Authors: Robert Rankin
Tags: #sf_humor, #Fiction, #Humorous
With all the hassle smokers get nowadays, it's hardly worth it. It's time to move on to something else. Something which doesn't bother anybody else.Yes, snuff is about to make its biggest ever comeback. And the guy who came up with that one is going to be a very wealthy individual.
The first man ever to be arrested for smoking was Rocirigo de Jerez, who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage. His fellow townsmen of Aymonte observed the smoke issuing from his mouth and nose and denounced him as a minion of the devil. He was imprisoned by the Inquisition. The year was 1504.
The school keeper’s name was Mr Blot. Charles Henry Blot to be precise, although this was only ever revealed at his trial. To the children of Grange Junior School he was Mr Blot and you called him sir when you met him.
You met him unexpectedly. In the corridor, in the toilets, in the alleyway that ran down to where the dustbins were kept and you weren’t supposed to be. He loomed at you, sniffed at you, muttered at you, then he was gone. Leaving behind him an odd smell in the air.
The source of Blot’s smell was a matter for debate. A lad called Billy, who knew more than was healthy for one of his age, said that the smell was sulphur and that it came from certain glands situated close to Blot’s arse. All male adults had these glands, according to Billy, and used them for marking their territory. Much in the manner of tom cats.
And this was why Blot sniffed at you, to check whether you had developed your glands yet. And if you had, he would report you to the headmistress and she would make you see the school nurse and your parents would have to come up to the school and fill out a special fonn.
This particular disclosure led to a rather embarrassing incident, when I was caught by my mother in the bathroom, trousers around my ankles, bent double before the mirror, head between my legs and sniffing.
I lost a lot of faith in Billy after that.
Exactly what Mr Blot really did smell of was anybody’s guess. He didn’t smell like other grown-ups and other grown-ups smelled pretty strong. When Oscar Wilde wrote that youth is wasted on the young, he was only part of the way there. It’s the senses that are really wasted, because nobody tells you that they’re going to fade.
When you’re a child, the world is a very colourful place. It’s extremely noisy and it smells incredible. By the time you’re a teenager you’ve lost nearly ten per cent of your sense of colour and sound and smell and you don’t even notice.
It’s probably something to do with your glands.
But Blot smelled odd and that was that.
Of course he looked odd too. School keepers always look odd. It’s a tradition, or an old charter, or something. You don’t get the job if you don’t look odd. And Blot got the job and he kept it. He must have been well over six feet six. My father was a big man, but Blot loomed over him. Blot loomed and fairly dwindled. His head seemed the size of an onion and closely resembled one too. He wore a boiler suit of September grey with a matching cap and a blue woollen muffler, which made him look like an engine driver.
Billy explained to us that this had indeed once been Blot’s profession. He had been the driver of the Trans-Siberian Express. A terrible incident had occurred which led to Blot fleeing Russia. His train had run into a snowdrift in midwinter a thousand miles from anywhere. The crew had eventually been forced to dine upon the passengers, who were mostly peasants and used to that kind of thing. By the time the spring thaw came and the train could get moving again, Blot was the only survivor. Although the authorities were willing to forgive the consumption of passengers, as peasants had never been in short supply, they took a dim view of Blot having filled his stomach with trained railwaymen.
Billy said that down in Blot’s lair amongst the heating pipes, he drank his tea from the stoker’s skull-cap and sat upon an armchair upholstered in human skin.
As it turned out at the trial, Billy wasn’t altogether wrong about the armchair.
But the trial was for the future and way back then, in the time that was our now, we hated Mr Blot. Hated his boiler suit and matching cap. Hated his woollen muffler and his onion head. Hated his looming and his sniffing and his smell.
The time that was our now was 1958 and we were nine years old and plenty of us. Post-war baby boomers, forty to a class. Weetabix and orange juice for breakfast, half a pint of milk at playtime with a straw. Spain for lunch, and tea, if you were lucky. Bovril and Marmite and Ovaltine before you went to bed.
Our teacher was Mr Vaux. He wore a handlebar moustache that he referred to as a ‘pussy-tickler’ and a tweed sports jacket. In our youthful innocence we naturally assumed that pussy-tickling was some kind of exotic sport indulged in by gentlemen who wore tweed. We were right, in essence.
Mr Vaux was a gentleman; he had a posh accent and had flown Spiffires in the war. He had been shot down over France and the Gestapo had tortured him with a screwdriver. He had three medals in his desk drawer and these he wore on Empire Day.
Mr Vaux was something of a hero.
Mr Vaux and Mr Blot did not see eye to eye. In the winter it got very cold in class. We were allowed to wear our coats. Mr Vaux would turn up the radiators and Mr Blot would come in and turn them down again.
But it didn’t seem to be winter that often. Mostly it seemed to be summer. Our classroom faced the west and on those summer afternoons the sunlight fell through the high Edwardian windows in long cathedral shafts, rich with floating golden motes, and put us all to sleep. Mr Vaux would try to rouse us with tales of his adventures behind enemy lines. But eventually he would give it up as a lost cause, open his silver cigarette case, take out a Capstan Full Strength and sit back, with his feet on the desk, awaiting the four o’clock bell.
It was Mr Vaux who got us into smoking really. Of course in those days everybody smoked. Film stars and politicians. Doctors and nurses. Priests in the pulpit and midwives on the job. Footballers all enjoyed a Wild Woodbine at half-time and marathon runners were rarely to be seen crossing the finishing lines without a fag in their faces.
And how well I recall those first pictures of Sir Edmund Hillary upon the summit of Everest sucking on a Senior Service.
But faraway days they are now. And in these present times, some fifty years later, in these post-technological days of heavy food rationing, riots and the new Reichstag, it is hard to imagine a golden epoch in the century before, when smoking was not only legal, but good for you.
And yet it is curious how, in so many ways, those times mirror our own. Then, as now, television was in black and white. Then, as now, there were only two stations and these run by the state. Then, as now, food was rationed. Then, as now, there was conscription. Then, as now, there were no computers.
But then, and unlike now, we were happy.
It is certainly true that the old often look back upon the days of their youth with an ill-deserved fondness. They harp on about ‘the good old days, the good old days’, whilst filling in the pock holes of hardship with the face cream of faulty recollection, and no doubt papering over the cracks of catastrophe with the heavily flocked and Paisley-patterned washable wallpaper of false memory syndrome. While this may be the case, some times are actually better than others. And most were better than ours.
As I write today, on 30 July 2008, a mere eight and a half years on from the great millennium computer crash, with the world gone down the pan and halfway round the old S bend, it is easy to breathe out a sigh for times gone by and wonder where they went.
Up in smoke is where they went, which brings me back to fags.
Mr Vaux, as I’ve said, smoked Capstan Full Strength, flavoursome and rich in health. As children, with our heightened nasal sensitivities, we had no difficulty in identifying any of the thirty or so leading brands of cigarettes, simply by taking a sniff or two of the smoke. Things could get tricky on long train journeys, as there were more than three hundred regional brands, not to mention imports and personal blends. But Capstan, Woodbine, Players and the other well-known names were easy.
Up north, where they were evidently more enlightened, junior-school children were allowed, indeed encouraged, to smoke in class. This was no doubt to prepare them for life down the pit, as in those days all men who lived north of the Wash worked in the coal mines. But in London, where I grew up, and in Brentford, where I went to school, you were not allowed to smoke in the classroom until after you’d passed your eleven plus and gone on to the Grammar.
So we did as all children did, and smoked in the toilets at playtime. The toilets were all equipped with fitted ashtrays next to the bog-roll holders and once a day the ashtray monitor would go around and empty them. Ashtray monitor was one of the better monitoring jobs, as you could often collect up a good number of half-smoked cigarettes, crushed out hastily when the bell rang to end playtime, but still with a few fine puffs left in them.
There were monitors for everything back then. A milk monitor; a chalk monitor; an ink monitor; a window monitor, who got to use the big pole with the hook on the end; a monitor to give out the school books and another to collect them up again. There was the car monitor who cleaned the headmistress’s Morris Minor; the shoe monitor who attended to the polishing of the teachers’ footwear; and of course the special monitor who catered to the needs of the male teachers who favoured underage sex.
I was a window monitor myself, and if I had a pound now for every pane of glass I accidentally knocked out then and every caning I received in consequence, I would have enough money to employ a special monitor of my own to lessen the misery of my declining years.
But sadly I do not.
However, what I do have is a photographic memory whose film remains unfogged and it is with the aid of this that I shall endeavour to set down an accurate record of the way things were then. Of the folk that I knew, who would later play their parts in the misshaping of history. Good folk and bad, famous and not so. And of one in particular, whose unique talents, remarkable achievements and flamboyant lifestyle are now the stuff of legend. A man who has brought joy into the lives of millions with his nonpareil nose powder.
He is known today by many appellations. The tender blender with the blinder grinder. The master blaster with the louder powder. And the geezer with the sneezer that’s a real crowd pleaser. And so on and so forth and suchlike.
Most will know him simply as the Sultan of Snuff
I speak, of course, of Mr Doveston.
Those readers old enough to remember daily newspapers will recall with fondness the ‘gutter press’. Tabloids, as were. These journals specialized in documenting the lives of the rich and famous. And during the final years of the twentieth century the name of Mr Doveston was often to be found writ in letters big and bold across their front pages.
He was both praised and demonized. His exploits were marvelled at, then damned to Hell. Saint, they said, then sinner. Guru, then Godless git. Many of the tales told about him were indeed true. He
have a passion for dynamite — the ‘Big Aaah-choo!’ as he called it. I can personally vouch for the authenticity of the infamous episode of the detonating dog. I witnessed it with my own two eyes. And I got a lot ofit on me!
But that it was he who talked the late Pope into the canonization of Diana, Princess of Wales, is incorrect. The worship of Diana, Di-anity as it is now known, did not become a major world religion until after the Great Computer Crash. By which time Mr Doveston had fallen out with the ailing pontiff after an argument over which of them possessed the larger collection of erotically decorated Chinese snuff bottles.
The task I have set myself here is to tell the
story. Give the facts and hold not back upon the guts and gore. There is love and joy and there is sorrow. There is madness, there is mayhem, there is magic, there is mystery.
There is snuff.
And where there’s snuff, there’s snot, the saying goes, and you shall have it all.
But let me explain from the outset that this is no ordinary biography. This book contains a series of personal recollections. I write only of the times that
spent with the Doveston.
I write of our childhood years together and of the meetings with his ‘uncles’. Meetings that would shape our years ahead.
I write of the now legendary Puberty Party, of Brentstock, of the days at Castle Doveston and of the Great Millennial Ball. And I write, as I alone can, of his terrible end.
I can do no more than this.
And so, with that said, and well said too, let us begin our tale. The year is 1958, the month is good old flaming June. The sunlight falls through those high classroom windows, lighting up the head of Mr Vaux who’s lighting up a fag. Outside, in the corridor, Blot looms above a startled child and sniffs and then is gone. And coming now across the quad, with shuffling gait, is a ragged lad, gum-chewing, with a whistle and a grin. His hair is tousled and nitty, and he does not wear his tie. His grubby hands are in his grubby pockets.
Can this urchin really be the boy who later, as the man, will make so great a mark upon this world of ours?
Our tale begins.