Once upon a time when the world was young or at least I was, which always comes to much the same thing, Tom Robbins wrote a book called Still Life With Woodpecker. Despite using lines like “I have a black belt in haiku” it’s not a profound book and when I read it I was thrown by the all-enveloping American-ness of the Hawaiian setting. I still haven’t been to Hawai but these days I imagine it as a hotter version of SoCal, which is good and bad.
Boy meets girl except he’s a non-specific revolutionary bomber (no, a nice one, you could say that back then, in the days when terrorism was sexy if you were an American and didn’t get to suffer the consequences and sex was still just about part of the revolution) and she’s a princess, a real one. That could happen. Ask Princess Margaret. He obsesses about her and adopts the role of spiritual mentor, or as we used to say, helps her get her head together – I still like that better – finding the extra in the ordinary, the fabulous wonder in the Camel packet.
It seems really very strange to think about it but there was a time when smoking was cool. No, really. Everyone did it. Or if not everyone, then certainly it was only odd people who didn’t. Like anything else, smoking had its strata, its layers, its classifications and social shortcuts and bonding rituals. In one of the few sensible things my mother ever said to me I was told if I had to smoke to make sure I smoked good cigarettes. For me, that meant Camels.
I liked the taste, although a lot of people didn’t, which was fabulously good because it meant ‘Slightly Strange & Exotic’ plus no-one else wanted your cigarettes, unless they too were one of the kamikaze elite. (Oh look it up, do I have to do everything?) But most of all, I liked the mystery. Other cigarettes had names. Some even had numbers, like Number 6 or 555, but I’d sooner have gone without than ever have one of either of those. In case anyone saw me, apart from anything else. But apart from Player’s, none of the other cigarettes had pictures on the packet. Players had a little picture of Nottingham Castle on the inside of the packet and the sailor peering through the lifebelt. What was that about? You smoked them after what, being torpedoed on an Arctic convey 200 miles from Murmansk?
“Players, for when you know your ship is sinking?” I can’t see it working now.
But Camels didn’t have any old picture. Just look at the magnificence of it. Yes, I know. Sorry. I know you’re not supposed to say that about things that kill you unless they’re governments and especially your own, but it was true. Pyramids, like the ones on the dollar bill, there for reasons that were never made clear to me. Palm trees, which back when Not Your Heart Away was set, meant Maria Muldaur and Midnight At The Oasis. And the mysterious camel of course. He’s even mentioned in Bukowski’s Ham On Rye.
But we loved him for other reasons. He was how you could tell how into it girls were. It was all about how many naked women you could see on the packet.
The easiest one is in the back leg, facing you , her head tilted to her right, your left, her right hand on her hip. See her? OK. The next one is in the front leg, same pose but facing a little away from you. The third – and now we’re getting into it – is in the neck, stretched out like a figurehead, but a 1970s figurehead, her left arm raised, her hand behind her head. Baby!
The last two are a bit busy in the middle of the camel’s back. Girls who could see all five, well. If they couldn’t you just had to buy them more drinks until they could.
What other cigarette packet ever gave anyone a whole evening’s entertainment? If usually, nothing else.