Nostalgia Competition - Runner Up

Brian Holland

Runner Up
Passing Clouds
Nostalgia Competition


Brian is a retired engineer and technical author originally from the South and now living in the North York Moors. He has always written stories and poetry in his spare time and also enjoys playing the flute in various bands. Although he has had a few placings recently, this is the first in Writing Magazine.

Passing Clouds By Brian Holland

I can't remember who saw the ten-bob-note in the puddle first, but the three of us fell on it like crows upon a warm carcass.
    '― Cor, a whole ten-bob!'
    '― Let's look at it.'
    '― What we gonna spend it on?'   
    We smoothed the brown, sodden sheet over our trousers and shirts to make it look as if we had always owned it and what we were going to spend it on was a foregone conclusion ― fags; cigarettes, gaspers, smokes. This might seem unusual now; it is unusual, particularly among ten-year-olds ― many of us starting before that. We all seemed to smoke; mainly stolen, blagged or from serendipitous finds like this.
    But smoking was normal back then. Everywhere there were adverts for cigarettes, cigarillos, cigars, pipe tobacco and hand-rolling tobacco. These were enticing, cajoling, evocative and, at times, downright aspirational. The artwork on the packets was intriguing and sometimes quite beautiful as well. It captured the imagination of young minds and inspired the commonplace hobby of collecting the empty packets as well as the cards that were put inside depicting famous events, cars and people, among other things.
    Many of the illustrations and graphics were of such high quality it was not difficult to imagine some folks' interest in art was first stimulated by the designs on cigarette packets. Even the ubiquitous Woodbines, or Wild Woodbines, as they were originally labelled ― those small, harsh proletarian smokes ― had a wonderful Arts and Crafts decoration on their pale green box.  Others featured strange concepts of what smokers were supposed to desire from a cigarette. Lucky Dream cigarettes showed a man who had fallen asleep in a chair and whose dreams depicted were full of munificent fairies, Heartsease cigarettes variously featured the flower or a pretty lady. More masculine designs had ships, sailors or military associations; Navy Cut, Capstan, Army Club come to mind. My personal favourite though was Passing Clouds; this was a pink packet, with a picture of a cavalier sitting in a chair, idly puffing away. The actual cigarettes were oval in shape which lent them an air of decadence. But universally, cigarettes came in all manner of shapes and sizes. There were black ones, coloured ones, Turkish ones, cork-tipped ones, mentholated ones ― even perfumed ones for heavens' sake, as well as some made specifically for people with asthma. Not sure how that worked. The enormous variety made collecting the packets appealing with the added excitement of knowing that you had actually smoked one of them. A bit like a beer or wine connoisseur would feel having tasted the product I suppose. In those days there were specialist tobacconists everywhere that sold all manner of smoking-related paraphernalia, as well as being treasure-houses of tobacco.
    Once the thought had been agreed, we headed full tilt toward the bottom of a long hill to the high street, about half an hour from where we had discovered the vital ten shillings. Here, there was one such shop where we would often stand and gaze into the window, usually after the Gaumont's Saturday morning picture show had finished. Beguiled by all the exotic packages, so we had a pretty good idea of the sort of thing that was on offer. But this time we had such largesse to play with ― literally money to burn ― that we were truly spoilt for choice.
    We stood at the window, eyes ranging the boxes and packets, whispering their names under our breaths as if, by utterance, we could be transported to another place ― Sweet Afton, Three Castles, Balkan Sobranie ― far away from the utilitarian environment where we were growing up.
    'Myrtle Grove?'
    'Exmoor Hunt?'
    'De Reszke?  ― The French lady next door smokes those.'
    'Marcovitch, Black and White? ― Terrific packet.' We were into famous names now.
    'What about Charlypin?' came the suggestion.
    'Where are they?'
    'Up there at the end, in the light brown box.'
    'Chaliapin, I think that says.'  
    'Never seen those before.'
    'I like the box though.'
    Inside we tried to appear as calm and measured as we could when we asked the price of the cigarettes.
    'Nine and six,' the old lady replied. She put herself under no obligation other than to sell the product. Any thought that we were under-age smokers, or whose money we were spending on cigarettes, was not remitted in those days. The money was handed over and the cigarettes silently passed to us along with a box of Swan Vestas matches. We sauntered casually out of the shop and, once out of sight, the three boys legged it purposefully to a nearby derelict building behind the high street, where we could indulge in our illicit booty.
    Nostalgia of course, but one can feel no nostalgia for the diseases smoking inflicted on some of us later in life. At best you got a tight chest and shortness of breath and maybe emphysema when you were older, at worse you could die excruciatingly of lung cancer. My best friend died aged forty of it, yet my mother lived to over ninety, having smoked twenty Players' Weights a day all her life, so who knows what influence our own genetic composition brings to bear upon the outcome of anything? But quite apart from the addictive nature of nicotine, the fact that a worldwide industry was created from nothing more than the notion of setting light to dried leaves and inhaling the smoke seems implausible to recount nowadays. But it does show how minds were manipulated by a simple device such that, within a few generations, men, women and children became enrapt by the wholly imaginary caprices promulgated by commercial enterprise. They worked because they were perceived to be true. And it was fun. Little wonder then, that governments across the world, when confronted with overwhelming evidence from the anti-smoking lobby, concentrated on censuring sponsorship and the imagery on packets and advertising. Removing the idealisation and aspirational symbolism that global companies relied upon for their sales.
    Though I do miss the entire, collective, disseminating wholeness, that smoking brought to a way of life, I mostly miss the social ruminations of something that, back then, appeared to be doing us no real harm. All those black and white images of beautiful people wreathed in whorls of smoke whilst holding the white paper tube suggestively between pouted lips still remain to haunt the past. As are those televised adverts of breathless, understated, sexual tension between couples as they flung themselves onto a hill above the sea before finally getting the fags out. Or the moody loner looking over a bridge, late at night, with just a cheap cigarette for company.
    You could tell someone's personality and social background by the brand and the way they smoked them, from the Royal Family down to the man on the docks. There was all manner of famous names where smoking was an inherent part of their persona. I close my eyes and can still see Shake Keane, a West Indian Jazz musician, on the bandstand rolling a cigarette one-handed, while holding his flugelhorn in the other ― the very epitome of cool. And then Terry Thomas, the archetypal British cinema cad with his long, eccentric cigarette holder and Freddy Frinton’s late night reveller hiccupping through his broken gasper.
    All passing clouds now.
    Those Chaliapin cigarettes were effete little smokes, allegedly made for the famous Russian Bass, Feodor Ivanovitch Chaliapin. They were mostly open tubes with a small amount of tobacco half-way along. Needless to say, they disappeared in no time at all and were not a memorable experience ― an anti-climax for us three boys, in fact. Their colour, and everything about them, was beige which, at my age now, is as big a reproof of anything purporting to be worthwhile as I can muster. And I still don't know who got to keep the empty box either.
    As a teenager, I once recall hearing on the radio an old recording of the great man himself singing "The Flea". This was a ridiculous song, originally from Goethe's Faust, about a flea that lived on a king. I listened with interest and imagined him performing it with one of his special cigarettes held between his fingers, the smoke swaggering around while he sang.
    And I remember wishing I could have let him know just how bad a smoking experience we thought they were.  Expensive, insubstantial flights of fancy was all ― and having nothing of the heady fragrance of a good quality Virginia we boys already knew about, like the peerless indulgence of a Wills' Gold Leaf.
    But, as with a lot of youthful compulsions that were later regretted, the mind embraces those most beguiling sensations from the past, like smoking, and courts them like a lover, eventually yielding into a greater and more personal simulacra of memory.

Judges Comments

What a beguiling read Brian Holland has created in 'Passing Clouds', the runner up in WM's Competition for Nostalgia Stories – a piece of creative non-fiction that evokes a bygone times when smoking was seen as the last word in cool.

Brian conjures this world with the memorable image of his younger self, aged ten, and his pals, deciding which of the many wonderfully named cigarette brands to spend their ten-bon note on. Images pile on images of long-gone smokes redolent of a vanished era; the brands, the pictures on the packets, the associations – the description is so richly conjured that it has the sheen and glamour of an old film. The specifics of packets and images are assembled in a way that is both precise and vividly dreamlike: this is a lost world being conjured in such redolent detail that the reader can imagine themselves swathed not just in smoke, but in glamour.

Later in the piece, Brian weaves in a contemporary, and hard-won, awareness of the dangers of smoking, but for all that, the piece still reads like a celebration of what is now, largely, a forbidden pleasure – a long-lost world where a cigarette was the means to enter worlds of glamour and the realms of cool.