Bicycle Diaries: Ode to cigarettes

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Ode to cigarettes

Orwell’s obsession
with tobacco

Cigarette smoke so permeates George Orwell's stories it almost leaves stains on one’s fingers when reading his books.
So writes Josh Indar in Bumming Smokes in Paris and London. I was fascinated to read this last week in PopMatters' retrospective on the 60th anniversary of 1984. Anyone who's rolled with me knows that I'm a smoker ... an enthusiastic smoker! What started as the youthful urge to be cool has become a 2-pack a day habit. Having tried to quit cold-turkey several times, I certainly understand the power nicotine must've had over Orwell.

Skulking about smoke-free Eton College with a cigarette dangling provocatively from his lip gave Orwell that particular Bohemian air. Later, the ritual of rolling your own probably appealed to his machismo. Smoking also had its practical side. He writes in both Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London that appetite-suppressing nicotine helped him survive when food was scarce or too expensive.

I certainly can concur. My habit definitely took off when I was working in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. While UN food convoys were often blocked by the warlords, Drina cigarettes always seemed to get through. And now, being woefully under-employed, I find myself subsisting on Winston Ultra Lights. There's nothing like war and poverty for reinforcing your existential view of life.

Indar points out that cigarettes were most often associated with the working class characters in Orwell's books. This should come as no surprise since much of his work championed the commoners. And perhaps by identifying with their daily struggles, smoking helped him to camouflage his middle class origins.

This is especially apparent in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's memoir of the Spanish Civil War. Tobacco is listed as one of the five basic necessities of soldiers in combat. The other four are firewood, food, candles and the enemy. Sharing them at the front also built trust and camaraderie. Describing street fighting in Barcelona, he gratefully acknowledges the small act of heroism performed by a fellow militiaman, who finds two packs of Lucky Strikes under terrible gunfire.

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