Don Bentley could not look at a keyboard without tasting the tarry, sweet tobacco of a Players Navy Cut on his lips, or feel the stinging sensation of blue tobacco smoke in the eyes.
The smoke, the rat-tat-tat of the manual typewriter, the clattering of telex machines; it was a heady mix of the journalism of his generation.
A journalist without a cigarette dangling from his or her lips, or a smoking fag in an overflowing ashtray, was missing a part of equipment as vital to their trade as the shorthand notebook or the pocketful of small change for public phones.
As he arrived home one evening, Bentley’s wife was watching the end of a 1960s film that featured a newsroom and she remarked, critically, what a strange sight it was to see all those people smoking. It was not the time to remind her that she used to smoke once and it was the sight of her sitting in a corner of the BBC World Service newsroom in London, rolling a cigarette, which first attracted Bentley to her.
She wasn’t rolling the rich cigar leaves on her thighs like the Cuban woman of his dreams at the time, but the sight of thin rolls of tobacco between her delicate fingers, and a genteel lick along the sticky edge of the paper, was enough to send him and the newsreaders and translators from the Latin American section into raptures on hot summer evenings during the night shift.
Only an Australian woman, or perhaps one from Cuba, would roll their own, Bentley thought at the time, and it was a disappointment on their first date that she didn’t sink six pints of Fosters, but preferred chardonnay.
Most people who smoked in less health-conscious times were social smokers, smoking with a drink in a restaurant or bar, or at a party. But journalists fell into a work-related category of smoker who believed nicotine was an essential part of the creative process.
Such an attitude came with hazards. Bentley had lost count of the number of fires his colleagues had started – not with discarded cigarettes, but with cigarettes left to burn on window sills, on desks after falling out of ashtrays, or cigarettes rolling onto carpets at the height of inspiration, writing the perfect introduction to the perfect story. He could remember being banished from the sub-editors’ office of his first newspaper – where I had been invited to learn the noble art of sub-editing in the hope of improving his writing – after tossing a lighted match into a wastepaper bin and burning the chief sub-editor’s backside.
Smoking was so much a part of journalism culture that, at the Guildford Technical College where he attended a day-release journalism course, there was a special, if unofficial, dispensation to allow the teenage journalists to smoke.
The fix of nicotine, along with strong coffee, was not the only attraction of smoking. There was a ritual involved: tapping an untipped cigarette on a desk so flakes of tobacco would not lodge in the mouth, twiddling the fingers to make a rolly, wiping the yellow nicotine from a sweaty brow in composing a news story, or tossing a stub-end from a window and watching it spiral down to the pavement in a shower of sparks and embers.
Bentley, starting out on his career in journalism, had arrived at the tail-end of the pipe-smokers and they had a ritual all of their own which extended to visiting specialist shops, which were always called The Smokers Corner, and ordering a mix of tobaccos from pots on shelves, that always had honey or rum written on the label. He even tried a pipe himself, a modern job with a metal stem which grew unbelievably hot and burned his tongue. Bentley’s flirtation with the pipe ended when he placed a lighted pipe in his pocket, hung up his jacket and set off the fire sprinklers in the newsroom.
And the end of the smoking affair came when his roll-up wife discovered she was pregnant, and discovered the term passive smoking.
These days he was reduced to the occasional cigar which he smoked surreptitiously at the end of the garden, while pretending to watch his beloved birds. He had to make sure he was downwind of the house and as part of the modern ritual he gently peeled the price tag from the box in the event of his wife finding it, and discovering how much those things actually cost.
But, cornered in the garden, he would always maintain smoking was the best of all habits and addictions. It was just such a shame it killed you.