peteg's blog

A Beautiful Mind

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Another trawl through the not-authored-by-me archive.

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burn FAST burn BRIGHT
Post Political Smoking: Is Tobacco the Heroin of the Next Millenium?

Ruby E. Royal

It is happening again. In backstreets and alleyways, schoolyards and bedrooms, the pungent aroma of smoking tobacco is staging a comeback. Faced with the hassles of maintaining expensive smack or crack habits, junkies and drug afficiandos alike are rediscovering the joys of tobacco. The number of young smokers is actually increasing despite increased awareness of smoking and its bundle of assorted dangers. Mainstream persecution of smoking has made it such an uncool and distasteful pastime that it has paradoxically renewed its rebel appeal and counter-culture chic. Demonised by scientists, the media and recent government anti-smoking campaigns, tobacco is looking to be the dope of choice as we head into the new millenium. Smoking 'schwag' has become an act of nihlism and disinterest, the perfect vice for today's cynical, disaffected youth. It's strengthened status as 'fringe activity' has turned the famous convivality of the 'smokers bond' into an emblem of cultural identity, of solidarity between disparate individuals. Whispered with the conspiratorial urgency of any secret society, the knowing looks and loaded subtext behind "Got a light?" have made it the definitive pick-up line of the century.

Marijuana is passe, it dulls the senses and carries too much hippie baggage for today's forward looking radicals. The new-wave of nicotine-surfers describe a high that is more intellectual than physical - a euphoric experience of freedom sourced in a rejection of contemporary social mores. In lighting up, they are saying "Whatever!" to an increasingly confusing and catastrophic world. With antagonistic relish and odious selfishness, the new smoker partakes in the sadistic pleasure of tormenting their oppressively moral and puritanically rational non-smoking neighbours. This determined refusal to surrender personal desires to those of the consensus, has canonized smoking as an individualistic and life-affirming assertion of "I am here, watch me breathe!" - a triumphant display of being able to do whatever the hell you want, despite the controlled and regulated environments we live in. The "Bring 'em on!" attitude of famous chain-smokers such as John Wayne and Dennis Leary appeals to universal desires for empowerment, re-investing the atomised individual with the freedom to flaunt the tyranny of 'common-sense' and to give the finger to mainstream opinion.

Vices are pleasurable because their irrationality lies closer to the essence of the human condition. Consequently, each cigarette offers the individual the heady rush of invulnerability that comes with sucking at death's nipple - the ultimate disposability of life personified in a symbolic gesture of confrontation with the infinite. With each drag the modern smoker is saying "Come on death! I'll take you on, but on my terms." The very damaging properties of tobacco supplied as readons for not smoking have instead been turned on their head and incorporated into the smoker's philosophy. Lung cancer? Heart Disease? Death? "That's the whole point!" they exclaim, "It's death at your disposal!"

This cynical god-complex has proved popular with kids facing another seventy years of fatalistic existence in a world plagued by serial disaster. The traditional anti-smoking reproaches such as "Each smoke takes five minutes off your life" fall short of Generation Me's gritty social realism. With black humour they reply "As if I'll get a root in the last five minutes of my life anyway!" The trade-off is alluring - increase the intensity of youth at the expense of decrepit old-age - live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. So what if smoking is a filthy habit? That's half the attraction for a generation which has embraced the trash aesthetic and junkie culture as more than a pastime, but a way of life.

A whole philosophy has grown up around abuse and excess, colonising our pop-culture and collective consciousness as evidenced by the long list of famous addicts-for-their-art and substance-martyrs. Models, actors, rock stars, painters, writers - anyone with any talent appears to be hooked on something. It's not hard to see why every little boy and girl wants to appropriate an addiction for themselves. The problem is serving them all in an orderly and efficient manner. Hence cigarettes - habitual, easy to manufacture, but above all, bad for you. You don't need to be intelligent to do them, there's no messing around with needles or teaspoons, mirrors or razors, no risk of flashbacks or overdosing. It's Russian Roulette made cheap and easy. Unlike their predecessors, who had to indulge their escapism covertly and illicitly, the nicotine addict has the advantage of being able to score almost anytime, anywhere, from newsagents, supermarkets, even petrol stations! Tobacco is also retro enough to claim a mythology of its own; as an appetite suppressant it keeps you thin at the same time as giving you the voice of a blues singer! No wonder it's being hailed as the perfect drug.

There are certain rules to be observed with any addiction however. 'Nicking' (a cute tag for nicotine withdrawal) is taken for granted - it's what you do with it that counts. It's not enough to get the shakes or fidgety fingers, the enlightened smoker must convey the deeper meaning behind voluntary dependency, a recognition of humanity's tenuous place in this impassionate and unpredictable world. This is the age of the masochist, the martyr, and smoking is the most favoured choose-your-own-noir adventure. In a nihilist world, tobacco is the nihilist's choice. As any hardened smoker will gladly explain (between drags) "Smoking kills? Oh tell me something I don't know baby. The entire boat's sinking and if you want to drown in your seat that's your choice. The world is fucked and every one of us is dying a little bit each day, so you may as well choose your own exit, and enjoy yourself while you're at it. I'm gonna roll my way to heaven, up there in smooth clouds of ready-rubbed Class A. You have to respect that. There's nothing more infantile or prudish than the limp-wristed crowd of puritans making exaggerated hand gestures and gasping like beached whales. Don't they know the three great consumptive pleasures in life - sex, coffee, chocolate - are all made better with a good smoke? Smoking is everything. Smoking is the light at the end of the tunnel, through which the world is going to hell in a handbag. We're all blindfolded prisoners in front of the firing squad see? Any last requests? Well yeah, gimme a smoke."

This article won the author a creative writing competition at UNSW sometime in the late 90s.

From the archive (not by me): Fade to Beige

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[Fade to Beige]

...the bland leading the bland down corridors of beige...

As this campus is being reconstructed into a super-uni where only the biggest and fittest faculties survive, its intellectual and atmospheric properties are being coloured over by the blue and beige paint. Soon students will have to walk around in uniforms, differentiated by symbols emblazed on jackets representing the faculties to which they are allowed to belong. The upside down tree, once located near the construction site outside the architecture building, was a statue of hope in the milieu of indifference. It represented a moment of mother nature's turmoil and the possibility of recourse to sameness. A tree that meant more in death than in life. In its non-existence we have been left with a cenotaph parading as a Library. 'UNSW RIP' it barks at the city of Sydney.

Colour is where this campus is at. As life has ebbed away from campus 2052 colour has been the flotsam that has surrounded the island of the chancellery. Well, to be closer to a truth, it has been the jetsam ejected froom all aspects of campus life, be it political, emotional or edible. Soon all the dye will be drained from the most resplendent icons on campus, and what will be left? exactly what was there in the beginning - sameness. A void... avoid.

<fade out to flashback>

A naive middle-class 17 year-old boy arrived at Eddy Avenue in the early part of 1990. He was ready to be transported through the corridor of Surry Hills, this time by a blue bus and not the family volvo going to the Easter show, along the leafy parades named after our beloved ancestors to finally reach an institution that was surrounded by spike-topped fences - to keep them in or keep them out? We all wondered.

It was a warm summer's day as hundreds of greenhorns stepped off the 393 to be greeted by people bathed in yellow. More happy to see us than our parents at our birth, the colourful fuckers yelled in unison, "Follow us! We will show you that there's more to uni than studying." Wow, we all thought. You can be cool and have fun too at Kenso Tech.

After hours of lectures that made you feel like you just re-entered year 7, the yellow coated jellybeans dragged you around campus espousing myths like this place is better than Disneyland. Geeze, does this site of ugly brick buildings and as little grass as the CBD situated on a fucking hill have a soul? What else would drive fifty or so students to wear the same t-shirt for a week just to show a bunch of freshers around? Answer: the bar.

Does Sydney Uni have an O-week? Or more importantly does Sydney need an O-week? For some reason UNSW feels like the life is dripping out of it. It is being slowly suffocated by an overdose of sameness. The yellow shirts, in all the naive glory, try to stop this institution without a soul from sinking deeper into the depths of beige. They ought to be congratulated for their effort, but it was doomed from its inception.

<fade to present - vaseline lens>

Ah Esmes, the last bastion of intellectual and spiritual life remaining on this campus. Imagine crusty orange chairs encapsulated by booths. To get out of them you had to climb over people and mind their coffees. So old and cruddy was the furniture and the carpet that you felt, or well I felt, at home. Searching for the pile of disposable ash trays amongst students pretending not to be as bourgeoisie as their parents you felt a company (even with total strangers). Is this life? Was this spirit? I don't know. But it was a melange of shitty short blacks, intellectual diversity, difference and acceptance. The cappuccinos always had a filthy froth and the film on the long blacks was the envy of Cecil B. de Mille. Thas was then, but what about now?

The Union, to which you pay $181 a year for food, entertainment and yellow shirts (yes, I know that the last two on the list can be considered one and the same) renovated Esmes (you call neon signs, plastic plants and faux wrought iron chairs renovated??? - eds) when it was where Badabagan now is and then moved it to where it is currently. Better view. Better coffee. No atmosphere. Is not the University Union, to which the students elect the board members, responsible for the lack of colour on this campus? Is it possible that places such as the bar and Esmes are lifeless because the people who control and run them treat students and stadd as a homogeneous mass who are to be treated like sheep about to be shorn? It's as though a bunch of them sat in a boardroom and said "Let's give the masses the illusion that they have control over their consumption - 10% off if you show your student card, that'll placate the non-believers." Soon the uniform of the Union lackeys will be that of beige and not of hypocritical yellow, and beige coloured lattes will become the portion controlled beverage of UNSW inc. Only the radicals willing to be outed will dare to order a short black.

The Student Guild though has been moderately active in responding to this campus' fading into beige. One could suggest that they are partly responsible for the bland out of this uni, I mean they wear beige shirts accompanied by only the merest splash of purple (or is it mauve?), and they have certainly been complicit in the creeping conservatism. Then if you look at the percentage of people who actually get around to voting in Guild elections then you see that 90% of students are participate in a form of passive euthanasia - they are helping to kill their own environment. The rave on the lawn earlier this year organised by the Student Guild and the politics behind it (temporary autonomous zones) was a shining light in a very dim fog and should be embraced as a method to respond to the blanding out of UNSW. It made me feel that I was being confronted by new ideas and experiences; and having fun at the same time. All colours of the rainbow shone across the campus that day.

"Why has thou forsaken me?" yells the spirit of this campus. Or is it the cry of St. George campus students to the self-made God, John Niland? What difference does it make as this university moves towards a metaphorical crucifixion, not to rise again in three days, but to fade to beige.


This article appeared in deaTHARUNKA (issue #14, '96), the student rag at UNSW.