And a cold back, too

As a boy I used to smoke, secretly of course, whether away at school or at home. I don’t ever remember enjoying it very much in those early years, except for the first time I shared a cigarette with a girl. That was on the roof of the gym after a school dance, an event which remained in my mind as one of what the French refer to as “hinge experiences” for long after almost everything else in our brief tryst was forgotten. Smoking at home involved hiding somewhere in the family grounds at Blake Atherton in the summer hols or at our home in Surrey for the rest of the year. Smoking at school could fill whole chapters with intrigue and danger; it was such a risky endeavour. But I shall spare you that.

A Norwegian would

Blake Atherton, a manor house belonging to that estate my great-great grandfather Sir Tristan gave away by half-crown increments to the urchins of Northumbria and the Ridings had been unexpectedly redeemed from the cold grip of the ghastly bank by the violent intrusion into all our lives of Mr Hitler. Urgently needed as a training centre for coding and disinformation experts (I cannot imagine what made it so suitable for this occupation, probably the fog), it was commandeered by the War Office for several years before finally being restored to my Uncle Haviland, though without the rest of the estate, by a grateful nation in 1951. Haviland had done something so dreadfully secret and vital in Norway in ’43 that he couldn’t even be awarded a medal for it; though everyone who was in the know (all three of them) thought he richly deserved one. Normal folk like you or I could have no inkling of what that desperate undertaking was, though maybe one or two well-placed Norwegians would. Nevertheless, a certain peer made a veiled remark in the Lords. A memo was passed. Notes were taken. Restitution was made.

The bank is still harrumphing about the loss of “their” house to this day … it’s positively Dickensian. Lawyers are still booking hours on the matter. Preliminary injunctions are occasionally issued and ignored. Title deeds are subpoenaed for inspection. Needless to say, we all long ago took our overdrafts elsewhere. From time to time I will tear up a letter that even reaches the depths of the Ardennes, although the business has nothing whatsoever to do with me. I was but a very large bump in my mother’s elegant silhouette when the bank got screwed by Sir Winston in one of his first actions as returning Minister of Defence in November 1951. Yet, one could insist that therein resides a certain connection to young Edwin, because the delightful and utterly unexpected news of the family’s recovered property drove mummy into sudden contractions. “The Conservatives come into government and Delia goes into labour”, said Uncle Haviland dryly as Daddy crank-started the Wolseley.

Cigarettes: distinguished or extinguished?

Anyway, the stables I mentioned previously in an even more infamous connection, now devoid of horses (the gratitude of the nation didn’t extend that far), were the ideal place to go and smoke. I would sit in the tackle room on a saddle ramp and puff serenely away like Henry the green engine, gazing out at the generally rain-swept valley beyond and feeling myself to be a most wonderfully misunderstood and melancholic intellectual of the first order. The house in Byfleet was more of a challenge. Smoking there required subterfuge, as the only suitable places (potting shed, summer house, attic) were likely to be visited at almost any hour, either by Mills, our inexpensive and fundamentally useless gardener or by my mother or any one of my three sisters and their irritating friends. So I would cycle out to Wisley Lake and get all melancholic and intellectual among the bull-rushes.

Later on at University, at a time when the weed had really begun to taste like something I could enjoy, I took to smoking a particularly wonderful brand of very pricey cigarette made by W.D & H.O. Wills, called “Passing Clouds”. These came in a most elegant, flat and bevelled, flip-top box with a painting of a cavalier on it. They were made from the finest Turkish tobacco and rolled in the typically (or so I imagined) Turkish oval, rather than the standard cylindrical shape. I had found the perfect smoke. I felt I might, with luck, reinvent the novel smoking something like this. I had suddenly become distinguished.

Unfortunately I became distinguished at about the time distinguished, as a valid social idea, went out: extinguished as it were. The Lucky Jims of this world were all getting their leg up the ladder of society (and over) in increasingly large numbers. My class was a dinosaur, stranded; a great beached whale. I had become a dead white man before I’d even written a word and the world was probably a more fortunate place on account of it. So, when Wills killed off the “Passing Clouds” brand in the late seventies, I smoked my last cigarette, or so I thought.

Merits of the plastic bottle

For life has an odd way of deciding differently. As I stood now in the whirling snow next to a beleaguered Miranda, without a torch, without a phone, not even sure of where the road lay and wondering how I might attract someone’s attention, if indeed anyone were out on a night like this, I had the brilliant idea of making a Molotov cocktail and using it as a signal flare.

Now I am a man who firmly eschews the plastic water bottle. I find the entire mineral water mania to be an enormous practical joke played by marketing mavens on unsuspecting consumers. About as much oil goes into capturing, processing, bottling and transporting a litre bottle of mineral water half way round the world as might fill the bottle if it were empty. But I do carry one in the car, in case of emergencies, just tap water, you understand. I prefer a plastic bottle for safety reasons, although I keep intending to buy a steel one and never getting around to it (my father had “A Round 2 it” pinned to his study wall. I was about eight before I got the joke).

So I thought I would take this bottle, drink some of the water (always a good idea says the WHO), throw the rest away, then remove the rubber tube from Miranda’s windscreen fluid reservoir, siphon some petrol from her tank into the bottle, tear a strip off great-aunt Sylvia’s travelling blanket (yes, in my extreme need I was ready to sacrifice a bona fide suffragette relic) dip it into the neck of the bottle, shake the bottle a bit, set it by the roadside and light the wick. I reckoned I might have about one minute of good flare-up, or five to seven minutes if I mixed the petrol with some engine oil. But then I thought: what if no car comes while my cocktail is burning? And what if I were to blow myself up or get severely burned carrying the burning bottle from Miranda to the roadside? The solution would be to wait till a car was close and then light the Molotov … but how?

I decided to get my cocktail made anyway, before I froze to death, and solve the other stuff afterwards. It all took a while; the hardest job was tearing a strip off the old tartan plaid. But after about ten minutes I’d got my completed flare standing by the side of the road in a little heap of snow, next to the felicitous open gate and I’d managed the whole thing without getting a mouth full of petrol; so far, so good. However, I realized that if I were to use the cigar lighter from the Alvis, it would probably not be glowing sufficiently to light the fuse by the time I reached the kerb (or curb depending on your continent), neither would I have time to run from car to road with my little Bakelite knob (assuming it was still glowing enough) before the much sought-after rescue vehicle had passed. I needed something that would stay alight for much longer. God, I needed a cigarette!

Smoking may save your life

It was then that I had one of those moments of spectacular lucidity that come to the old and befuddled from time to time, proof that being close to death concentrates the mind. I remembered that I had an “emergency store” for truly dire events. This was not a first aid kit; otherwise I’d have torn a strip of bandage instead of the precious blanket. But my last first aid kit had been used up on a bleeding schoolgirl (literally: there was lots of blood, though very little damage done, I’m happy to say) who fell off her bike right under Miranda’s wheels back in the early nineties and I’d never replaced it. No, my “emergency store” was a collection of REAL essentials put together many, many years ago in a little biscuit tin. As my various abodes and modes of transport changed through the decades, so this tin always seemed to be handed down from each vehicle to its successor.

It had survived my Land Rover years unopened; it had survived my Triumph TR4, my Armstrong Siddeley and my other Alvis, a TA14 “woody” shooting-brake. It had even survived my “Cotswold gunner” period in a furiously fast and brutally hard Lotus Seven. It was there, waiting for this moment in Miranda’s glove compartment. It contained (I knew this with a certainty) a small flask of gin, a pack of playing cards, a piece of candle, a ball of twine, a goodly length of sheathed copper wire and five cigarettes, carefully wrapped in silver foil. Why five? Because either my car would be carrying five people, who all might merit a last cigarette in a life-and-death situation, or more probably only two: in which case we would smoke two each and share the last one (as I did with Lavinia all those years ago on the roof) while contemplating our approaching extinction. You see, I was still Byronesque at the time I assembled my essentials.

Thus it came about, nearly an hour and a half later, that I was placidly smoking my very last and most exquisite “Passing Cloud” at the side of the road, chilled to the bone but gently lulled with gin, wrapped in the frayed remains of Sylvia’s tartan blanket like something between a wise Indian and a highland snowman, my trouser legs tied closed with twine, when the roar of a very large diesel engine alerted me to my imminent danger and my immediate task. I quickly touched the cigarette to the well-soaked wick and watched as the beautiful, brave, strong and trusty flames leaped up several metres high into the dark night and the whirling crystals, consuming the plastic bottle in a thick pillar of luridly glowing black smoke, such as would guide twelve tribes of Israel complete with heat-seeking missiles, and giving a most unmistakeable signal to the huge and swiftly-advancing snow-plough that something was very much amiss.

And this is why I am now, three weeks after these events, sitting with my feet up before a crackling blaze typing these lines, rather than lying stiff as a board in a snow drift waiting to be discovered in the spring. I still don’t have winter tyres for Miranda (my mission with the parachute captain, whose name by the way is Jean-Michel, was a hilarious failure) but she’s going to stay in the garage until I do, or at least until the fine weather returns. I thank great-aunt Sylvia and Mr H.O Wills from the bottom of my heart. But most of all I thank my own extraordinary forethought and sagacity. A few minutes ago I looked up “Passing Cloud” on the net and found that possibly the very last unopened packet was sold for a serious sum on eBay back in April of 2004. That was six and a half years ago. So I like to think I may have smoked the last one on the planet. And it probably saved my life.

Edwin Drood

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