The Angry Corrie 60: Jan-Feb 2004

At the fag-end of the day

"Some mountaineers do not smoke - such is the darkness that lurks amidst our boasted civilisation."

The quotation is from Leslie Stephen, in The Playground of Europe, after the ascent of the Zinal Rothorn in 1864. It came to mind while reading the Editor's ruminations on smoking in TAC59 (p12). Nowadays, those few British mountaineers who smoke are faint candles glowing in an otherwise universal darkness. What Stephen might have had to say about the uncivilised state of modern Britain can scarcely be imagined. For the benefit and support of those gallant few, here is the full quotation:

"Leaving the stony base of the Besso well to our right, we struck the route to the Triftjoch at the point where a little patch of verdure behind a moraine generally serves for a halting and feeding-place. Here we stretched ourselves luxuriously in the soft green moss in the afternoon sun. We drained the last drops of the wine bag, lighted the pipe of peace - the first that day - and enjoyed the well-earned climbers' reward. Some mountaineers do not smoke - such is the darkness that lurks amidst our boasted civilisation. To them the words I have just read convey no sympathetic thrill. With the ignorance of those who have never shared a blessing, they probably affect even to despise the pleasure it confers. I can, at any rate, say that I have seldom known a happier half-hour than that in which I basked on the mossy turf in the shadow of the conquered Rothorn - all my internal sensations of present comfort, of hard-won victory, and of lovely scenery, delicately harmonised by the hallowing influence of tobacco."

I - you may have guessed - am an unrepentant smoker, and to answer the Editor's question I certainly feel more like "an isolated pariah" than "a happily empowered rebel". In the small world of mountaineering, the pariah factor is most prominent in huts. Although I pay a subscription the same as anyone else, I am forbidden to smoke in the SMC's huts, and am therefore deprived of an important benefit of membership. For just as Stephen craved the "hallowing influence of tobacco" after his climb, I crave it after a meal, and this craving is not at all satisfied by smoking outside in the midges, rain or snow. Rather, it is exacerbated. So these huts are of no use to me. Other clubs are not so intolerant as the steroid-abusing, vegetable-eating SMC, but they will get there, I am sure.

In the wider world, the pariah factor is endemic. Buses, trains, aircraft are all places where not only is the smoker forbidden to smoke, but constantly reminded of this by dire sermons and threats of Draconian punishment should she sin. (Who she? - Ed.) Workplaces are readily identifiable by the clusters of pissed-off smokers huddled outside. When the smoker visits the home of a non-smoking friend, she is apt to find gross deficiencies in manners: no invitation to smoke, no ashtray - at best a boorish offer of the use of the garden.

image from TAC60

I am unrepentant. Why? Well, I see no reason to give up a habit that has done me no harm and offers me comfort. I have lost friends to early cancer, but five were non-smokers. Of the smokers, one was Fred Harper, but he died of kidney cancer which has no association with smoking. Another was Sandy Cousins, but it was his years of work with asbestos that was responsible. The father of one non-smoking friend smoked and died of lung cancer in his late fifties: the friend didn't smoke, ate deliberately healthily, and died of cancer when he was 60. As for those many unfortunate friends and acquaintances who died falling down hills etc, whether or not they smoked was neither here nor there.

On the opposite side of the coin, my friend Graham Brown smoked a pipe incessantly until the day he died, of bowel cancer, at the age of 83. Bill Murray, a cigarette smoker, had illnesses which might be attributable to tobacco, but he lived a full and busy life until he too died at the age of 83. Jim Bell was a man so fond of a smoke that he repaired his favourite clay pipes with valve tubing until they drooped against his chin, but he endured to his 80th year. My father's best man, a pharmacist, puffs through his 20 Capstan every day as he approaches his centenary. Although not advertised by the anti-smoking hegemony, tobacco is prophylactic for ulcers of the colon and for some brain diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's: a good friend of mine abandoned his habitual pipe because of a workplace ban and succumbed to ulcerative colitis within six months. He didn't die, but lost nearly three years to the illness. Though not an acquaintance, Norman Collie serves as a role model - from which I hasten to add that I fall enormously short: he smoked his pipe every minute of every day and died, again aged 83, of assorted minor illnesses after falling into the Storr Lochs.

So there is nothing in my acquaintance, nor in the wider world of my close personal knowledge, to encourage me to repent. But "What about the statistics?", you say. There I stand with the peasants of Uzbekistan interviewed by the Russian psychologist Luria in the 1930s. "Listen," said Luria. "In Novaya Zemlya, all the bears are white. You are in Novaya Zemlya and you see a bear. What colour is it?" "How should I know?" replied the peasant, "I have never been to Novaya Zemlya." "But what do my words imply?", persevered Luria. "Our tsar isn't like yours, and yours isn't like ours," replied the peasant. "Your words can only be answered by someone who was there, and if a person wasn't there, he can't say anything on the basis of your words."

We come now to the last refuge of the barbarian anti-smoker: it annoys and irritates non-smokers. Pfui. I am annoyed and irritated by your orange anorak, your GPS gizmo, your mobile telephone, your stupid bottled water, your habit of laughing like a donkey in the throes of parturition, your eye-watering aftershave; but I bite my lip and swallow it down, because you are my friend. Live and let live; die and let die.

Robin N Campbell

TAC 60 Index