Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"When two young people share the same taste, their hearts are one"

Behold one of "Madame George"'s most colorful and homespun images: "The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops / Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops." It's a couplet that probably makes a few of today's listeners wince, thanks to the growing stigma attached to tobacco use. (Years of vigorous anti-smoking campaigns and legislation have done the trick. In April of 2007, it became illegal to smoke in Northern Irish workplaces and enclosed public spaces. In September of the following year, the age of sale of tobacco products rose to 18.)

During Van Morrison's adolescence, cigarette smoking wasn't just socially acceptable—it was out-and-out cool and sophisticated. According to Action on Smoking and Health, in 1948 an astounding 82 percent of British men smoked, of which 65 percent smoked manufactured cigarettes. Consider this passage from Peter Smyth's book Changing Times: Life in 1950s Northern Ireland:
Before the end of the decade cigarettes were being presented in more attractive ways in crush-resistant packets with flip tops, and gift vouchers began a new craze. Brands like Kensitas and Ardath led the voucher charge which was soon to be followed by other brands, the manufacturers calculating, rightly, that the prospect of a free gift was a short-time inducement to smoking far more alluring than any thoughts of long-term consequences.

Smokers in Northern Ireland seemed undeterred by possible health risks, and local tobacconists dispensed Four Square, Park Drive, Woodbine, Gallaher's Blues, Craven A, Bristol, Airman, Dunhill, Senior Service, Players, du Maurier, Baron's, Churchman's No 1 and Olivier among others at prices ranging from 3-4s (15-20p) for 20. Cigarettes with filter tips had been re-introduced after the War to cut down on the amount of tobacco which had to be imported, and although these were at the cheaper end of the spectrum they were, at least initially, disliked by smokers accustomed to getting an undiluted inhalation of nicotine and tar. In terms of advertising no hold were barred. Craven A, for instance, was portrayed as the cigarette for young lovers: "When two young people share the same taste, their hearts are one. When that taste is Craven A ... Their preference is based on rich, fine tobacco, so cool to smoke, so kind to the throat ... With a natural cork tip that protects the lips and keeps the end firm ..."
So now that Morrison couplet becomes even more colorful: East Belfast kids tumbling out of their local tobacco shop, clawing open crush-resistant packets, sparking up Woodbines or Craven A's, inhaling deeply, exhaling with smiles, sharing the same taste, their hearts as one ... Look away, anti-smoking folks.

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