Teenagers have taken up smoking in droves – and forgotten the lessons of the past
We are as far away from 1980 now as we were then from 1939. I know that because I read it on the internet. I didn’t check it, because why would they put it there if it wasn’t true? Yet at the same time, it is patently absurd; more than ridiculous, mad. In 1980, the late 30s were pure history, and all we could remember about the humans in them was the way they crowded around radios and drank cocktails containing tiny pickled onions. The early 80s, by contrast, were effectively yesterday, and we can all remember them with pin-sharp clarity.
At least, I can: the evidence keeps reminding me that young people can’t remember the era at all.
Item one: over half a million 18- to 34-year-olds took up smoking over the past year, as a way to “combat stress”. Any person of experience could tell them that there is nothing more stressful than an old-fashioned nicotine habit. It bends dimensions, the amount of sheer hassle a love of cigarettes will bring; and it will be love: nobody who ever smoked liked fags a modest amount. Minute to minute, you’re wondering when you can next have one, and where you left them. Day to day, they cost a thousand pounds each and you feel like a fool. Week to week, your still small voice of calm is reminding you of all the times you’ve had a choice between a cigarette and a meaningful interaction, and haven’t even had to think about it. Month to month, you’re stifled under the weight of knowledge that you have to give up, because what kind of an idiot does it for ever? But I can say all that to Generation Z, and then Pinterest can show them a picture of Madonna circa 1984, in black lace gloves as though she’s accessorising as an act of homage to the cigarette she’s always holding, and it’s pretty open and shut who comes across as the least stressed.
Item two: it has come to my attention that the young – well, my kids – think this washout summer is like the kind I remember from an age before festivals, when a seasonal wardrobe meant more cheerfully coloured wellies, and if you had a tan it meant you were Spanish. Our rain was nothing like today’s. It was the kind of drizzle you wouldn’t even bother sheltering from: you’d just keep sitting outside wondering whether the quiche would survive. It was cloud cover that just nudged its way across the sky whenever you tried to take a photograph, which was once every three months. We had a lucky dip in June, when we might get three days of sun but they had to be Tuesdays. We didn’t have monsoon season.
Item three: some people – on this occasion, definitely not my kids – seem to think that we were all much more profound when we didn’t have the internet. They will acknowledge that we didn’t know anything, because you had to go to a library to look things up, which is the same as knowing nothing; but they’re under the impression that, without trivial distraction, we were on a constant journey of discovery through complex thought or the natural world. That’s not how I remember it at all. Early childhood was all baking crisp packets to see if they would shrink so you could turn them into a badge; adolescence was all inhaling everyday household sprays to see if they would make you high. It was, in many ways, like a live-action version of the internet – plough a large amount of time into an activity that, even if it works, is still dumb – and no more meaningful for that.
This is how it must have felt trying to persuade kids that world wars aren’t cool. Adults could say what they liked about bloodshed and terror; all we could see was a load of sailors kissing nurses in Times Square, who looked as if they were really enjoying themselves. What could be cooler than that?