Few things stir up memory so intensely as a scent from the past.
Tarmac on a hot Summer day. Candyfloss at the fairground. Chlorine from the swimming pool. The smell of evening in the Mediterranean, with crickets chirping all around.
Rubber and vehicle wax from the car showrooms my father worked in. And with the barest whiff of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, I’m back on my BMX as a boy. But one aroma above all floods me with memories.
Tobacco on a warm day. Nicotine in Winter. In a car. Outside, on the street. Even the slightly sweet smell of an unlit cigarette, amidst the thin cardboard and foil; but mainly what comes after.
The smell of the sparks from the lighter’s wheel, or the clean wood and pungent sulphur of a match. The sharp, hot note of the flame, and the heavy and cloying initial products of combustion. Then the embers glow, and smoke curls into the air.
My mother has smoked for most of her life, except during her pregnancies. Cigarettes accompanied us everywhere during our childhood. They were a part of the sensory backdrop to almost every memory.
To this day, the scent of smoke while sitting in a car takes me back to Saturday mornings, after the weekly supermarket shopping, waiting for my grandmother to pick up our lunch. We’d be parked on the hill just across from the baker’s, my brother beside me in the back, and my mother in the driver’s seat, her arm resting on the window frame. Every so often, she’d gently tap the cigarette twice to dislodge the accumulating ash.
How impossibly elegant, sophisticated, and mysterious.
I still remember the smoking section on aircraft; now a bizarre and disturbing anachronism. I remember the ritual of borrowing an ashtray from a nearby table when we’d sit down after dinner, on holiday. I remember the pubs with their omnipresent haze clinging to the ceiling, dulling the lights but also making them sparkle.
I remember the strange transition when indoor smoking was banned in public places here. How clean the air seemed, and how your clothes didn’t reek of smoke when you arrived home afterwards. How we worried that something of the convivial atmosphere had been lost, alongside the health benefits we gained.
We were right, of course. The haze had a magical quality, even as it was killing us.
I’ve smoked from time to time myself, perhaps inevitably. I’ve never had a regular habit, though, and I’m too health-conscious (scared) to form one. I was very asthmatic from the age of seven, and the condition only faded and disappeared almost twenty years later. I’ll never forget what it’s like to fight for my next breath, and that’s only one of the ways that smoking can kill you.
It’s a filthy habit, and a terrible idea. If you smoke, you know that you should stop. If you’re tempted to start, then think of yourself and your loved ones, and cast the idea aside. We all know the truth of it. It’s poison.
When I’ve smoked, it’s almost always been tobacco (but I went to university too). I’m rightly forbidden from smoking by my wife, and most of the time I have no desire to - but we have an accord for stag nights, or major reunions with friends from our degree course. I’ll maybe have a couple of cigarettes on those occasions. In most years, I never touch them.
I’m also in the fortunate position of never really developing addictions - but that’s not to say I’ve never craved. For me, smoking is about sensory nostalgia.
My mother uses electronic cigarettes now. Black plastic cylinders, their ends glowing with blue light. As a boy, I’d have loved them more than I could express: something straight from science fiction. As an adult, I find that they just make me sad.
Not because the better alternative would be to quit nicotine altogether, but because they’re just not the same. Vapes look more like a medical device than futuristic narcotics. The array of fruit aromas doesn’t help either.
Smoke shouldn’t be sweet.
Rich, sharp, and bitter; yes. Sheathed in embers. Acrid, greasy, and noxious. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with diesel oil, coal, smog, and high-octane jet fuel.
Smoke shouldn’t be a puff of odourless water vapour from a tiny machine.
Smoke curls into the air, sinuous and sensual, unfolding like a living thing. Smoke has shifting moods, and inscrutable purpose. A dragon, riding its own warm breath.
Sister of Fire.
It damages us, and we’re better off without it; the debate has long since concluded. But it’s also evocative, and beautiful.
Tobacco smoke is the smell of a fading age, drawn in darker colours and more elegant lines.
Despite myself, I can’t help but lament its slow passing.
Photo by Steven Duong.