Storytime #2

This time from The Punch Guide to Good Living 1973, ed. William Davis, pp. 84-6. The Punch was a really exceptional publication, and it speaks volumes about the problems of the modern world that its circulation peaked in the ’40s and steadily declined until its closure in ’92. If you are ever fortunate enough to come across an old copy of the Guide to Good Living, or the Bedside Book, I strongly advise you to pick them up.

Smokers of the World, Unite

P. G. Wodehouse

It can scarcely have escaped the notice of thinking men, I think, being a thinking man myself, that the forces of darkness opposed to those of us who like a quiet smoke are gathering momentum daily and starting to throw their weight about more than somewhat. Every morning I read in the papers a long article by another of those doctors who are the spearhead of the movement. Tobacco, they say, plugs up the arteries and lowers the temperature of the body extremities lowered, especially during the summer months, they bring up that cat again.

The cat to which I allude is the one that has two drops of nicotine placed on its tongue and instantly passes beyond the veil. “Look,” they say. “I place two drops of nicotine on the cat’s tongue. Now watch it wilt.” I can’t see the argument. Cats, as Charles Stuart Calverley said, may have had their goose cooked by tobacco juice, but are we to deprive ourselves of all our modest pleasures just because indulgence in them would be harmful to some cat which is probably a perfect stranger?

Take a simple instance such as occurs every Saturday on the Rugby football field. The ball is heeled out, the scrum half gathers it, and instantaneously two fourteen-stone forwards fling themselves on his person, grinding him into the mud. Must we abolish Twickenham and Murrayfield because some sorry reasoner insists that if the scrum half had been a cat he would have been squashed flatter than a Dover sole? And no use, of course, to try and drive into these morons’ head that scrum halves are not cats. Really, one feels inclined at times to give it all up and turn one’s face to the wall.

It is pitiful to think that is how these men spend their lives, putting drops of nicotine on the tongues of cats day after day after day. Slaves to a habit, is the way I look at it. But if you tell them that and urge them to pull themselves together and throw off the shackles, they just look at you with fishy eyes and mumble something about it can’t be done. Of course it can be done. All it requires is will power. If they were to say to themselves “I will not start putting nicotine on cats’ tongues till after lunch” it would be a simple step to knocking off during the afternoon, and by degrees they would find that they could abstain altogether. The first cat of the day is the hard one to give up. Conquer the impulse for the after-breakfast cat, and the battle is half won.

But how few of them can see this. You think you have driven home your point, but no. Back comes that fishy-eyed look, and before you know where you are they are off again with their “Place two drops on the tongue of a cat…” The result is that day by day in every way we smokers are being harder pressed. Like the troops of Midian, the enemy prowl and prowl around. First it was James the Second, then Tolstoy, then all these doctors, and now–of all people–Miss Gloria Swanson, who not only has become a non-smoker herself but claims to have converted a San Francisco business man, a Massachusetts dress designer, a lady explorer, a television script writer and a Chicago dentist.

“The joys of not smoking,” she says, “are so much greater than the joys of smoking,” omitting, however, to mention what the former are. From the fact that she states that her disciples send her flowers, I should imagine that she belongs to the school of thought which holds that abstention from tobacco heightens the sense of smell. “Do you realize,” these people tell you, “that if you stop smoking you will be able to smell better?” I don’t want to be able to smell better. Living in New York, I often find myself wishing that I didn’t smell the place as well as I do.

But I have no quarrel with Miss Swanson. We Wodehouses do not war upon the weaker sex. As far as Miss Swanson is concerned, an indulgent “There, there, foolish little woman” about covers my attitude. The bird I am resolved to expose before the bar of world opinion is the late Count Leo N. Tolstoy.

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For one reason and another I have not read Tolstoy in the original Russian, and it is possible that a faulty translation may have misled me, but what he is recorded as saying in his Essays, Letters and Miscellanies is that an excellent substitute for smoking may be found in twirling the fingers, and there rises before one’s mental eye the picture of some big public dinner (decorations will be worn) at the moment when the toast of the Queen is being drunk.

“The Queen!”

“The Queen, God bless her!”

And then.

“Gentlemen, you may twirl your fingers.”

It wouldn’t work. There would be a sense of something missing. And I don’t see that it would be much better if you adopted Tolstoy’s other suggestion–viz. playing on the dudka. But then what can you expect of a man who not only wore a long white beard but said that the reason we smoke is to deaden our consciences, instancing the case of a Russian murderer who half-way through the assassination of his employer found himself suffering from cold feet?

“I could not finish the job,” he is quoted as saying. “So I went from the bedroom into the drawing-room, sat down there and smoked a cigarette.”

“Only when he had stupefied himself with tobacco,” says Tolstoy, “did he feel sufficiently fortified to return to the bedroom and finish dispatching the old lady.”

Stupefied with tobacco! On a single gasper! They must have been turning out powerful stuff in Russia under the old régime.

And, of course, our own manufacturers are turning out good and powerful stuff today, and what I am leading up to is that we should all avail ourselves of it. Smoke up, my hearties. Never mind Tolstoy. Ignore G. Swanson. Forget the cat. Think what it would mean if for want of our support that tobacco firms had to go out of business. There would be no more of those photographs of authors smoking pipes, and if authors were not photographed smoking pipes, how would we be able to know that they were manly and in the robust tradition of English literature? A pipe placed on the tongue of an author makes all the difference.

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