Blowing smoke

I’m often asked, “Isn’t smoking bad for your voice?”, and I always reply, “I don’t smoke.”

This can often provoke the most amusing expressions of confusion and befuddlement, particularly as I usually happen to be puffing away merrily when the the topic comes up. People, on the whole, don’t wish to be offensive and belabour the point, but invariably feel compelled to point out the bleeding obvious – “But you’re smoking THAT!”

“That”, these days, is a cigar. And whilst I do partake of an occasional slice of Cuban heaven, I do not consider myself to be a smoker.

Admittedly, ’twas not always thus.

As a good, self-respecting Glaswegian lad, I, like so many of my childhood friends, first caught the smoking bug in my early teens. I was thirteen years old when a combination of evolved genetic unhealthiness, rampant teenage adventurism, and relentless peer pressure saw me firing up my first cigarette. It was a habit that I cunningly contrived to keep well hidden, or so I thought, from all the adults in my life, until the morning after my seventeenth birthday when, after a hefty night of underage drinking with my cronies, my mother decided it was finally time to address the day-glo yellow tramlines which had formed along the first two fingers of my right hand.

Expecting, as any teen in this situation would, the full Sturm und Drang of outraged parenthood to descend cataclysmically upon me, I had braced myself for the worst only to discover that, of all the unacceptable forms of teenage rebellion for which she might upbraid me, smoking seemed to be pretty low on my mum’s hit list.

This undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that both she and my father (and pretty much every member of my family) had smoked like chimneys throughout my entire childhood. I remember family parties when I was a child being conducted through a pea-souper so thick that the people sat on the other side of the dining table might as well have been in another country for all that you could see of them.

So it was that my affirmative answer to the inevitable interrogative, “Have you been smoking?” was met with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, and a half-hearted, morally-hollow, “Well… You shouldn’t.” That was it. No Sturm, no Drang, and the subject was never raised again.

In the aftermath of my father’s passing a little more than a year later, smoking would become a kind of solace for both my mother and myself, something that we had in common and could silently bond over, an unspoken generational bridge that would allow us to spend time together without feeling that typical parent/teenager awkwardness. Time that allowed us to support one another as our respective wounds slowly healed.

Cigarettes were a crutch to me throughout my college years, and it wasn’t until I found myself in the chorus of Opera North, a fully-fledged professional singer at the still tender age of 23, that I finally realised I had to kick the habit.

By that time, I was smoking two packs of Marlboro Reds (the strongest ones, naturally) a day, and I decided rather than go the chewing gum/patch route, if I was going to beat the habit, I would be best served by going cold turkey.

So I did. And I haven’t had a single cigarette since. Not once in 17 years.

In the years following, whenever I felt the occasional urge for a cigarette (and that never dies, not completely), I would buy a cigar.

Cigars differ in many important ways from cigarettes. The tobacco, for instance, is pure. When you smoke a Cuban cigar, you are smoking five cured leaves from the tobacco plant rolled together by hand, and nothing else. With a cigarette, on the other hand, you’re smoking the best part of the periodic table. Search the internet yourselves and witness with horror the list of 599 additives that can be found alongside the cheap, roasted, machined tobacco inside a mechanically manufactured cigarette. This list was compiled by the Big 5 US tobacco companies themselves, and features chocolate, fennel, and prune juice, alongside less appetising treats such as ammonia, urea, and ambergris, not to mention literally hundreds of alcohols, acids and petrochemical poisons. It’s enough to give you nightmares.

To most educated minds, that alone should be enough to separate the two. However, many people, and justifiably so, might feel compelled to point out that smoking, in any form, has been scientifically proven to greatly increase the risk of lung and other associated respiratory forms of cancer.

Which leads me to the next significant difference between cigars and cigarettes – inhalation. With cigarettes you do, with cigars you don’t. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that this significantly reduces the risk of lung cancer, oesophageal cancer and throat cancer for a cigar smoker.

Also, unless you’re a deeply committed cigar smoker like Churchill, Hemingway or Orson Welles, a cigar is most likely to be an occasional indulgence than an ever-present prop. And so it goes with me. I enjoy maybe two cigars a month on average. Compare that intake with 40 cigarettes a day, and, in terms of health risk, there’s simply no comparison. When you balance 25 cigars per year (without inhaling) against 331 days per year when I smoke nothing at all, you can probably see why I no longer consider myself to be a smoker.

What began as a practical attempt to prevent myself falling back into the dreaded cigarette habit has, over time, developed into an infrequent, but deeply enjoyable hobby.

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “A woman is a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” For years, I had no idea what he meant, but recently I’ve started to get it. (The second bit, I mean. I can’t for the life of me imagine why any red-blooded male would choose a cigar over a woman.)

A cigar, for me, is a journey. I can switch off and escape the high pressure world in which I work, and, for a couple of hours, eschew that manic reality for a gentler, more thoughtful, relaxed world, where the cigar and its constantly developing flavours unfold upon my palate like a mini-opera, a pocket-epic, staged solely for me. Sharing the experience with others I find to be one of the more enjoyable of life’s pleasures.

Over the years, I’ve found that a surprising number of my opera colleagues are also cigar enthusiasts. Most choose to keep it quiet, as singers, more so than anyone else it seems, are often harshly judged for having the temerity to raise lit tobacco to our lips. For some reason, that has become a terrible taboo.

However, we brothers, and sisters, of the leaf share one thing in common. We have all, like Kipling, come to realise that a good cigar is, indeed, a smoke.

And that, once in a while, is no bad thing. No bad thing at all.


  1. Preach, mi hermano. Some of my fave memories of recent years involved a fine cigar and your company and the company of our good womenfolk.

    Long May it be so.


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