East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Historical smoking and other unhealthy writing sins


I don’t smoke. I never did.
I consider it a foul habit and a waste of money. My parents did not smoke neither, my grandfathers both did (and it shortened their lives). As a kid, just walking by someone smoking usually caused me to break into a fit of cough. This was somewhat awkward during my teens and twenties, because it looked like everybody smoked then.
My girlfriend in high school smoked. Marlboros. Talk about awkward: it’s hard to be in love with someone and you start coughing like you’re about to spit a lung every time you get close to her.
But anyway…

I watched a lot of old movies, as I grew up.
I liked – and I still like today – old noirs.
Humphrey Bogart. High Sierra is one of my all-time favorites ever. The Big Sleep, too. But everything he did, really. He was a sort of role model, because like that guy said “We’re all Bogart at least once in our lives”. And Bogey always had his cigarette. The nails in my coffin, he called them.
And what about Robert Mitchum? What about all the other Marlowes of TV and Cinema?
Then there was Mike Hammer. Damn, the guy got routinely punched, stabbed and shot at, then he got home, took a shower, drank a shot of whiskey, lit a cigarette, and he was as fresh as a rose.
And don’t even get me started on James Bond.

Despite my favorite movies and TV shows, I never picked up smoking. Or boozing. Or shooting at people, for that matter. And a long acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes never made me feel like smoking a pipe. Or trying cocaine.
Of course, your mileage may vary. I’m not here to judge anyone.

Quite certainly as a result of the fact that I do not smoke, my modern-day main characters usually don’t: Leo Martin, Buscafusco, Felice Sabatini, are all smoke free. Of the three, Buscafusco is probably the healthier – he does not drink alcohol either, while the other two do. Both Buscafusco and Martin like good food and like cooking for themselves (exactly like I do). On the other hand, Buscafusco thinks vegan is stupid.
And it’s not just guys: Beth Gastrell, the protagonist of a forthcoming series of thrillers, is a non-smoker and a health & fitness enthusiast.
While I tend to be strict with my main characters, I am looser with their companion, partners and sidekicks.

In The Ministry of Thunder, Pat smokes, and Helena Saratova in a happy bundle of habits and indulgences, and she’s fine like that, thank you. Captain LaFleur smokes and is an alcoholic, but of course he’s French.
In the BUSCAFUSCO stories, Matilde Ciambotti doesn’t smoke or possibly is a social smoker (that wouldn’t surprise me – she’s a bit of a hypocrite); the doctor prohibited her aunt Matilde Sr. to smoke but she doesn’t care, while Caterina is a smoker and there’s a hint of a darker habit in her past. Monsieur Molinot, Beth Gastrell’s boss, smokes Russian cigarettes (the same brand Helena smokes – make what you will of that).

This morning I saw a post from a friend and colleague – someone had checked out a movie from the 50s based on his review of it, and was quite displeased: everybody smoked in that flick, and that ruined the movie for her.
And when my friend pointed out that it was a movie made in the ’50s, and basically everybody smoked in movies at the time, he was told that doesn’t matter – we should not review, recommend or watch shows in which people smoke. Because maybe it was OK back then but it’s not any longer.

And to me that’s just a lack of historical perspective.
Because “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
And often the inhabitants of that past do things we do not approve, or we know are wrong, or are objectively unhealthy – like drinking wine from lead cups in Ancient Rome, or brewing life elixirs from cinnabar ( that is, mercury sulfide) in Tang China.
Some of the things that were done in the past have become socially unacceptable, like eating other people, owning other people, killing animals for fun. Or smoking.
Should we avoid all the stories that feature what right now is unacceptable?

Isn’t it a little hypocritical to refuse to watch a movie in which the characters smoke, and yet watch movies in which people kill each other?
Because that’s unhealthy and socially unacceptable, too.

And what about the future?
What about one hundred years since?
Will we cancel all movies, books and TV shows in which plastic is shown, or in which petrol-fueled cars are used? Every form of entertainment that is not meat free?

And of course we must be careful – because sometimes we are not dealing with historical details, but with propaganda. And propaganda is bad, and should be treated with extreme severity.
But do really all movies that portray smoking characters act as pro-smoke propaganda? Do all war movies really glorify war? Do all movies featuring cannibalism really push the “eat your neighbor bbq week (bring the family)”?
Portraying does not mean celebrating.
We should be savvy enough to tell the difference.

Now my friend Lucy tells me Steven Spielberg was asked by Disney to reshoot some scenes of West Side Story to eliminate smoking characters.
And they are putting disclaimers, about “historical smoking” – saying look out kids, this is the past, and the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Wouldn’t it be better were we to teach the younger generations that the past was different, and to deal with that and reason about it, drawing their conclusion (that we are better off today, for instance), than have to put up warning signs and cut scenes from movies?

In the end, I think we should make it so that people are able to make an informed choice, and have the tools to put in perspective what they are watching or reading, so that they can evaluate if the writers are trying to hand the public a portrait of a certain reality, or if they are instead trying to push an agenda.

And I’d be wary of all forms of censorship, because as I used to say to my high school sweetheart, “Smoke kills.”
And she usually replied “So do cars.”

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Historical smoking and other unhealthy writing sins

  1. The lack of histoical perspective i one of the whorst thing that happens in this days


  2. Your High School Sweetheart and I would have gotten along like rice and beans.
    Back when I was smoking and well meaning strangers would say to me; “Don’t you know that smoking is bad for your health?” My answer would always be; “So is not minding your business.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the end it’s a matter of respect of each-other’s spaces, I guess.
      But back when we were in high-school this campaign was started… “when your partner lights up, kiss them instead.” It was GOOD 😉
      She did stop smoking, but only ten years after we had gone our separate ways (to quote Journey – my, nostalgia sucks!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The past is a different country all right. Personally, I’ve never smoked, and that’s chiefly because when I was twelve I tea-leafed a packet of my dad’s cigarettes, took them to the bottom of the garden and smoked the lot. They made me so sick I was never able to look at a cigarette afterwards. OK, look at one, but not smoke it.
    I remember how essential smoking was to being male in all the old adventure yarns that went back to the 1920s. Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, all those ripper chaps, smoked like chimneys and yet were fit as Olympic athletes, sound of wind and limb, able to sort out a gang of ugly villains any day. And their teeth were white as their skins. Scarlett O’Hara adored her father Gerald and loved the way he smelled of tobacco and leather and horses. A real manly odour. Bulldog Drummond not only smoked hard but lowered incredible amounts of ale and never developed a beer belly. And of course he knew how to keep impertinent working class types like socialists in their place.
    Actually I didn’t think Hannay and Drummond were half the ripper chap The Saint was, since they were such establishment prats and he was an outlaw, a rebel, an anti-establishment figure who opposed conservative stuffed shirts like the other two and lived out of wedlock with his beautiful girl friend Patricia. (Hannay and Drummond apparently married while still virgins, and it’s hard to imagine them getting sexual with their wives even after the ceremony.)
    Patricia Holm, I think, did smoke, but I’ll forgive her that since she once remarked about an aristocratic old battle-axe she had just helped out with clothing after a house fire, “Lady Sangore practically told me my undies were immoral, but that didn’t stop her helping herself to all she wanted. You know the sort. A pillar of the British Empire, and underpays her maids.”
    Okay, it was a century ago and smoking didn’t matter as much, especially if you were poor, since the way medicine was then, some other disease would probably kill you before you lived long enough to get big C from tobacco.


    • Certainly smoking was the cool thing to do back then – and health was indeed such a gamble that cigarettes did not alter the odds that dramatically.
      But I find interesting the observation about the Saint and Drummond & Hannay… those two were really pro-establishment. “Conservative adventurers” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but they were just that.
      Maybe that’s the reason why I always preferred the Saint.


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