LATELY — 11 February 2001

Edinburgh, Tobacco

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.)