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Whether to distract attention from crumbling plaster, or to conceal peeling and mildewed wallpaper, a pair of matching oil paintings hung on the wall across from my bed in the room above our pokey wool shop in Syston’s High Street. A third painting from the set hung at the top of the stairs in Aunty Betty and Uncle Reg’s house in Markfield. As Uncle Reg was a dab hand at home decoration, and his wallpaper stuck firm, most likely it was hung for aesthetic reasons. All three paintings displayed different steamships steaming through choppy seas from one side of the pictures to the other. From port to starboard, if my memory serves correctly. My port to starboard, that is. Or the other way round. The ships were part of Charles Barrie & Sons’ Den Line operating out of Dundee. During his life at sea, my grandfather had been master of all three at various times. Only one sank while under his command, to the best of my knowledge. As a small boy I often gazed at the ships, their funnels trailing black smoke; my mind conjuring up visions of all the strange and exotic places grandad must have seen.
One clear and bright November morning in 1915 a periscope popped up to spy the Den of Crombie ploughing through the Mediterranean full steam, bound for Lisbon. Its position logged as one hundred and twelve miles southwest of Cape ‘Martello’ (Matala) on the island of Crete, the merchant ship was fully loaded with 7,100 tons of what was described as ‘general goods’ from Bangkok. After discharging its cargo at Lisbon, the Crombie was due to head north for Porto, where a fresh cargo awaited.
But things were not well on board. On emerging from the Suez Canal the crew were put on full alert. Nerves had started to frazzle. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the previous year, had plunged an already fractured Europe into bitter war, which was eventually to engulf much of the rest of the world. Enemy action had been reported in the Mediterranean with German U boats stalking allied vessels. Attacks on merchant shipping had become commonplace. Comprising the largest merchant fleet in the world British ships were prime targets.
Captain Henry Chapman Hemming was on the bridge scanning the horizon when he caught sight of the German submarine surface off the port beam. Within minutes the Den of Crombie had come under fire, the first few shells landing short. The long-serving captain didn’t wait to see what would happen next; two ships had already been sunk by the same U boat just days before. The Den of Crombie was unarmed, and the skipper valued the skins of the men on board more than he valued his ship or its cargo. Telegraphing the engine room to stop immediately, the order to abandon ship went out and all four lifeboats were lowered.
For the next two days the rowboats bobbed about the relatively calm seas before being spotted by a Royal Navy troop transporter. The crew was picked up and taken to the nearest friendly port. Thanks to their skipper’s quick thinking, they had all survived the incident and Captain Henry C. Hemming was back home in Stratford-on-Avon in time for Christmas. A Christmas his four young children had been anticipating with rather more than their customary excitement, as much for the tale of his narrow escape as for any exotic foreign gifts he might bear with him. But even their excitement was no match for his wife Mabel’s, which was to be evidenced nine months later with the birth of another son on September 2nd 1916. Whether by choice, or the flow of events, Thomas Chapman was the last to join Clyde, Jack, Grace and Betty in their generation of Stratford Hemmings. It had been a close shave for all, including me, for Tom, as he was soon to be labelled, was to become my father more than three decades, and another war, later. Had the Den of Crombie gone down with all hands, the pair of us would have remained unconceived for the rest of eternity.
Whatever happiness the children might have gained from grandfather’s safe return was dashed five years later when sister Grace, their mother and their grandmother, were all struck down by epidemic meningitis in 1923. Having retired from the sea after the Great War, grandfather was left to raise his four remaining children alone. Young Betty was not even a teenager when she had to fill her mother’s shoes and play surrogate mother for young Tom. My father was just seven years old.
Given that grandfather had learned his perilous craft in the days of windjammers and survived, only to see random misfortune claim three members of the family, perhaps it was only natural the surviving daughter of the illustrious captain, became prone to taking small risks here and there. Despite training as a nurse, Aunty Betty was not always careful with her own health. Far from it, a firm believer in the benefits of chain-smoking, she stubbornly maintained the habit hadn’t done her any harm right up to the day of that final cough in her early sixties. With Aunty Betty’s demise the dawn chorus of bronchial hacking, such a feature of the Bradbury household, had lost yet another member, pipe-puffing Uncle Reg having fallen from the nest the previous year. Cousin Roger took his last drag in 1997 at the age of fifty-two. So prolific was their nicotine consumption, the entire family might have taken up smoking solely to keep tobacco out of the hands of children. They did their bit.
Bathing in the self-deluding mist of innocence so prevalent right up to the 1970s, I used to puff happily away with the rest of them. Smoking for England back then, we were heading towards a bright and cheerful future illuminated by the jolly, red glow of millions of fag ends all along the way. With the bravado of festive lemmings nearing the precipice, we ignored the increasing number of warning signs lining the approach.
In the good old days before tobacco became associated with swamp breath, serious illness and permanent death, smoking was regarded as manly for men and sexy for women. A financial crisis was not having the dosh for a pack of five Park Drive, and enough change left over to pop into the pub for a pint. Ironically named with Mayfair’s luxurious Park Lane in mind, the cheap smokes were sold mainly to the working class poor with the promise they were “for pleasure”, according to the enamel signs outside tobacconist shops. It was an image belied by the queues of unemployed tugging miserably at stubs till their fingertips burned, while waiting for Labour Exchanges to open, up and down the country.
More upmarket cigarettes like Craven ‘A’ were publicised with the glowing recommendation they were “made specially to prevent sore throats.” Presumably, some magic, healing ingredient had been added to counteract all the toxins. Like so many other brands of the era, Craven ‘A’ were also touted widely for their smoothness. “So cool – so smooth to the throat” the beguiling slogan tempted. Instead of heeding the omen, so obvious in the logo of a black cat staring from the front of the pack, smokers were bewitched by copywriters’ blarney; believing the more they smoked the smoother their throats would get.
And, while we haven’t quite reached the stage where the world might come to an end before smokers can finish their last cigarette just yet, the likelihood of dying from a nuclear attack, rather than from a smoking-related disease, has increased considerably. Especially over the last couple of years. With that in mind, perhaps government health warnings on cigarette packs should be amended to read: “If we let you live long enough, smoking will kill you.” Nobody could accuse me of being over-optimistic.
Though it’s highly unlikely doctors of former times went so far as to recommend inhaling vast quantities of nicotine-laden fumes as a remedy for acute laryngitis, or chronic breathing problems, they did little to discourage the habit. Far from it, smoky waiting rooms, with plenty of overflowing ashtrays on hand, were the norm. As a result, many non-smokers left surgeries with hacking coughs they hadn’t brought with them. GPs puffing happily away on Capstan Full Strength, while tapping the wheezing chests of bronchial patients coughing up brownish green gobbets speckled with blood and tar, were commonplace.
Whether we chose it or not we were all smokers then. Deliberately or passively made little difference. Our homes were full of cheerful clouds of smoke, as were our cafés, factories, offices, cinemas, buses, trams, trains and pubs. Our hair stank of stale tobacco; our clothes reeked of it. Nowhere was out of bounds; toddler’s nurseries, toyshops and maternity wards, all were filled with fogs of carcinogenic haze. Smoking was a feature of life few of us thought to change. Like mint humbugs, soggy chips, John Bull and Tiny Tim it defined Olde England’s character.
As a schoolboy I longed to join the ranks of smokers, even prepared to stunt my already stunted growth for the privilege. Small for my age – and obviously retarded in other departments – I thought if I sauntered the streets tooting away on a fag people would think I was older than my eleven years. That was despite the giveaway school blazer and grey flannel shorts. I was fated to graduate from the preparatory sweet chalky sticks with pink ends sold in tuppenny packs of ten, called Junior Service, to the real thing, as soon as I’d saved up enough pocket money.
Once I got to big boys’ school I couldn’t wait to join the lads lighting up behind the bike shed. I was dying to be able to say things like “I’m busting for a fag” when coming out of geography class, or to shout “Got any snout?” to the Teddy Boys hanging outside The Fox and Hounds on the corner of High Street. Whereas being seduced by Brigitte Bardot was an impossible dream, the onrush of nausea, followed by dizziness and hot and cold sweats, early smoking produces, was an achievable aim. Despite being lectured on how it would keep me undersized, it made me feel bigger. In common with alcohol, smoking doesn’t make you more interesting, it just makes you feel more interesting.
Even throaty coughs – the price long-term nicotine addicts have to pay for their filthy habit – seemed attractive to me. Gobbing onto the pavement signified maturity and status. I longed to sport nicotine-stained fingernails so much I used to hold the cigarettes lighted end down so the smoke would curl up around my fingers. Once stained, I spent hours scrubbing them with Vim scouring powder, so mum wouldn’t notice.
Apart from representing manhood, glamour and ruggedness, smoking held other exciting allures. There were so many styles to observe and imitate. The hard, hurried draw, brow furrowed, suggested craving never quite satisfied. The long, slow intake – cool and calm – as though sucking nicotine were as tranquillising as smoking opium. Then there were the deep suckers who spoke in gravelly voices as they exhaled, smoke billowing from all their facial orifices. Their sandpaper words scraping dry larynxes, they had to be poets, film stars, or philosophers.
Added to that, there were the countless fascinating ways of brandishing death wands smokers developed. Workmen held them workmanlike, between thumb and finger. Cupping the butts in their palms, they wasted not one bit, as they snatched ever shorter tugs till the stubs were barely visible. The middle classes generally held them aloof between forefinger and index finger, unless they wanted to look like Humphrey Bogart, when they substituted one finger for a thumb, didn’t matter which. Sometimes they would crush fags into ashtrays after a couple of puffs only to light up another, moments later. It made them look like millionaires with money to burn. And, if the number of cigarettes smoked was anything to go by, everybody had money to burn in those days.
The well-to-do used every possible combination of digits, even employing a pinkie from time to time, though that usually indicated exotic sexual orientation. The higher up the social ladder one was, or the higher one aspired to be, the more likely one became to employ a cigarette holder, and a butler to serve one’s cigarettes from a silver box. The longer the holder, the more likely one was to have a title preceding one’s name.
But to go back down the smoking chain. The first smoker to capture my attention was our chimney sweep. I was four years old, hardly out of nappies, and as yet untrammelled by the guilt bearing witness to self-inflicted poisoning induces in those of the Protestant persuasion. Usually, our sweep turned up a couple of days after the fire brigade had left, following the chimney fires that were an all too regular occurrence at the Hemming household. Arriving on his ancient Norton, its homemade box sidecar filled with brushes and poles wrapped up in what once might have been a sack, he would set to work. From the handlebars on his motorbike to his peaked cap everything about him was ingrained with soot. Everything sooty black except for the whites of his bloodshot eyes, the fleshy pink of their sockets, shining gums, and wet tongue. Most prominent of all was the gleaming white Woodbine constantly glued to his lower lip, which had rendered his teeth the colour of ancient ivory tusks. Once in, he never took a fag out until it started to burn the skin of his moist lips, when he tore it away, sometimes leaving a bit of paper, and probably a sample of epidermis on the stub. His whole experience of life was viewed through the smog of smoke, ash, dust and soot that constantly hung about him.
He mumbled and burbled through his tremoring cigarette so nobody could understand a word of what he was saying. And when he wasn’t mumbling and burbling, he murmured through it. And when he wasn’t murmuring he panted through it from the effort of screwing poles to poles and shoving them up the chimney. Sometimes he panted, mumbled, burbled, murmured and coughed. My younger sister and I used to imitate his laboured breathing to the intense discomfort of our mother, who would try to drown us out by asking things like: “Would you like another cup of tea?” or “How’s Enid’s leg?” I never saw him after we started to use smokeless fuel, as coal fires lost out to coke, electric bar heating and gas radiators. But then I wouldn’t have recognised him without his veil of smoke and generous dusting of soot. Like lamplighters, cartwrights, snuff-graders, and international bankers it’s hard to imagine what useful occupation he could’ve turned his skills to once they became obsolete.
I suppose the idea of a chimney sweep not smoking would’ve seemed an anathema to most people back then. It probably served as a subliminal form of advertising. Yet, strangely enough, tobacco companies never used filthy old men like our sweep to promote their products. They preferred freshly-scrubbed young chaps and chapesses kitted out for tennis standing beneath waterfalls, ciggies in hand, proclaiming: “Cool as a mountain stream.”
But this ramble has missed a turn. I have to go back a way. The smoker who always fascinated me most was our Aunty Betty. More soon
Copyright © 2011, 2015 Bryan Hemming
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