Holy Smoke! God rolls his own
Like most servicemen in World War I, my grandfather kept tobacco in his breast pocket - just as well, or I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
I’ve been told a New Testament was in the same pocket, as well as a love letter from my grandmother. Together, they took the impact of a German bullet, diverting the lead just enough to miss his heart by a quarter of an inch. The bullet made a hole right through the letter. Disappointingly, I’ve never seen it.
My lasting memory of Grandad is in an armchair at his Sunbury-on-Thames prefab, rolling his own cigarettes. It was just about the only thing I ever saw him do before his death in 1981. He liked watching the Black and White Minstrel Show and randomly sang snatches of obscure songs – songs I’d never heard before or since. When I asked him where they came from, he would throw another sweet-smelling line of Woodbine into a Rizla wrapper, lick the gum, and mistyeyed, say: “They kept us going in the trenches.”
I sensed a curious ambivalence. On the one hand, like most of the men who served King and country in WWI, he would say nothing of the horror he had witnessed on the Western Front. On the other, he seemed almost wistful and nostalgic for a time when, in appalling and degrading conditions, he buddied up with fellow soldiers at an intense level – men who were long since dead or with whom he had sadly lost touch over succeeding years.
For years, Grandad was the only smoker in my immediate family. It was considered a vice by most. Indeed, smoking was a convenient way of dividing righteous from reprobate.
It was intriguing, then to learn of Father Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy – better known as Woodbine Willie. An army chaplain during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Kennedy famously doled out packets of cigarettes to nervous troops about to go over the top.
I George read about Sinclair Kennedy when working on a novel (published Bible on memorabilia April 25 by www.shipoffools.com) that compares modern and pre-WWI culture in the UK. Rattles & Rosettes revolves round two fictitious football fans a century apart.
Indeed, the plot opens in 1914, with cigarette cards being swapped during a dull sermon. Northerner Tom, 16, optimistic and hopeful, looks forward to fulfilling his dreams against a backdrop of grinding poverty. He follows Burnley to the FA Cup Final that same year and, months later, finds himself in the trenches.
Southerner Dan, 23, educated and cynical in 2010, looks back to an age when life, particularly music and football, must have been so much better. A musician wannabe, he sets out on a one-man mission to expose modern football and music. Eventually, the two stories intertwine.
The discovery of Bob Holman’s biography of Woodbine Willie (Lion Publishing) proved an inspiration. Some of the army top ranks looked down on Father Geoffrey socially, disapproved of the friendships he made with men who were not officers and criticised some of the bawdy language in his sermons. One general, a devout Christian, reported him to a senior officer as a heretic. Kennedy was just the kind of character I needed for the story’s denouement.
I’ve never been into nicotine myself but when I get a heady whiff of cigarette smoke in the open air, it takes me back to Selhurst Park and my first-ever professional football match, on Wednesday 27 March, 1963. For years I had badgered my father to take me to see Crystal Palace. When he finally relented, I was more relieved than excited. Walking up those concrete steps, smelling the fried onions, clicking through the turn- stiles, gawping at green, green grass under brilliant floodlights – it was impossible not to fall in love. At last I could hold my head up in the playground.
Palace lost 1-0 to Colchester but no matter: I had been to a professional game. I had witnessed Ronnie Allen taking a corner. Now I could join in football matches at break-time with my chest puffed out.
Going to matches as a teenager became a key social activity. All my friends smoked on the terraces. It’s what you were supposed to do at a game. It was the way you acted cool in front of girls, as well. And friends’ embellished stories of sexual conquest sometimes included the way they finished the act – cracking open