Air on a G String

Do you remember the Hamlet cigar advert?  There were a series of them that shared the common theme of the cigar as a cure for fretfulness.  The one I remember best was a shot taken from the edge of a golf bunker.  The golfer in the bunker was not visible but you could tell he was there because you could hear the recurrent sound of wedge (or perhaps mashie, or niblick – you can tell I’m not a golfer) versus golf ball.  A spray of sand rose above the lip of the bunker – but not the ball.  There may have been barely audible grunts of exasperation from the invisible golfer.  Then, a pause.  The rasp of a match, and now, instead of a spray of sand, cigar smoke, to the accompaniment of the advert’s signature theme – the air from Bach’s third orchestral suite, BWV1068.  It was all deeply calming.

I used to have a penchant for a good cigar.  Who knows, maybe the Hamlet advert was its root cause.  Advertising can be insidiously successful, though not always.  Another famous tobacco ad was for Strand cigarettes.  The recurrent theme this time was of a man in a raincoat lighting up on an inclement night in a deserted cityscape.  The strap line – “You’re never alone, with a Strand.”  But then Strand bombed.  The received wisdom was that people did not like to consider themselves as pathetic lonely old men in need of a drug to offset their solitude.

One of the last times I smoked a cigar was on the last night that it was legal in Scotland to smoke in a public place.  The place in question was Cromlix House in Perthshire, an establishment now owned by Sir Andy Murray.  I was in the company of a young lady who happened to be a smoker, and it was very relaxing to puff on a Havana cigar in front of a blazing log fire.  I can’t remember what cigarette Julia smoked – not Strand.  It seemed churlish not to have this experience for the last time (of smoking in a hotel, not I hope, enjoying the company of a young lady).  In his autobiography My Last Sigh, the Spanish film director and surrealist Luis Bunuel gives a deeply seductive description of how to prepare and drink a dry martini, pointing out that alcohol and tobacco are essential accompaniments to lovemaking.  (And in Thunderball, when Bond picks up Dominetta Vitali by buying her a carton of Dukes, king-size with filter in a Nassau shop, he invites her for a drink, pointing out that smoking goes with drinking.)  Bunuel does, however, end his panegyric to alcohol and tobacco with a palinode – don’t smoke or drink because they’re bad for you.

In the absurd days of the Quality Outcomes Framework which used to drive General Practice in this country, doctors got Brownie points for recording patients’ smoking status.  I used to ask patients, “Do you smoke?”  “Yes.”  Tick the box.  “Just in case nobody has ever told you, it’s very bad for you.”  I knew a GP who actually prescribed cigarettes.  There is some evidence that smoking might attenuate attacks of ulcerative colitis.  This GP would advise patients with that affliction to smoke a few cigarettes every day.  How many?  He said five.  (I think he was getting his “five a day” message mixed up.)  I dare say the General Medical Council would have taken a dim view of this particular aspect of his pharmacopoeia, but I don’t think anybody ever dobbed him in.

Fortunately, Cuban cigars are so ridiculously expensive (you are more or less setting fire to bank notes) that I’ve got my habit down to about one a year.  So I need an alternative cure for fretfulness (heaven knows, perusing my morning paper, there’s more than enough to be fretful about) and fortunately I have such a cure on my doorstep.  I take a turn down to Flanders Moss, a stretch of peatbog in West Stirlingshire stretching from Thornhill to Aberfoyle.  You could easily disappear into this Grimpen quag, but fortunately there is a boardwalk affording a kilometre circuit, from which you can enjoy magnificent views of the southwest origin of the highland boundary fault line that stretches from Loch Lomond to Stonehaven.  Now, the big peaks, Ben Lomond, Venue, Ledi, Stuc a’Chroin and Vorlich, and in the distance, Ben More and Stob Binnein, are snow-capped.

Sometimes I stop and talk to the horses.  People walk their alpaca down here.  Alpaca are another wonderful cure for anxiety.  They are good company, so alert, so interested in what’s going on, always smiling.

So I “take a turn round the moss” and, at least for a time, the cares of the world recede.  I don’t have to light up, yet I can still hear the long, soothing melodic line of Bach’s Air.

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