Breathing and Drinking – Cigarettes and Alcohol

There is a South West train service that goes from Waterloo to Clapham Junction to Putney to Richmond to Teddington to Kingston and to Wimbledon. This route offers some of the most sought after space in Britain. Here we have the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in Putney, Roger Federer at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Association and Johnny Wilkinson at Twickenham. I’ve described the area along the River Thames from Putney to Hampton Court as the Valley of Kings. This stretch of the river is defined by a series of 16th, 17th and 18th century palaces and houses. Starting at Fulham we have Bishops Palace, then Chiswick House, then Syon House, then Marble Hill House, then Ham House, under the steady watch of Pembroke Lodge built by John Soane and the former home of Prime Minister John Russel and the philosopher Betrand Russell, then Orleans House and then Strawberry Hill House and finally Hampton Court. Like the site surrounding the Acropolis rock, the neighbourhoods around the palaces and noble houses seem to be built in the style, image and perhaps even the same raw materials of these palaces and noble houses. The best example of this is the American University seen from the gardens of Ham House. The Valley of Kings is the realisation of the neo-classical dream through activity, architecture and education with the greatest private schools in Britain occupying boathouses along this stretch of the Thames.

Amidst this neo-classical symphony are kids, coming of age and experiencing life in the way that all kids do around the world. There are first loves and new experiences. Theatre, Debating, Literature, Science and Mathematics. iPods and Smart Phones. Facebook, Gmail and SnapChat. Sex. Cigarettes and Alcohol. It is the last two ingredients that formed the foundation for the engine of our social lives and the greatest connection towards the people, the music and the films. Through cigarettes and alcohol the teenagers raised on Britain’s most holy fields, transformed dark corners into a place of expression and freedom. 


A friend of mine had loved smoking so much that we spent one summer afternoon walking the streets of Putney searching for half smoked cigarettes. We collected a handful of quarter smoked cigarettes and then the friend failed to smoke them with kitchen roll. This was the day of my first ever cigarette. Later, an older female friend of his bought a twenty deck of king size Marlborough Menthols which we smoked sitting in an empty carpark just off the Upper Richmond Road. The black night, the white lights on the smoke and the glow of the cigarette would forever be associated with the same bloke. It was the introduction to an activity that would be the definition for a huge number of years. I was the first person to have smoked in my year group. As time went on fellow peers would signal the desire to smoke or have experienced the same with primary school friends in the parks and gardens between Putney and Hampton Court. After a school trip to visit the battle fields of the Somme, cigarettes were acquired on mass, smuggled through the Channel tunnel and smoked a mile from Hampton Court.

Smoking is illegal for everyone under the age of 16. Of much more concern were people’s parents seeing us smoking. Therefore, in pursuit of the cigarette we managed to turn dark, gross and secretive places into sites of liberty and freedom. We smoked at a place called Faeces park, it’s title a result of the fact it smelt like shit. We smoked at a place we nicknamed ‘DOD’ because of the Danger of Death sign. We smoked next to the Thames’ sewage pond. We smoked at a place called ‘bench’, that was just a bench in the middle of a common. Next door to the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis tube station, we smoked with a brie baguette from a French Bakery. This was where I listened to Jehst’s The Dragon of an Ordinary Family for the first time. From Summer to Winter we smoked on the railway bridges and roads around the trainlines from Clapham, to Putney, to Richmond, to Teddington, to Kingston, to Wimbledon. 

In these spaces we smoked cigarettes, blems, bloims, cigs, smokes, roll ups and straights. At first we smoked 10 decks of Mayfair and Pall Mall, acquired through waiting for up to an hour outside of off licenses. 10 decks were 3 pounds, 20 decks were 5 pounds. Then later when we had learnt to roll and obtained fake id’s from siblings or travel shops that allowed the individual to offer a false age, we would smoke rolling tobacco, Drum and Golden Virgina and Cutters Choice, all sharing the experience of hiding the materials in the dark and secret places in our bedrooms. The revolution in smoking took place when Golden Virginia created a box of cigarettes that came equipped with five sticks of filters, rolling paper and 8 grams of Golden Virgina light. 

The choice to smoke was a symbolic investment on the people that smoked, the conversation and the music and stories enjoyed when smoking. Smoking was a symbolic form of association with the rock and roll stars and the characters we had seen in the films. The poetics and attitude of smoking were created through the Arctic Monkeys and Oasis most explicitly through the songs Cigarette Smoker and Cigarettes and Alcohol, and then songs like Jehst’s High Plains Drifter; ‘I sit by the river, a packet of Rizzla and a flask full of liquor’ and Jamie T’s Sticks and Stones ‘I was a ten a day, how d’you say little shit, white lightning heightening all my courage quick wit’. We found shared affinity from the marijuana experiences described in Mac Miller’s Another Night and the Souls of Mischief song ’93 Till Infinity. Television series like Mad Men (Lucky Strikes) and the Pacific (Camels) affirmed the aesthetic beauty of smoking in the third person. Through smoking these cigarettes we were experiencing the true nature of our films and records, some of which I would later realise had actually been created along the same stretch of the river. Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin recorded between Chiswick House and Fulham Palace, The Rolling Stones performed near Ham House, the Beatles made records and Michael Caine made films just up from Marble Hill House and the films of Stanley Kulbrick, George Lucas and Ridley Scott were created not far from Hampton Court. It’s worth remembering that many dressed in the songs and clothes we had seen in This Is England wearing Fred Perry, Lyle and Scott and Adidas, some of us going beyond JD Sports and finding Merc and Baracuta on Ebay. 

Smoking was a motive in itself. The measurement of our excitement was very often articulated through Holidays in the Mediterranean. On family holidays in Nice and Sardinia, the sight and smell of Marlborough Lights, very often smoked by tanned French women, became my greatest object of desire. When the same guys that had been smoking cigarettes smuggled from Ypres went to Malia and Sicily the freedom of the Trip was declared through the acquisition and smoking of cheap twenty decks. Through smoking one pays great attention to the breath. In the Mediterranean the alteration in temperature and proximity towards the ocean is experienced through the inhalation and exhalation of the cigarette. 


Christopher Hitchens, maybe the greatest essayist and drinker of his generation, provides rules on drinking: ‘‘Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than taken a drop.’ Along the Valley of Kings the economy of drinking was a massive counterpoint towards Christopher Hitchens’ advice – the cheaper and stronger the alcohol the better. While I was accustomed towards drinking cans of Budweiser and Kronenburg, I would very happily enjoy Super Tenant (8% lager), Tyskie (5.2% lager) and K Cider (7.5%), very often drank from in plastic bags on buses like the 33 and the R68. 

The first experiments with alcohol felt of great significance. We were forming memories of serious consequences to our social bonds. On one night someone learnt the rules to Ring of Fire and the evening ended with the ecstasy of phones being smashed and a Ralph Lauren shirt disappearing from someone’s body never to be found again. These dark nights of wit and mischief were the conversion to our new favourite game. Parents cupboards were raided when staying over and sometimes looted at parties. We were at the behest of what our parents hadn’t drank, in some cases the parents hadn’t drank for a number of years meaning that you had decades old Asda’s basic vodka, blackberry liquor in ornate bottles and what seemed like a relentless supply of Disaronno. 

In the game of cigarettes and alcohol the off license comes the paragon of excitement. It is where most of your money is spent on acquiring the two spiritual substances of tobacco and alcohol. The off licenses’ themselves are a space of exoticism. They’re normally run by a first generation immigrant from South Asia. At night the white fluorescent fridge lights punctuate the field of vision. The stores are well stocked with a great variety. They are an exhibition of consumerism, the gallery for Britain’s advertisers and designers. The cereal, washing powder, drinks, magazines, newspapers, sweets, chewing gum and sim cards are all designed with bright bold colours. Most off licenses’ contain Ice Cream freezers despite the fact that we have few days in Britain were Ice Cream seems necessary. Going to the off license before a big night out is one of the rare times where your peers will entrust you with buying something on their behalf. 

Beyond being funny, alcohol could solve problems and create opportunities. It gave one the confidence to talk in the way that one might like with strangers and the opposite sex and thus getting drunk became the winning method for expressing oneself and building connections after the age of 15. Alcohol is like a good coat. With a good coat one has the ability to explore every area of a city in all temperatures. Similarly, after enough alcohol one has complete command over the social body and can access flow states of chain smoking, flirtation and charisma. This is why drinking very often has the ability to stimulate some of the best and most honest conversations, with everyone able to express themselves with full social confidence.

The strength and reliability of alcohol to offer complete control of the body can lead to a dependence. If one feels like they can only have social control of the body after the aid of two pints they are in a very dangerous situation where socialising becomes conditional upon sufficient consumption of alcohol. This has the ability of creating the world of drinking and non-drinking. The world in which you are able to perform yourself with alcohol and the world in which you aren’t. This rhythm of life can be intense and boring. Through spending five days in anticipation of drinking on the weekend and then spending the next day recovering you become hostage to an evening’s drinking that takes on a holy status in the mind. This relationship can feel pavlovian and leaves ones faculties of confidence enfeebling bodily strength. If I hadn’t learnt how to meditate, I might still have believed that alcohol was the greatest way of dealing with the mind. Were I to have learnt to meditate at the same time as learning drinking I would have made much better decisions throughout my adulthood. 

Like music, variations of alcohol created and drank vary depending on the geographical location. Korev in Cornwall, Guinness in Dublin, Draught Bier with huge frothy heads in Bavaria, Youngs at a Youngs Pub, Fullers at a Fullers pub, Beer Peche when skiing in the Alps, Aperol Spritz on the Meditarranean and 600 ml bottles of warm Lion lager along the coast of Sri Lanka. In Putney, The Rocket was the meaning of life between 17 and 18. The first ever pint was a Tuborg, before graduating to the cheapest stuff which included 3 pound Doombar. Other pubs worth mentioning include the Rayne’s Park Cavern and The Asparagus in Clapham Junction. Regardless of location, the Arctic Monkeys and The Pogues made the best drinking music. 

As drinking evolved beyond the railway bridges and free houses on the Valley of Kings, red wine changed my life. It resonated through my body like a song. In my second year of University I visited Paris and for the first time red wine was the cheapest and strongest alcohol fitting my economy of drinking. Sharing five euro bottles of wine and reading Ernst Hemmingway’s Immovable Feast, I had a sense of historical connection with the thinking self in a way that smoking and drinking had previously been in communion with the rock and roll and film self. Gordon’s Wine Bar in Covent Garden became the site of some of my happiest afternoons in London, intelligent conversation, wine and cigarettes felt like the oxygen of the thinking and social mind. Red wine is Christopher Hitchens and Leonard Cohen and Brassai and Rohmer and Chopin and Bill Evans. My adult sense of self was a glass of Malbec. 

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