Sunday, 20 November 2011


My first cigarette was a second-hand stub retrieved from a flower bed in the park just outside my school. I was eleven. It was the last day of year 7, and what better way to celebrate than by sucking toxic smoke from damp tobacco through a filter saturated in a stranger’s saliva?

Despite this inauspicious start, smoking stuck. That summer I stole cigarettes (unused ones) from my Grandma’s stash and smoked them with a friend in the same park while riding our bikes in circles around the tennis courts and arguing which was best, Pokemon Red or Blue.

At eleven (or twelve, by the time the habit was in full swing) smoking was cool. It was the combustible equivalent of greased back hair, an inexorable erection, and a leather jacket with T-Birds etched in studs on the back. I was too fat to be cool for real. Smoking was the ideal facade. And it wasn’t long until my small circle of friends got in on the act.

The academic limbo of year eight arrived. On any given morning, if you’d disembarked from the 358 bus and strolled into the park, you would have found a group of twelve year old boys huddled together in the bushes, a cartoon raincloud of smoke suspended over our heads. We saw ourselves as outlaws; underage, targets for older boys hungry for cigarettes, and bound by the myth that some teachers patrolled the park before school.

The only part of this story I’m proud of is that, for once, I’m not the yellow-belly of the piece. I was the one who’d brave the scorn of corner shop owners to purchase lighters. It was me who, a few months after the smoking craze struck, took the next step and lit up my inaugural spliff. (Hindsight reduces the drama of this; they came at the cost of £2.50 each and were rolled in a bus ticket. For all I know I was smoking a refreshing cup of PG Tips).

It was my best friend at the time who couldn’t handle the pressure of our morning underbrush smoking club. Like me, he was in dire need of the cool points that came packaged with smoking. Only, deep down, he was too sensible for it. Every morning, despite what it had cost him, he would find any excuse to take the minimum possible puffs of his cigarette or spliff. Often he would just ‘enjoy the smell,’ before choking to the brink of regurgitation. Other times he’d very accidentally drop and step on it all at once, or simply express his satisfaction in ‘watching it burn down.’

One morning paranoia got the better of him. As we huddled in the bushes, a little Westie dog barrelled through the branches. My friend lost his shit.

            ‘I know that dog.’

We all peered down at it through the smoke.

            ‘I know that fucking dog. It lives across the road from me.’


His eyes were white and wide from fright. ‘What if it gets its owner?’

The Westie just stood there, looking around at us with its tongue lolling out between its teeth.

            ‘It’s not fucking Lassie.’

            ‘If the dog tells its owner they’ll tell my parents and they'll tell the school. Then we're fucked!'

He threw his lit cigarette as hard as he could at the Westie. It shook its head and dashed out from the cover of the bushes.


My friend ran too, in the opposite direction, before the Westie could wire up its enigma machine and blow our cover to its elderly owner.

I would have been smart to kick the habit then too. Due to the spreading epidemic of older boys threatening us with undesirable violence for our cigarettes, I took the genius precaution of hiding my supply in a small car-shaped biscuit tin. To protect the precious deathsticks, I clumsily lined the inside with padding and sticky-tape. It took exactly two days for my mum to discover the case and (quite rightly) kick the metaphorical shit out of me with perfectly executed verbal, mental, and, to my freshly purchased packet of twenty cigarettes, physical abuse.

This left me more time to work on my other crippling addiction. Binge eating was about to hit in a big way. No bushes required. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Ski Slope Mutiny

Each of us, now and again, should be allowed to indulge in moments of ostentatious heroism. In a lifetime spent being crammed to the brim with an aspirant cocktail of airbrushed romantic leads and real-world tales of unbelievable hardship and altruism, I would feel disenfranchised without the odd occasion of fabricated hyperbole. I’m too yellow-bellied for war, and I’m unlikely ever to find myself in a situation that demands my self-sacrifice in the name of destroying zombies/Nazis/the entire cast of The X Factor. Instead, such moments must be sought in the mundane, where inevitably they will go quite wrong.

My moment came on a school ski jaunt to Austria. With no previous slope experience, I opted for the snowboard. Snowboards are cool, and therefore I would be too. At the time I was too young to have worked out why businessmen bloated on their own wealth only ever split their weight between a pair of skis. It turns out that, with a circumference roughly equal to that of the Ghostbusters Stay Puft Man, carving the powder to the max (dude) on a board with any degree of competence is about as easy as resisting a third helping at the lodge buffet. To this day, informing people that I’ve been snowboarding feels a fallacy, as I spent far more time rolling uncontrollably head over man-breast than I did stood upright.

The first day on piste was dedicated to mastering the basics. I did not master them. The second day saw us unleashed on the beginners slope. I say unleashed; I never actually made it to the top.

The ski lift was an automated pulley with plastic harnesses to secure around your waist for a quick tug to the nearby peak. At first I wasn’t the only one to struggle. The beginners slope became a sort of slapstick montage, 14 year old boys bowling over furious Austrians, snapping harnesses and generally demonstrating to the world why our school had been officially classed as ‘failing’ for over a decade. Those that conquered the lift were soon painfully reacquainted with gravity.

After a morning of this, the mutinous murmurings began. We were being forced to learn too quickly. We were being pushed too hard. We had ice down our trousers. Snow was falling hard now, and we were getting fed up. I most of all. I hadn’t eaten for at least an hour, and was suspicious that all this might count as exercise. If only someone would raise an objection. If only someone were brave enough to stand up for the rights of these downtrodden...

A final conflict with the ski lift tipped me over the edge. In the process of falling over I managed to catch my ankle in the harness and was dragged ignominiously up the slope on my face. When I disentangled myself, I marched over to the instructor who was stood with the rest of the class.

With righteous anger I sternly informed him that we were not happy with how things were going. In fact, we were more than unhappy. We were sick of it! We demanded change, and we demanded it immediately!

For a display of ostentatious heroism to be successful, a certain level of solidarity is required. Like a wave of men raising up their voices to insist that they are Spartacus. Or a legion of sheep, raving and drooling, falling united on the necks of their canine oppressors. I believed that such support from my fellow disillusioned would be implicit. When my fevered rhetoric was complete, I turned, expectant of a cheer, a ‘hear hear!’, perhaps a smattering of applause.

The final rule is that, if your display has clearly not worked, take it gracefully. If your fellow boys are staring at their boots or taking a sudden interest in some non-descript vista of the white-out, don’t scream that they are all wankers and stomp away across the powder. Further, try not to cry and fog up your goggles to the point where, combined with the swirling snow, you become lost on your return to the lodge and spend two hours alone in -19c before you make it back.

By the next morning, each and every one of my betrayers had mastered the ski lift and the ability to reach the bottom of the slope in an erect and dignified fashion. I spent the rest of the trip secure in the lodge, rescuing those around me from early graves by heroically reaching the bottom of innumerable plates of chips, an alternative form of heroism far more suited to my natural abilities.