Saturday, February 21, 2004

The Demographic Shift - 15

I've been looking for positive reasons for exiting the 18- to 34-year-old group (they're thin on the ground) and I've found another in giving up smoking. I'm going to miss it.

Apparently new research shows that if you give up smoking before you are 35 you will be more or less fine (from the effects of smoking at least, compilation album buying and other post-34 side effects can not not be blamed on tobacco). This will apparently save the average person 16 years of their life, if they give up before they are 35. It's just coincidental that this all comes as tobacco advertising is banned from posters, press and cinema.

While I know this is all for the best, I am as I said going to miss it: both the actual smoking and the tobacco advertising. Although fag ads have long been generally acknowledged to be past their best, they were for a long while some of the best ads around and Silk Cut's "the fat lady sings" (cdp-travis sully) was a great way to bow out.

I should come clean. I actually stopped smoking on December 23. I hadn't planned to (not officially) although, like DIY, it was one of those things at the back of my mind. I knew, however, it was out there and that very soon, preferably before I crossed the demographic point of no return, it was going to happen ("look at me, no social crutches!").

I guess I was just lucky that I got very ill (the Christmas barfing incident) and that my giving up started sooner than I had expected. Starting on December 23, which, as a day perfectly acceptable and a run-of-the-mill kind of day, is decidedly better as it meant I got to avoid any auspicious New Year's resolutions.

Besides, I haven't been a proper smoker for years. Rather, I have been the worst kind of smoker (hated by real stand-up smokers) -- the persistent social smoker who goes through other people's cigarettes at a rate of knots. But hey, who am I kidding? I've had a solid 10- to 15-a-week habit for several years. I'm so going to miss it.

There are lots of things I will miss about smoking, beginning I think with the brand itself.

Everyone has their brand when it comes to cigarette smoking. Like so many choices, it is difficult to work out exactly how it happens, but there is a certain point when it definitely happens. For me, the moment that sticks in my mind was at university late one morning when I got up and came downstairs to see my house mate Keith sitting in his red dressing gown with a large breakfast cup of black coffee and smoking a Benson & Hedges. I did likewise rummaging for my own packet, left lying in the mess and found my Marlboros. We both sat there and had, what we all commonly referred to as, our Mexican breakfast -- it seemed so much easier to do without food back then. I had become a Marlboro man.

At the time, of course, they were Marlboro Red cigarettes. Everyone smoked Marlboro Reds and then one day, a couple of years later, after some late night out in Manchester I declared I had to give up those things ("these are going to kill me"). Of course, I didn't mean give up smoking I meant switch from full-strength blowtorch like Marlboro Reds to the more sedate carcinogens of Marlboro Lights.

So like so many of the rest of Generation X and Y, Marlboro Lights became the brand of choice of the next decade. A decade (frankly that is shocking), can you believe it? So I will miss that familiar packet. That familiar and comforting gold, white and black packaging.

Other things I will miss are cigarettes and alcohol combined. Such a good combination (like perfectly matched dance partners) that Oasis wrote one of their best songs about it -- "It's a crazy situation, but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol". That always seemed so true.

I'll miss the things that people used to say about cigarettes as well. There was this one girl that I dated once who would always say if I offered her a Marlboro Light, "No darling, I have my Silk Sluts". Or another friend who, when lighting his Marlboro Light, would say "What do you say about a brand that's killing an entire generation?" And with 3m 16- to 34-year-old cigarette smokers, he wasn't wrong.

There were few areas in life that seemed to excite such high levels of brand loyalty. People I know (me included) would run from the pub and literally go door to door (always somehow ending up at the 24-hour BP garage) in search of Marlboro Light cigarettes should the fag machine have nothing left but Benson & Hedges and Silk Cuts, as was inevitably the story ("That bastard over there got the last packet of Marlboro Lights").

Certain people I knew would swear by their Lucky Strikes ("got to have my Luckies") or similarly Camels (Lights). There were the odd few who stood by peculiar brands such as Dunhill cigarettes, which came in those curiously old-fashioned slimline boxes. That said, the only person I knew who smoked these was a hunt saboteur, so what that said I don't know. Then there were the other cigarette brand certainties such as the fact that Northerners smoked Embassy cigarettes and people from Essex and Essex-like places smoked Benson & Hedges and Rothmans.

My friends and I, I am sure, were first suckered by a certain cool that came with smoking (how stupid were we?). Besides, we wore lots of black, had Zippo lighters (cue lots of "I love the smell of petrol in the morning" quotes) and drank excessive amounts of black coffee while pontificating at length about some American novel or other. It all went together. It was part of the smoking camaraderie. It was a lifestyle choice.

That is one of the signs, and one of the reasons why it is easier to give up smoking, because what this demographic shift is partly about is leaving certain things behind and loosening ties with others (not severing) and smoking is one of those things. This is a good thing. I never wanted to be older and still puffing away. Anyway (darling), it's really terribly bad for your skin (apparently).

There are many things that I will not miss about smoking, not least of all the yellow teeth and smelly breath, not to mention the "no I will not kiss you as your mouth smells like you've eating out of an ashtray all evening" line.

All I have to be really careful about now is not turning into a militant reformed anti-smoker (in the same way I turned from a "Hell no, we won't go, we won't fight for Texaco" in 1991 to a "well, I don't have a problem with it being about oil" in 2003). This would be a terrible thing to be worse than a peacenik. When I smoked (like all people who smoked), I was really good at trotting out the line that reformed smokers were the worse militant anti smokers around and I don't want to be one of them (who wants to be worse at anything?).

Besides it's not quite true, Alison (of best job, best looking, best house fame) is the worst by a long way and she has never smoked. Alison is one of those people who will sit there fanning themselves rather too vigorously when in the company of people smoking cigarettes (and while I love Alison dearly, I do tell her she really shouldn't do it). She was at this late last year as I was winding down my habit.

"Ali, you're only going to wind everyone up and get their back up."

"Is that a joke? My fanning carcinogenic smoke away from my face is getting everyone's back up? Do you have any idea how ridiculous a statement that is?"

"Well, I'd say it is just about as ridiculous as someone who as a corporate lawyer defends tobacco companies in the face of countless legal assaults. Besides no one ever said that modern life does not contain the odd paradox or two."

She's funny. Anyway I've digressed again, but I guess what I really did want to say was a so long to Marlboro country. I've no idea what I will do with my Zippo now.

Monday, February 09, 2004

The Demographic Shift - 14

Some people really just can't take a joke. It's either that or I guess you really shouldn't mock your friends who live in bizarre parts of the country.

I have been exposed to a terrible bout of schadenfreude. Living as I do in the North London home of terror and the heroin trade, an area that has recently been the target of much police attention, which has led to the arrest of local ricin-making Algerians and busting the local Turkish mini-mart.

No sooner had the last round of these raids taken place than I received an email from my friend Marcus (he of Stallingwalling), which took no prisoners. "That will serve you right for taking the piss about people who live in green and pleasant parts of the country."

To be honest, I was pretty shocked to be on the receiving end of such an epistle, but not as shocked as the guys who runs the local Turkish mini-mart to find his store splashed over PA with pictures of armed police touring his aisles.

Ever since the police raids to break the heroin trade, I've childishly wanted to go and ask for a couple of pints of milk and a deal of smack. I've decided not to do this on several counts: one, it's obviously juvenile act (in a sniggering teenage kind of way); and two, I'm slightly concerned about getting shot. I know, I should get out more.

Anyway, I blame all of this on Adam. I would never have moved to the area if it wasn't for him. He encouraged several people I know to move into the neighbourhood ("it's up and coming, it's the next big area, I saw it on 'Property Ladder'"). Needless to say, Adam is another 'Property Ladder' obsessive. In his case chiefly, I think, because of blonde presenter Sarah Beeny. It's sad, but it's become cult watching among a certain group of property-fixated friends. I know that Marcus is also massive fan. I bet that is where all this schadenfreude comes from -- Sarah Beeny (famous as she is for saying "Personally, I think he's made a big mistake").

Marcus, however, was not done with just coming down on my troubled (ultra urban) neighbourhood. He called me and told me that I was, in fact, partly to blame.

"You realise this is all partly your own fault."

"What, for living in a dodgy neighbourhood?"

"That too, but the fact that the place is swimming with Muslim terrorists."

"You've lost me."

"Your warmongering Blairite views have contributed to making London a terrorist target. You may as well have painted a sign on your house. I imagine, you'll never be able to sell the place now. Boy, have you changed."

This all related back to when during the holidays we had discussed the situation in Iraq over a few drinks (OK, we shouted at each other – but in a friendly way). I had again expressed my opinion for action (in line with UN resolutions) and also argued in favour of rounding up a few individuals (in line with The Sun). I told him I was sure that Saddam was stockpiling weapons. As part of my argument, I joked (again) that I was sure weapons of mass destruction were hidden (I had after all played 'Conflict Desert Storm' for PS2, RRP £32.99 -- twice!). I can't help but make fun of his position. Those die-hard stuck-in-the-80s left-wing types are incredibly pious and self righteous and just too PC for my liking. This (of course) went down poorly with Marcus (already sensitive as he is about Stallingwalling). He dourly informed me that he had no time for games ("I have a child, you infant"). In response, I had to quote "Life is short, play more". Besides, I like the BBH ads.

One of his last comments got me thinking ("Boy, you changed") and I was concerned that, as he clearly hadn't (in terms of view), could it really just be me? What I thought was I should test myself against my friends.

The chance to do this came much sooner than I anticipated when I visited "the friends"."The friends" are a bit like those people who live in bizarre parts of the country except "the friends" live in suburban North London and, like the Stallingwalling bizarre types, "the friends" also have children.

I don't see "the friends" very often as it involves vast amounts of travel. Usually a tube and a train (can you believe it) as was the case when I went to see Duncan and Julia who hold an annual post-New Year get-together around this time of year.

Things were in full swing when I arrived and there are around 10 adults and four small children all dressed in wizard-like robes running around and through the legs of adults, whacking each other with wooden spoons and plastic swords.

Dodging one of the children, who was in pursuit of another fleeing child, I say hello to Julia, who is standing more or less in the middle of the room rocking her newly born baby in her arms. Next to her is Amanda, another old university friend and a former housemate.

That's another thing with "the friends" -- it's difficult to keep track. I knew Julia was pregnant last time I saw her, which was eight or nine months ago (and it's always eight or nine months these days), but I lost track of when the birth actually was. This happens more and more as we've graduated (pun intended) from living in each other's pockets and not missing a beat, to missing out when they are giving birth.

We played micro catch-up, exchanging a quick series of life sound bites as everybody gets up to date on the key issues (partners/jobs/houses). Nobody goes into too much detail and we spend most of our time talking about work. Julia, who (it's established) gave birth four months ago, is desperate to get back to it.

"I know, I'll want out as soon as I'm back, but I've decided you can only have the two-for-one baby wipes conversation once a week. If you have it any more than once a week you are likely to go mad and I'm getting there. But there's a woman who I see at the school gates every day when I pick that one up [she says, pointing to George, her large bundle of four-year-oldness who is pounding around the sitting room] who seems to have made it her mission to keep me up to date with the latest two-for-one baby product offers. It's very depressing. I have to go back to work."

I remind her that Kate, having moved with Marcus to the middle of nowhere, seems to be relishing the life of a full-time mother.

"Yes, but Kate's different. She's never going back to work. She's one of those women who can't get over the novelty of not having to get up and drag themselves to work. Plus, she wears those mum-type clothes all the time that just say 'Hi, I'm Kate. I'm a professional mum'."

"Oh you mean ready to go to the gym clothes, but never go," says Amanda twirling the ends of her long brown hair. "I think she definitely found her look."

"Oh meow," says Julia as the two of them break into giggles at their cutting appraisal.

"You know what it is? I think she's been liberated in reverse. Her lifestyle for one is entirely funded by Marcus's double-salary job. You have to admit it's strange... she's like chasing the dream, but the dream is that of the 1950s suburban housewife -- but with domestics, Starbucks and Gap Kids thrown in."

It's true. Since Marcus got his "big job" they don't even need the pittance of a salary Kate used to make working in publishing, allowing her to spend her time at home with the kids. It's weirdly old fashioned and I say this, not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing.

"I bet she has coffee mornings with other professional mums."

"Professional mums?"

"Gordon, you must have heard that one. It's what they call them. It sounds better than housewife plus it reflects the fact that, unlike previous generations, they're university educated and they use their grand IQs to tell the cleaner 'not to miss those little corners under the toilet'."

"Those corners are a pain," opines Amanda.

"Oh they are," concurs Julia, "don't you find Gordy? It's OK, we know you have a cleaner and you never leave her any instructions."

"I know what's going to happen to Kate," says Amanda. "She's going to wake up in 15 years and be bored to tears, have one of those what did I do with my life moments and then go off and work for the Women's Institute as a jumble sale organiser. Either that or Marcus will have a string of affairs leaving their marriage nothing but an empty shell, which Kate might not even notice above the hum of Xanax."

I tell Amanda that she is an incredible bitch, to which she smiles ("I know I'm awful, but I really like her"). We all laugh at this and I tell them that I love coming here as it always makes you feel holier than thou. I think I might enjoy this joke a little too much for Julia's liking as she rewards me by thrusting baby Molly into my arms.

"Uh? I can't do this.”

"That's what Duncan said before I got pregnant," which draws a titter of laughter from around the room.

I think it is only then that I realise that Amanda and I are the only unmarried people at Julia and Duncan's. While not everyone has a child, they will in the near future. Even Amanda, who although has just completed an MBA, said last time I saw her that she was getting broody. Despite this she refuses to take Molly off my hands.

"Amanda, but you said you were getting broody. Come on."

"I know, but I've changed my mind. She's dribbling over your sweater. I'd contact the manufacturer."

As I sway Molly, I ask Amanda what her plans are now she has completed her MBA to which she tells me that she has an interview lined up later this month with the World Bank. For a moment, I'm sure she is joking as Amanda was once among the most left-wing women I knew at university, running both Labour Students and the women's group with an iron (feminist) grip.

"Unfortunately, I'm not joking. It's sad I know, but the money on offer is absolutely unseemly and I really want a much bigger house.”

"Oh that's quite amusing. You were the girl who discounted potential boyfriends on the basis that their politics were unsuitable. I think you used to scare more guys off than any girl on campus. Now the World Bank."

"Mmm, I might have questioned people whether they intended to vote Labour, but it seemed really necessary for some unfathomable reason. I seem to remember saying a lot that I could never date a Tory and the idea of Social Democrats seemed even worse. They were so hairy."

"I think you did at one point say you would only date card-carrying Labour party members who must at least have a passing understanding of dialectical materialism."

"I can't even spell dialectical now."

"People used to say you had Labour Party-branded knickers."

Amanda screws her face up at this and wobbles her shoulders. "Funny, you were the same."

"I know, but I was prepared to make exceptions."

"That's a liberal interpretation of the past."

"What about now?"

"Well, I'm thinking of voting Liberal Democrat next time around, so anything goes."