Cigarettes are the curse of the whole human race
A man is a monkey with one in his face
Here's my definition, please heed it dear brother
'A fire on one end and a fool on the other!'
Chorus: Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women,
They'll drive you crazy, they'll drive you insane!
A timelessly wise and true old Christian pro-purity hymn.
With the recent and many-splendoured Australian Open still fresh in all our memories, a new book's poignant discussion of ashtrays (yes, ashtrays) reminds me that in the early 1980s when as a journo I was first sent to cover the Open, the tournament's major sponsor was the Marlboro tobacco company.
Back to those filter-tipped times in a moment but first to a widely acclaimed new book, Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, and to its especially acclaimed chapter on ashtrays. Yes, ashtrays.
As the book and its reviewers point out, there is a special poignancy about the ways in which so many of "our things" (the book looks reverently at 85 of them) become obsolete and extinct.
The word "extinct", one sensitive reviewer of the book, Sophie Haigney, muses for The Baffler, "also connotes something else, more poignant than 'obsolescent': a nod to the kind of death that can happen to our things. It is a loss more profound than many of our words for it - waste, breakage, consumption, discarding - convey."
Taking ashtrays especially seriously, Sophie Haigney reflects that "They [ashtrays] have largely vanished in the wake of indoor smoking bans and the decline of smoking in general ... None of this was aimed at the ashtray itself, but it does go to show how shifts in behaviour and social mores affect the material world and vice versa. Ashtrays still exist, of course ... some have taken on a second life as mementos of a bygone era."
As it happens, my own dear olde tennis club in Canberra has and discreetly displays in its clubhouse an exquisitely kitsch 1950s/60s ashtray. A club member found it in an op shop. In its heyday it was a functioning ashtray but its unique glory is that as well it has attached to it, posed on it, a shining, gilt figure of an athletic male tennis player (its model may be Australia's golden, god-like Wimbledon champ of 1956 and 1957 Lew Hoad), about to deliver a pounding serve.
This juxtaposition of a sports Adonis doing something so healthful and clean-lungs-demanding with a tray for the stinking ash of something so health-ravagingly lung-eatingly anti-tennis as cigarettes is somehow visually oxymoronic, ludicrous, bizarre, tragic, and nostalgically poignant (the unhealthy way we were in the olden days) all at the same time.
But back to the ashtrays-everywhere early 1980s days of the Marlboro Australian Open played at Kooyong in Melbourne.
The venue was bedecked with Marlboro advertising featuring the famous, ruggedly John Wayne-ish, Marlboro Man. He was an idealised, rugged cowboy figure, his smouldering cigarette somehow seeming an essential feature of his buckskin manliness. In my mind's eye in these advertisements I see his horse, too, smoking a Marlboro cigarette, but this may be my memory playing tricks.
Today we think it appalling that a tobacco company should sponsor an event starring elite athletes (and since 2002 the Open's major sponsor has been a blameless Korean manufacturer of motor cars).
But even in those filter-tipped days of the early 80s, Marlboro's Open sponsorship was controversial. This was a Golden Age of protests and there were some spirited and imaginative Open protests by BUGA UP (Billboard-Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions). They included the arrangement on Glenferrie Road opposite the stadium of a row of graveyard headstones (marking the imagined graves of those killed by smoking) accompanied by a giant inflatable cigarette visible from afar.
A community radio wit wrote and performed on air a brilliant protest song (the last verse displays true rhyming genius) in which the entrepreneurial cowboy-capitalist Marlboro Man connives to sponsor some sport:
So he went down to Kooyong and laid out some cash
Just a pittance for someone so wealthy
And he said, with a cough: "If this really pays off,
It might even make smoking look healthy."
He said: "Get me the best tennis players on Earth
I want McEnroe, Borg, Gerulaitis!
It'll be so damn good, I'd play myself if I could...
But I can't - I've got heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema... and chronic bronchitis."
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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