Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Lights Out

Maybe our souls are just part of the shared spirit of creation and, maybe,  we also know, deep down, that all living things share in it and that is why every shot bird or mammal and every landed fish touches us; even though God gave man dominion over all creatures and they provide us with food and clothing.

I also think that some inanimate objects can be possessed of what we recognize as a kind of soul: look at, say a 1931 eight litre Bentley (the last in the W O Bentley direct line and only one hundred made); or a Joseph Manton musket; or the revolutionary 1875 prototype boxlock shotgun (bearing a commemorative plate), patented by Anson & Deeley of Westley Richards in 1875; or a fragile first edition (1859) of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubiáyát of Omar Khayyám. Such things as these are also touched with a kind of spirit. It was even said of Rosa Lewis’s old Cavendish Hotel ; in a fond farewell to the old place, in October 1962, and before it went to join the Tabard  and the Mermaid Inns, The New Statesman said that the site of the hotel at the junction of Jermyn Street and Duke Street had become a ‘mysterious space-time inn at a metaphysical junction ’.

The great London tobacconists that I have been privileged to have known had atmospheres, auras, presences: Sullivan Powell in the Burlington Arcade, selling its majestic, great, tightly rolled, sweet, robust and untipped sub rosa Oriental Cigarettes, in their black and gold boxes of twenty five or a hundred, swathed in thick tissue paper; even unlit their aroma wooed the nostrils of the gods. Benson & Hedges were in Bond Street, with their elegant, oval Cairo Cigarettes, sold in turquoise boxes, and venerable Fribourg & Treyer (est. 1720) were near the top of Haymarket and in here, if you listened very carefully, you could still hear Beau Brummell’s retreating footsteps after placing his very last order of their Old Paris and Macouba snuffs.

 Alas! All gone. Mercifully, at least, the frontage of 32 Haymarket is preserved and Wilsons of Sharrow took over the Fribourg & Treyer snuff receipts and still produce their snuffs.

Sullivan Powell’s whole range of cigarettes and Benson & Hedges’ Cairo Cigarettes were the sudden victims of over-regulation by the European Union banning all cigarettes with more than fifteen milligrammes of tar. The playwright John Osborne said in an incandescent letter to The Times:

“As a schoolboy I narrowly escaped from ‘European’ bombs on my doorstep. I can forgive this eagerness, but not the compounding of the insult by dashing the tobacco from my lips forty years on”.

Fribourg & Treyer, one of London’s oldest surviving businesses, and still successful as a tobacconist and snuff chandler, was taken over, in the early 1980s, by Imperial Tobacco, which moved them out and then shut them down.

Every time that I first missed these shops, I felt the same mingled disbelief, confusion and anger that I had felt when I first found Sulka gone from Bond Street. Disbelief and confusion because it is difficult to believe that such wonderful shops, that have been an important living part of the London landscape, can just disappear without so much as a murmur of protest or a tear of regret, and then anger that they have actually gone.

In the last year at least three more great tobacconists have shut down: first, Shervington’s (formerly John Brumfitt, who popularized Romeo y Julieta Havanas) in Holborn Bars; then S Weingott & Son (where Rumpole most certainly must have bought his small cigars), just outside the Temple, in Fleet Street and now G Smith & Sons in the Charing Cross Road.  I imagine that, with the coming into force of the total ban on advertising and displaying tobacco products, most of the nation’s remaining small tobacconists (often also sweet shops and newsagents), will fall like ninepins; family businesses will be wiped out and their staff, in the midst of national bankruptcy postponed, will be put on the dole, to join the thousands already there by virtue of pub closures, in the wake of the public smoking ban, which was ostensibly introduced to protect employees from pub patrons’ smoke. Whoever dreamed up the policy for all this over-regulation lives, I warrant, either down a rabbit hole or behind a looking glass.

Those who govern the nation tell us that we live in a ‘Big Society’ of tolerance, inclusivity, classlessness and liberalism but, excuse me, I do not feel beneficially  either ‘tolerated’ or ‘included’ when I am encouraged, with so much misplaced and forcible enthusiasm,  to give up good tobacco, which John Osborne rightly described as “one of life’s few and reliable pleasures”. Moreover, I deeply resent it when this misplaced encouragement comes from ‘bullies’ who masquerade as ‘liberals’ in a society which is most notably ‘Big’ in being in economic free-fall and social decay. The legislative process has very swiftly moved from a position of tolerance (say, in decriminalizing homosexual practices) to the point at which we may now even marry our best male friend but, somehow, we may not lawfully join him in a cigar in the smoking room of a private club which was established to provide a place for men to sit around, and smoke, and drink and talk. The statute book reflects a very queer state of affairs indeed, resulting from twisted, tendentious reasoning, based on skewed or irrelevant evidence. A small, unventilated and smoke-filled bar might well present a health risk to a barman who works there all day, every day, for thirty years but show me  a Carlton Club servant who has developed a smoking-related illness as a result of the smoking room activities of its members and note, as we pass, that at least one ‘New Labour’ member of parliament wished to excuse working men’s clubs from the smoking ban; presumably because they all agreed with John Osborne that smoking is indeed one of life’s few and reliable pleasures.

Very shortly, most remaining tobacco sales will have to be conducted through internet transactions and any remaining tobacconist shops will become blank-fronted stores reminiscent of Soho’s seedy old pornographers (before they felt able to set window displays suggestive of their wares) and all remaining tobacco shop customers will feel obliged  to dart in and out of them in mufflers and macs, with hats pulled well down because, gradually, smoking tobacco is being branded a perversion; one of the many modern British taboos, dreamed up by tin-Hitlers and enforced by their jobsworths who have jumped out of the walls at us: wagging their fingers, rattling their clipboards and brandishing their regulations and cheap biros; telling us that they presume to tell us what is best for us .

What is actually best for us is to reclaim the lost land of true liberalism and true conservatism, which have been displaced by policies of commercialism and popularity-at-any-cost, developed as Thatcherism and taken to new highs (or lows) by the monstrous architects of so-called ‘New Labour’ and now the current leaders of the consensus-coalition-in-conflict. For me, reclaiming that lost land means revisiting the principles of J S Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ and understanding the basis of Disraeli’s Tory democracy, as well as understanding and accepting that we are not all created equal in this world at all. Such understanding and acceptance of the real diversity of society is the foundation stone for our mutual compassion towards this “poor, frail, fallen humankind”.

It is the rank intolerance which is behind all the banning, as well as the control- freakery, that really sticks in my craw. Who do these people think that they are? In his book “State of Fear”, Michael Crichton mentions a woman who founded a movement to ban di-hydrogen monoxide because “it can cause drowning”. A number of morons then supported her 'movement' to ban water, which very nicely suggests that those keen on banning things are not necessarily armed with any knowledge or powers of reasoning or even appreciation of all the consequences of what they are doing. It seems that they are just empowering themselves at the expense of others’ enjoyments. That sounds more like a perversion to me than does smoking tobacco.

If the fox-hunting ban bribe to the chattering classes, in return for backing Blair’s invasion of Iraq, had ever been effective as legislation, thousands of hounds would, presumably, have been destroyed (as they are not pet dogs) and all paid hunt staff would have been put out of work; all for the sake of banning one effective means of controlling a wantonly destructive pest which (most seem to agree) needs to be controlled in some way.

The fact that the tastes and values of the urban rabble and chattering classes are increasingly pandered to by ignorant and thoughtless bullies most certainly does not make modern Britain a tolerant, inclusive, classless or liberal society at all. It is time to take a real stand against all the flummery and to support organizations such as FOREST; the Countryside Alliance, and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation; otherwise, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will not be long before there are serious moves to outlaw the actual possession and use of tobacco and to ban shooting.

Why not take a leaf out of the book of the distillers and brewers? They, despite the devastation caused by alcohol abuse (ranging from alcohol-induced dementia and sudden death to vehicle accidents causing death and permanent injury to wholly innocent by-standers), seem to have done rather better (by lobbying) than just to avoid tighter controls on the purchase and consumption of alcohol and have even managed to abolish licensing hours altogether.  Where were the tight-lipped puritans then?


  1. Such an evocative description of London tobacconists, I wish that world still existed even in the hand me down memories of bricks and mortar.

    1. I see that I did not thank you for the comment!

  2. Bravo, well said. I remember those shops with affection and deep regret. What I would give today for the sublime taste of a Sullivan Powell No. 1.

    1. Thanks. At least plain packaging has been dropped, thanks to FOREST.