Stuart Reid Charterhouse
That picture of Kate Moss insolently smoking a cigarette on the Paris catwalk on No Smoking Day last week rather lifted my spirits. It is always encouraging to see a beautiful woman challenge the suburban values of our moral guardians. The only thing that spoilt it for me was Kate’s sluttish outfit. Forget custody of the eyes, you had to look away when you saw those hotpants.
The narrative kicked in as soon as the pictures were published: women journalists ignored the hotpants and focused on the cigarette. There are five deadly secular sins – racism, sexism, paedophilia, homophobia and smoking – and evil must not go unpunished. Jan Moir in the Daily Mail was merciless. “[Kate] is ageing faster than a blue cheese in a damp cave,” she wrote. Her “lungs are shrinking to blackened golf balls” and her “arteries are closing down faster than branches of Borders books”. So what’s the problem, then? Well, said Jan, Kate is a bad example to the “wide-eyed kids” who worship her.
So she is, but smoking is the least of it. Kate is hardly a role model as a single mum, for example, and is a key figure in a degenerate, multi-million pound industry that is perhaps fatally attractive to many wide-eyed girls. If Kate encourages them to smoke, I do not much care. The real danger comes not from tobacco but from the fatal attraction of the Nazi-chic porn of the catwalk.
There is, furthermore, something irredeemably prim about a society that allows abortion on demand – indeed, encourages young women to look upon it as a form of birth control – and yet has a hissy fit about smoking because “smoking kills”.
By comparison with abortion, smoking is a lifeenhancing practice. Of course smoking can seriously damage your health, and of course smokers have a much greater chance of dying of lung cancer than do non-smokers: it is estimated that 90 per cent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking, and research has suggested that if you smoke for 50 years and quit at the age of 70 you have a 16 per cent chance of dying of lung cancer.
Against that, however, must be set the fact that cigarettes can relieve stress. If you are a 70-year-old smoker destined to be among the 84 per cent who will not die of lung cancer, you might find that the stress relief your habit brings you is really rather welcome, even if it does make you cough a bit.
Obviously, anyone who thinks that smoking (or for that matter dinking or jogging) is seriously damaging his health ought to give it up. The Catechism has this to say on the subject: “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine.” But how about a bit of temperance when it comes to entertainment and education? Every night teens and pre-teens watch gratuitous violence and explicit sex on television. At school they are further coarsened. In these houses of correction they learn that it is OK to fornicate if they use condoms, but that it is not OK to have a post-coital cigarette. How fair is that? Drugs and alcohol are frowned on, but you get the feeling that many right-on ethicists would rather young people smoked spliffs – what Barry Humphries once described as “highly chunderous marihuana ciggies” – than tobacco.
For all its dangers, tobacco is a good. A great cigar is a beautiful thing, like a vintage wine, and I am not at all alarmed when I see young people smoking. Last week I went to a sparkling dinner party given by my good friend Matthew Bell, once deputy receptionist at the Spectator, now the Independent on Sunday’s Diarist. All the young people present smoked, though in moderation. The puritanism of the new secular order had not infected this corner of Chelsea.
It has infected much of the Church, though. I blame the “Spirit of Vatican II”. At any rate what Pope Paul VI described as “the smoke of Satan” may have contributed to the hostility to smoking among some churchmen. Before the Council, smoking could be seen as a Catholic habit, rather like drinking. It is said that Pope Benedict once smoked Marlboro reds. Pope St Pius X smoked cheroots. In olden times, furthermore, smoking was encouraged by spiritual leaders.
At Ampleforth in the 1950s (so the story goes) one of the monks had to be called into the abbot’s office before Ash Wednesday each year and ordered not to give up smoking for Lent. Abstinence made him impossible to live with. In the same period, sixth-formers were allowed to smoke in their rooms on Wednesday evenings. Now smoking is absolutely forbidden, but boys are allowed to drink. I am all for alcohol, but it is a lot more dangerous than tobacco.
I gave up smoking because tobacco began to make me feel ill. If it didn’t make me feel ill, I’d smoke again. I’d not be stopped from doing so if cigarettes were kept beneath the counter or sold in plain packets – two ideas floated by our health czars – and I don’t know anyone who would.
One of the young women at that dinner party in Chelsea, by the way, (a Catholic if we are keeping score) rather agrees with me about Kate and her fag and says: “I thought she looked sexy but old and a bit depraved – a bit cruel.” But: “I don’t think anyone has to get their knick-knocks in a twist about her influencing young people. If Justin Beiber took up smoking on stage, that’d be a different matter.” Plus: “I think Kate’s teetering on the edge of becoming an eccentric. Something funny happens to fashion ladies when they get too old to be fancied – they turn into these rather brilliant, crazed creatures like Vivienne Westwood. I used to think they were ghastly, but I’m now sort of fond of them.” There you go. The voice of youth. I love it. Would anyone care for a cigarette? I think I have some Senior Service left in the fridge.