GOLD AMONG THE RUBBISH BINS
Back in the early 1960s, when I was aged between 12 and 14, I sometimes used to embarrass my mother a great deal. But before I elaborate, I realise I need to backtrack in the form of fast forwarding, for in terms of intra-familial embarrassment, only 3 years later I was to be observed wearing my very long hair, ostentatiously centre-parted and backcombed bouffant style, the only thing missing being the mascara and the eye shadow. I did this in imitation of the members of the hit band, The Kinks, though it is true to say that thanks to my adolescent beardlessness, I looked rather more like Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) than I did the now Sir Ray Davies (born 1944). My mother (1915-1990) and my father (1915-1992) were both severely mortified by my arselong hair, and my Dad making no bones about it, addressed me much of the time as ‘Gladys’ in the hope that that would shame me into a haircut. It is also of anecdotal interest that one day outside of my bedroom, overhearing the raucous sounds of ‘Hello I Love You’ by The Kinks, he genuinely believed that it was our dustbin men coming 3 days early.
But back to the start of the Sixties. The reason why my mother was regularly horrified when the pair of us walked about in a West Cumbrian town like Workington (where I went to secondary school), or Whitehaven (we had a relative at nearby St Bees), or Maryport (my favourite public library of all time), or bustling Lake District Keswick… was that I would suddenly and without warning go diving into the civic litter bins and start ferreting rapidly for the gold I had noted inside. The unusual treasure I was after had few enthusiasts of any age or background, and I have only ever once met someone else who saved and preserved in an album…cigarette packets, both the 10 and the 20 packs. It was in fact a GS pupil of my own scholastic year, and by an odd coincidence, some 7 years later, he and I were 2 of those Grammar School rarities who went up to study at Oxford, so that you could if you believed in ad hoc deduction, conclude that collecting dusty cigarette packets in early puberty seriously increases cerebral acumen in late adolescence.
It is nearly 55 years since I pursued my singular hobby, but it is only in the last few years, in fact while living here on the Isle of Kythnos, that I realised why my passion was as strong as it was. For a start it had nothing to do with the notional charisma of teenage cigarette smoking, for I did not start on fags/snouts/tabs until I was 16 years old, doing O level exams, and needing some kind of cheap relaxant for the strain and stress (and yes, you’ve guessed, I also stole my mother’s economy tipped Cadets). By that stage I had ceased to save the packets of what I was now happily smoking, for my curious hobby had been wholly neglected since the age of 14. No, the reason why I loved to gaze at those mesmerising fag packets in my album, was not because they made me think of some glamorous addiction, but because a great many of them looked strikingly beautiful. Which is to say, when it came to the lettering, the embossed gold or silver, or azure blue or viridian green, they often evidenced graphic design of a surprisingly high order. And the point worth stressing about being a 12-year-old kid in the lost province of West Cumbria in 1962, is that that really was the only visual art you were ever going to see in the flesh, so to speak, and to hold in your novice hands. Then, all but breathless and speechless, to experience the touching graphic beauty of proportion, balance, the judicious mixing of bold, italic and upright calligraphy, and the occasional daring inversion of the brand name to the bottom of the packet, so that it seemed to soar out at you like a comet rather than staying demurely at the top.
The only other attractive graphic design I ever saw, was in the public library, or less often bookshops, for children’s book covers have long been one of the few repositories of graceful and moving aesthetic impact. By contrast, books for adults in the old days, often had unbelievably appalling covers, with no central image, much less any graphic expertise: instead just the names of the author and the title done in a font apparently intended to induce a clinical depression in the reader. Apropos which, I recently read a book review where someone praised the excellence of the Faber fiction and poetry covers from the 60s and early 70s, a complete misrepresentation of the historical reality. If you doubt me, get hold of the 60s Faber paperback versions of the novels of the great Deep South author, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964): Wise Blood, A Good Man is Hard to Find, etc, and you will note a complete absence of any visual image, and a lettering style that looks as if done by a vindictively antisocial 11-year-old wishing to irritate whoever had forced the pointless commission on them.
As for cigarettes, to juxtapose beautiful graphic design with something that is actually very harmful, sometimes lethal, is of course a heartless act of commercial cynicism. These days that is readily acknowledged, so that contemporary cigarette packets are studded with nauseating pictures of diseased lungs and hideous usually bright pink tumours. The problem was that back in the 60s, even though cardiac specialists, oncologists and the like, knew of the dangers of smoking, at the ground level not just the public but even ill-trained GPs saw cigarettes as quotidian, harmless, even beneficial. GPs in the 50s and 60s would regularly recommend someone with anxiety or depression to take up smoking, and there were even crafty fag brands such as Craven A with its ‘healthy’ cork tip that would subliminally suggest that those caring snouts were tenderly increasing your lifespan not cutting it.
A Few Select and Memorable Works of Graphic Art in the Shape of Beautiful Fag Packets
CONSULATE. Menthol cigarettes with gorgeous green (menthol green that is) and embossed gold lettering on the front. Back in 1966, I would sometimes buy these eucalyptus-flavoured beauties to show off before teenage girls. But hard as you might suck and blow at your pristine white Consulates (we are now in the genteel world of the Diplomatic Service, from which as a rule aitch-dropping West Cumbrians are de facto banned), you could never get any full-throated blast, so to speak, out of them.
ANCHOR. Tipped cigarettes with a jovial marine emblem of a pigtailed sailor and an anchor on the front. Red and yellow lettering as far as I recall (NB. I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since 1970) Though tipped, they were admirably pungent, even pleasingly dog rough, and more to the point, were good and cheap.
PERFECTOS. It’s all in the name of course. Behold the cigarette manufacturer who boldly calls his new snout ‘perfect’, and it rapidly becomes just that by a kind of sympathetic magic allied with mass hypnosis. A beautiful brown gold pack with ornately slim and elongated lettering. Favoured circa 1968 by my Uncle John (1928-2017) and Aunty Jean (1922-2007) of Salterbeck, Workington, who for years had smoked bountiful Kensitas, which offered coupons exchangeable for valuable gifts out of a sumptuous catalogue. They doggedly chainsmoked for about 5 years to get their hands on an imposing Ferguson transistor radio in 1965, which was still playing away in my widowed Uncle John’s council house in 2017, the year that he died.
SENIOR SERVICE. Plain cigarettes, meaning no tip, meaning they were full and richly flavoured, a fine fillip when you are 16 and in need of pungence in the form of all things physical and sensual. Such items are not reliably provided by rote-learning the names of the towns on the US Fall Line, nor even the industrial preparation of phosphoric acid, nor even the drawing and labelling of the broad bean’s cotyledons, nor the exploration of integral calculus with or without your log tables. Proud and pristine white packets with incisive naval motifs and exquisite blue-black lettering. The name says all. Not only are you a brave ocean goer, an explorer of the limits but you alliterate as ‘senior’, hence majestically triumphant in the hallowed service…
The next post will be on or before Sunday 28th July