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Where Did You First Start Smoking?


Al Alvarez


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James Leavey's Corner
  By James Leavey

Al Alvarez, poet,critic, anthologist and poker player, whose autobiography, WhereDid It All Go Right" was published in March 2002, pipes upÖ

 

JL:Where did you first start smoking"

 

AA: At homein London, in the garden. I first started when I was seven or eight,or something like that.  I used to smoke old tea leaves, that Iíddried and mixed with lavender. I once tried it again when I was inmy twenties, and I nearly died. The point was you could buy verypretty, very sweet-smelling, cherrywood pipes for sixpence.  Then Istarted collecting pipes.  I had some marvelous ones that my mothergave all away when I went off to boarding school.  I got very illthis time last year, got some fluí that wouldnít go away. I used tobe a chain-smoker.  I havenít stopped, but I now have one pipe aday, and I make it last.

 

JL:How many pipes do you own"

 

AA: Quite alot.

 

JL:Whatís your favourite pipe"

AA: It varies.  The thing about pipes is thatitís a bit like some relationships Ė they go sour. You donít go offthem but itís as though theyíve got soaked or something, and howeverrigorously you clean them and ream them out and all that stuff, itgets to a point when they get a bit old.  Iíve got a very beautifulpipe that my daughter gave me Ė itís a French one and terrificallybeautiful, but itís getting to that point when itís not smoking aswell as it might.

JL: What do you smoke when youíre playing poker"

 

AA: Thatísvery interesting.  I play always at the clubs Ė largely because Idonít seem to be able to get invited anywhere. The clubs, God knowswhy, have decided they donít want pipe smokers.  You can smokecigarettes but you canít smoke a pipe.

 

JL:Would they allow you to smoke cigars"

 

AA: Theyívestopped them too. Itís very very weird.  Even in America, cigars andpipes arenít allowed.  And considering how offensive, in a way, thatcigarette smoke can be, pipe smoke is rather pleasant.

 

JL:  One thingIíd associate with playing poker is either cigars, smoked by highrollers, or cigarettes, which players would smoke nervously.  Butpipe smoking is almost too fiddly for poker, isnít it"

AA: I can remember reading books about poker,where they show that when a guy smokes a pipe, it means heís verypatient.  So if a pipe smoker comes in, it usually means heís got agood hand.

JL: Soif you want to throw them off, you could start smoking cigarettes"

 

AA: Well in factwhat Iím trying to do now, because Iím really trying to cut it rightdown, Iíve got to the point where the seat either side of the dealertends to be a non-smoker, so I try and sit there. And then I canítgo kind of crazy, wanting a smoke, Ďcos I know Iím not going to beable to get one.  I tend to have a pipe in my pocket, just in case,or for a smoke on the way home.

 

JL: Doyou play poker as well with a pipe, as without it"

 

AA: Well,itís a really interesting point.  I always assumed I wouldnít beable to play at all, without it. I love the objects, I think theyírevery beautiful things. Once you know about pipes you can see howbeautifully some of them are made.  Some of them are made verybadlyÖI love the smell of pipe tobacco.  I donít like the smell ofcigarettes, never have.

 

JL: Does smokinga pipe do much for your creativity as writer"

 

AA: I dunno. The thing about pipe-smoking is that it is a wonderful time-waster. And since you spend a lot of time when youíre sitting at your desknot writing Ė a pipe gives you a wonderful excuse not to write. Itíslike email.

 

JL: Ofall the writers in the world, alive or dead, whoís the one youídlove to share an ashtray with, and why"

 

AA: JohnDonne, absolutely without any question at all. The man who startedme off on everything.

JL: Did Donne smoke"

AA: I donít know whether John Donne smoked, or not. You canít tell. If heíd smoked, it would have bound to have been a pipe, of course,because
Raleigh had brought tobaccoin.

JL: Have you ever written a poem about smoking" If not, do you know agood one"

AA: No, I havenít.  Thereís a wonderful poem byEzra Pound, called ĎThe Lake Isleí

Oh God Oh Venus Oh Mercury Patron ofthieves

Give me in due time, I beseech you

A little tobacco shop

With the little bright boxes piled upneatly upon the shelves

And the loose fragrant Cavendish in theshag

And the bright Virginia loose under thebright glass cases

And a pair of scales, not too greasy

And the whores dropping in for a word ortwo in passing

For the flip word and to tidy their hair abit

Oh God Oh Venus Oh Mercury Patron ofThieves

Lend me a little tobacco shop

Or install me in any profession save thisdamned profession of writing

Where one needs oneís brains all the time

 

JL:Did you ever share an ashtray with your friends, Sylvia Plath or TedHughes"

 

AA: Oh shit,I donít even remember.  It wasnít something you registered. Everybody smoked, as it were.  So maybe they did, maybe they didnít.

JL: How do you feel about all this anti-smokinghysteria"

AA:What I find very peculiar is the American thing of anti-smoking. Youíd think itíd be against their Constitution to ban people fromsmoking. You imagine itís got to be some Amendment thatís to do withabsolute basic human rights, and how you live.  You feel, when youget to California, theyíd put you in fucking chains if they see yousmoking.  This is a form of paranoia.  Everybody loves thatun-earned moral superiority, where they feel that anything thatinfringes what they prefer is an offense.  I think itíspost-Stalinism; everybody wants to be told what to think and what todo.  They love the Thought Police and now theyíve got HealthPolice.  I try not to light up until one or two oíclock in theafternoon Ė to have my one pipe, which I make last.  But if Iím outand smell a boring old cigarette, it just smells so good.


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