Holy Smoke! God rolls his own

The Church of England - - Feature -

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

Wood­bine Wil­lie

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