once more.

By experimentation, we discovered that the one-handed cigarette rolling of silver screen desperadoes was a myth, probably trick photography. This was the fatuous conclusion of a lad who thought that when someone had to be shot the studios found someone who wanted to commit suicide and did it for them with hot lead.

Two-handed rolling was not much better, but we managed to roll some of the stuff into papers that didn’t want to roll and, when they were rolled, didn’t want to stick tight shut, but we persisted. We smugly displayed our handiwork to each other, and then popped them into our mouths and lit up. They lit easily, and smelled like garden bonfires. The reason for the agricultural odour was that it was a blend of dried grass and hay seeds, with some forest stalks thrown in for good measure.

When we lit up in public, heads turned to see what was on fire. We didn’t keep on smoking the stuff for long because when we had the cigarettes (if it be lawful to call them that) in our mouths, a mere tilting of the head backwards caused the contents of the Rizla tube to slide rapidly into our mouths. We learned a great deal about spitting, or 'gozzing' as it was known in our socially elite group, from that.

However, you get an awful lot of grass seeds in a pound of Potter’s, so we resurrected our pipes and stuffed the pot-pourri into their bowls and smoked without inhaling – we were learning! We took to lighting up inside the cinemas to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. We were eccentric, but not total exhibitionists.

Our last eruption of smoking took place in the Grand Cinema, during which episode we discovered that if we put the bowls to our mouths and blew into the bowls, streams of smoke would issue from the stem by way of the hole in the mouthpiece. The smog issued in a stream but then spread out into industrial-sized billows, smelling for all the world just like what it was – a horticultural conflagration.

The stench raised eyebrows and lowered visibility. Uniformed fascists with rubber Every Ready torches swished up and down the aisles flashing penetrating searchlight beams in their search for the malefactors. However, we hid our pipes, and looked nonchalantly at the screen, even when the shaft fell on our innocent faces. Fortunately for us, those nearest us who had been privy to our secret remained as silent and as nonchalant as the two guilty chums with warm jacket pockets.

And that was that. For me it was as bad as the beer I drained from the bottles left by the lodgers. How they could drink that stuff, I could not imagine. I don’t remember whether I thought smokers and drinkers were brave or stupid for continuing to do something that was so nasty, but whatever it was, I never envied them more.

* Addendum

‘Twist’ was a particularly strong tobacco. One to three high-quality tobacco leaves were braided and twisted into a rope while green, and are then cured. The strength of twist was legendary but boys had to try to be men with the result that Pete and me ended up as babies doing what Shakespeare described as ‘mewling and puking’ but in the gutter outside the Grand Cinema in Manchester Road, rather than in our mothers’ arms.

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