Edinburgh, Tobacco

11 February 2001

5/2–Mid-air between London and Singapore.

I had to get from Leeds to Heathrow this morning, for a 11:15 flight, so I needed to get up at 4:45. Only just got to Heathrow on time, because the UK rail network is largely in­ef­fec­tual and there also hap­pened to be a tube strike going on. (The train I took from Leeds was half an hour late due to build­ing works at Leeds Station that re­quired the elec­tric­ity to be turned off some­time during the night. This ex­pla­na­tion of prox­i­mate cause is about as sat­is­fy­ing as saying that planes crash because they come too close to the ground, but it was merrily pro­vided at every pos­si­ble opportunity.)

I went to Leeds to visit my cousin, who is study­ing there. We ate Indian food for dinner and some­thing in the brew flicked a switch in my body that’s made my sinuses explode. I’m suffering, suffering, dying. You have no idea.

Before Leeds I was in Edinburgh. Ed­in­burgh was very good and very interesting. I find that I could easily live there, which is all the more sur­pris­ing since a) I was, and am, getting rather sick of travelling; b) for the four days I was there, it rained almost continuously; c) for about the first time ever, a friend fucked me off with her raging duplicity, if not his­tor­i­cal revisionism. (I do not know which is worse.)

[I got to Ed­in­burgh in one day from Prague, which re­quired a walk- tram- subway- bus- plane- subway- train- walk–a per­sonal record for quantity, I think.]

The only tourist at­trac­tion I visited was the castle. (Which is cer­tainly worthwhile.) In my family, the castle is no­to­ri­ous for being–according to my mother–the site of the best and clean­est toilets in the world. (She visited the castle 18 years ago, and when­ever Ed­in­burgh comes up in conversation, the toilets are mentioned.) So nat­u­rally the toilet block was not missed.

From the outside, it does seem unexceptional. But upon step­ping inside, one of the first things you see is a wall of framed awards tes­ti­fy­ing to the loo’s greatness. Best Loo of 1997, 1998, 1999. Toilet At­ten­dant of the Year 1999. And so on. Astonishment. Amazement. In­de­pen­dent au­thor­i­ties confirm the loo’s greatness. When I get home I shall apologise–profusely–to my mother.

I did see two movies in Edinburgh–Suzhou River (excellent), and Traffic (okay), and I also walked around a lot. I found the smoking venue of choice for cashed-up teens: Costa (like Starbucks) off Prince’s St, on a first floor. Cute 14 year-old girls bend them­selves even cuter in their at­tempts to do smoking right.

I am quite fas­ci­nated by smoking, or at least its social and po­lit­i­cal aspects. I’m in­ter­ested in the reasons people start, the lies they tell their parents and (especially) teach­ers (if in boarding-school), the point at which they intend to stop. I’m in­ter­ested in the mea­sures gov­ern­ments take to try and reduce smoking, from the amusing hec­tor­ing they print on cig­a­rette packets, to the laws they pass that make it im­pos­si­ble (in some countries) to open a restau­rant en­tirely staffed by, and en­tirely fre­quented by, smokers, even though smoking itself is per­fectly legal.

I do ap­pre­ci­ate I’m break­ing nu­mer­ous “Smoke Club” rules by ac­tu­ally talking about it. But it so thrills me that there are such rules. I find it in­trigu­ing that there are sup­pos­edly “good” and “bad” reasons to take up smoking–are there good and bad reasons to drop babies from tall buildings? I suppose so, but they sort of pale into in­signif­i­cance when com­pared to the deed itself.

Smokers like to pretend that smoking is like breathing–it’s not some­thing that you think about, it’s not some­thing that you enjoy, it’s just some­thing that you do. (This is in con­trast to cigars. There’s a mag­a­zine called Cigar Aficionado, but there could be no anal­o­gous Cig­a­rette Aficionado.) So, to be perverse, I collect Magical Smoking Moments, which are as follows:

  1. Paris. Sitting on the steps of La Grande Arche, late at night, looking toward the Arc de Triomphe.
  2. Paris. Sitting of the lip of a dry foun­tain near the Pom­pi­dou Center, watch­ing skaters go round and round and up and down.
  3. Barcelona. Inside the half-finished Gaudi Cathe­dral (Sagrada Familia), lis­ten­ing to Massive Attack, and watch­ing people go by.
  4. Bilbao. Sitting by the river, looking up at Frank Gehry’s beau­ti­ful Guggenheim.

Very few people un­der­stand my fas­ci­na­tion with smoking, both smokers and non-smokers. Actually, if anything, smokers are more troubled, pained, and puzzled by it than non-smokers. (Also, the three most pas­sion­ate and per­sua­sive anti-smoking lec­tures I’ve re­ceived have come from (practising) smokers.) It’s true that I myself don’t com­pletely un­der­stand the fas­ci­na­tion I have with smoking, but it’s not that hard to comprehend, is it?

(For the most part, my smoking is not done in the name of so­ci­o­log­i­cal research.)