I Was A 13 Year Old Tobacco Baron

A nostalgic account of saving up your dinner money for a pack of John Player Specials, Northern Soul nights and Britain's golden age of smoking.
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A nostalgic account of saving up your dinner money for a pack of John Player Specials, Northern Soul nights and Britain's golden age of smoking.

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Thrown out of the pubs and clubs, on the way to being X-rated in movies and banned from lighting up in their own cars - it’s not surprising that smokers feel hard done by. These days, smokers are outsiders in the worst sense of the word, sneered at by the general public as they huddle together in the cold, chugging on dreary cancer sticks. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to join their ranks. Not like in the 70s; that age of abandon and A plus branding that saw me eagerly rushing to embrace the evil weed.

From an early age, I was well disposed towards cigarettes. I loved to watch the swirling patterns the smoke above my mam’s head would make as it rose from her No. 6. My appreciation for her relentless puffing went to another level when she converted the carrier bags full of Players coupons under her bed into our first record player.

Like most of my peer group, my first hand relationship with tobacco began at the age of 11 when I moved up to comprehensive school. Everyone who was anyone smoked and I couldn’t wait to get in on the act. I could’ve bought No. 6s from the paper shop, as I was often in there stocking up for the house, but who in their right mind would want to rock the same gaudy, light blue tabs as their mam? We all sourced our snout from the machine in the new leisure centre; 50p for 20 and you got 10p change taped to the packet. The shop down on the way into town that did a single Benson and a match for 5p did little business. We could work out what a rip off it was and besides, they’d picked the wrong make. Ignore the golden sheen, Bensons were common as muck; fags like your dad’s stiff mates smoked.

Smoking was a going out thing, so you wanted to make a statement. The lack of a licensed bar meant that (what we thought were) credible Northern Soul nights would happily let kids in. Too scared to dance, we would dwell in the corners: smoking, staring and smoking. First time out, I opted for a pack of Craven A. I was attracted by the clean, red and white livery and the promise of a ‘smooth’ smoke. The first time I got them out, an older (13 year old) sophisticate dismissed them as ‘tasting like teabags’. I never bought them again. It could have been worse - certain brands would get you mocked out of the door. Rothmans, with their too light filter and the perfectly manicured nails of the bloke holding them in the advert, were soft. Silk Cut - forget about it. The cinema commercials were hilarious, but you may as well wear a pink tutu if you were planning to come out with low tar cigarettes. If you even considered menthol- you should just go to the woods and hang yourself immediately to avoid the years of unremitting persecution.

Second time out, my saved up dinner money went towards some John Player Specials and they got a far better reception. The key was the shiny black pack. Schoolies were like magpies when it came to fag packets, with the silver of Lambert and Butler being a particular favourite of the pre-teen night club set. An ostentatious lad could get away with the wide box, extra length and discreet silver strip of Dunhill International. The girls could push things even further, using the cigs themselves as fashion accessories. For a young lass in Northern England in the late 1970s; nothing marked you out as a free spirit like a coloured Sobraine Cocktail with a gold foil filter, nothing screamed elegance more than the kiss of lip gloss against a skinny, dark brown More cigarillo.

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After about six months- I decided to give the ciggies a rest. Although I remained smoke free for the rest of my time at the comp, I had a major impact on my school’s smoking culture. When I was in the third year, my granddad collapsed on the way to the working men’s club. He reported that he had felt short of breath, hardly surprising after a lifetime of working down the pit and smoking untipped cigarettes. He was allowed home from hospital with one condition; no tabs ever again. Despite his reasonable argument that is was a bit late for that, my nan ruthlessly enforced the ban. The family were left with a dilemma. My mam had taken to stocking up in bulk to keep the bills down and had cut her dad in on the action. As a result, the cupboard under the stairs was packed with boxes of Park Drive. As she had recently traded down to Embassy Mild for health reasons, they were of no use to her. Following a brief discussion, it was decided that I should flog them to kids at school and we would split the proceeds.

I loved being a 13 year old tobacco baron. At first, the reception was lukewarm. Unfiltered fags had never really been aimed at the youth market and were not seen as child friendly. Eventually, a couple of the more clued up fifth year lads decided to take advantage of the discount price and, as soon as these opinion leaders were on board, a whole generation woke up to the joy of Parkies. They realised that untipped cigarettes were simultaneously rugged and silky smooth- see five seconds of any Bogart film for evidence. Smokers’ corner became a haven of retro cool. Some took to protecting their precious snout in silver cigarette cases purloined from elderly relatives. When my supply ran dry, a few stuck with the unfiltered style, embracing other brands such as Senior Service, with its sublime warship in full sail logo on pack and fag alike, and Capstan Full Strength.

By the time I was 16, I’d drifted back into smoking. I’d get by cadging the odd cigarette as we hung out on the long summer evenings but, as I was about to become a proper working man (OK- government schemie), I knew it was time to pick a brand and start funding my own consumption. I proudly became an Embassy smoker. Whip them out and you would get derisive comments from king size loving philistines (especially from deluded devotees of the hot new Superkings). They didn’t get it. Embassy contained pure Virginia tobacco; none of this African crap. The smaller filter seemed to make them slightly edgy. You were showing you were willing to take a risk to get the full flavour. The main attraction was the packet: square and all white with the single, solid red band. Embassy truly were the Ajax of the bifta world. Throw in an Embassy bingo card and you’ve got a complete entertainment experience in each perfectly formed pack.

For years, I was loyal to Embassy, but there were flirtations with other brands. Occasionally, I would meet up with John Player Special. My first crush had acquired a new matt black finish and a spurious rumour that JPS caused horrific internal bleeding had the double bonus of added bad boy points and reducing the amount you had to dish out when crashing the ash. Although I didn’t really dig the taste, I was briefly infatuated with the Irish brand Major. It was all about the push pack and I got over it, although I still look yearningly whenever Fitz flashes them on repeats of Cracker. Even in hard times, I never sank to the budget brands. I’d rather wrap up the ashtray than have a Ronson or a Royal.

I loved being a 13 year old tobacco baron. At first, the reception was lukewarm. Unfiltered fags had never really been aimed at the youth market and were not seen as child friendly.

I spent a year in the US, estranged from the Embo filters, and became a Camel smoker. The iconic logo and soft pack option allowed for full on road movie fantasies. I even started indulging in the pointless packing them down ritual. When I returned to Blighty, I never touched another Embassy. My tastes had changed. I’d come to prefer the thicker American style to the light, British blend. The final straw was the redesign of the Embassy packet, the corporate equivalent of drawing a cock on the Mona Lisa’s forehead. Embassy filters now looked like a titchy knock off of Number 1s. It was heart breaking.

Marlboro reds were custom designed for my requirements: Stateside cool, indie band credibility, strength and an acquired, cod French taste that would draw the odd grimace when you offered them round. I didn’t even mind the insane Ku Klux Klan nonsense that people would bore you with. The fact that the brand had its own mythology added to the appeal.

It was a good fit for a while, but I stopped living a Marlboro lifestyle. I had been an Embassy man to my core. Marlboro was more of a pose. Deep down, I knew I’d had enough of being a smoker all together. Due to circumstances beyond my control, (a neighbour bringing me the wrong duty frees off his holiday) I’d drifted into smoking Bensons- functional fags for drones and old bags. It was like being an old time Soviet citizen, sucking down the same poison as all the other plebs. The joy had gone out of it. For the first time, smoking felt like a habit.

These days, I’m a smoker who hasn’t had a fag for six years. When I look up at the cigarette displays in shops, I feel a pang of disappointment; always the same small selection of dull famous names in a wall of lurid, cheap tat. The tobacco firms seem to have admitted defeat- marketing to the lowest common denominator. Forget the cancer, the nanny staters and the pictures of rotting black gums; lack of imagination and contempt for customers are killing the fag biz from within. What self-respecting boy about town would be seen dead with a packet of Mayfairs?