Will Self And His Addiction To Vaping

For 40 years, smoking cigarettes has been as fundamental to Will Self's way of life as eating and sleeping (often much more so). Lately, though, he's a changed man, thanks to a new addiction: vaping. According to our orally fixated correspondent, the pleasures of the plastic fag are many. So start sucking now, smokers, before someone tries to ban them

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One thing needs to be made clear at the outset and painfully so: I am a smoker.

True, I no longer smoke tobacco in the traditional cylindrical delivery systems, but such is the duration, consistency, and application with which I have smoked this crop in the past, it would be ridiculous to imagine its stubble can ever be grubbed-up; in this world, or the next.

In my holier moments, I picture myself, standing on a vaporous cloud, wings outspread, halo at a rakish angle and cupping my hand round a Player's No 6 as I receive the eternal flame from St Peter's never-to-be-disposed-of lighter. Yes, yes, a Player's No 6! An extinct cigarette brand from that distant era, the Seventies – when I began puffing – because after all, if I'm to be resurrected, why shouldn't they?

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I picture all those long-dead butts uncrumpling and stretching out wanly towards the light: the No 6s and their skinnier, cheaper siblings, the No 10s; the acrid, filterless Player's Weights (that once upon a time were indeed sold by weight rather than number); the sophisticated Peter Stuyvesants (in the soft pack), and the cotton-wool-tasting Kensitas… Oh, where are the gaspers of yesteryear?

Well, the answer is: encrypted in my every pained wheeze and tremulous aspiration, for I smoked 'em all up!

There were whole years lost in the bluey-grey thickets that sprang from the tips of Camels and Marlboros, decades rolled on while I rolled my own.

At no time between when I first pinched a bone-dry Senior Service from my grandfather's silver box (1973), and reading Allen Carr's The Easy Way to Stop Smoking (2000), did I seriously try and cut down, let alone cease, and in 1992, while working on my first novel, for a short period I reached the sublimely oxygen-free summit of choking down 100 fags a day.

Yet, the only reason I read Carr's book was that I kept finding myself standing in front of the window of G Smith & Sons, an upmarket tobacconists on the Charing Cross Road, and ogling the briar tobacco pipes on display the way healthier men ogle naked women (or naked men for that matter).

Terrified that I might become a pipe-smoking old duffer, I gave up tobacco altogether – for a year. It was fine: I felt better, quicker, smarter and faster. I didn't even miss tobacco (much), and I had no difficulties writing. There was only one problem: never the most sociable cove to begin with, I now had a pathological dread of being with anyone at all.

Moreover, in my sequestration, febrile fantasies began to plague me: I thought of taking up other drugs again, mind-bending ones; or having an affair with a bodybuilder just so I could rub up against their steroid-soaked flesh.

In the end, I cracked and within days I owned no fewer than three pipes and a wide selection of tobacco blends with names like De Luxe Navy Rolls and Squadron Leader.

If my first smoking phase had a slipstream-lined intensity, my second one was positively baroque: at one point I had a cigar dealer who visited the house weekly, armed with a Gladstone bag full of smuggled Havanas, so I could load up with a box of Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos. I haunted luxury tobacconists, buying hundreds of pounds' worth of accessories.

I arranged travels abroad just so I could obtain my favoured black tobacco rolling blends; and if friends were headed anywhere exotic, I urged them to score some of the local gear and bring it back for me. There's a cabinet in my writing room full of weird and pokey stuff; I've never risked the Gambian snuff, or too many of the gold-tipped Malaysian clove cigarettes.

Now, please bear in mind, that a smoking addiction of such complexity and longevity is not amenable to any form of reason.

As with a necrotic bacterium, the spirochetes of habituation have spread throughout its victim's brain, deeply altering his personality, his interpersonal psychology, his sense of space, time and even spirituality, for is not La Diva Nicotina a sort of goddess? Even so, when my doctor told me I had chronic bronchitis and then said, deadpan, "This is how it's going to be from here on in," I did decide to cut down. (Please note: she was too savvy to mention the C-word, always a red rag to the bullish puffer, whose soaring anxiety levels lead him, at once, to reach for what Martin Amis once termed "a fiery treat".) 

This went fairly well – I settled on puffing just three fags a day, cut out the Hoyos and the pipefuls of Velvan Plug, and began fetishising replacement nicotine delivery systems: gum, lozenges and this stuff called snus – small, tea-bag-like pouches full of macerated tobacco that are the Scandinavians' favoured fix. (It's these that bulge under the lips of horn-headed detectives in TV series like The Killing and The Bridge.)

In order to keep its strength, snus has to be kept at below 9°C: reader, I bought a miniature fridge.

I was also abetted in my reduction programme by Her Majesty's Government; the ban on smoking in public places effectively destroyed the smoking culture of yore: I wanted to spark a cigar the size of a baby's forearm then blow weightless brown hanks over the remains of my heavy dinner, not quit the restaurant to stand in a freezing, blowing alleyway, rasping the smoke into my lungs.

Some say that tobacco suppresses the appetite, but it turned out it was the only thing keeping me eating at all; once the smoking ban came in, I found I had no reason to visit restaurants whatsoever.

Still, in 2012, my programme ran off the rails.

A combination of stresses and strains saw me abandon all restraint, and soon enough I was back up on that airless summit, touching the pristine tip of one filterless Camel to the smouldering arse-end of the last, as if miming some disturbing sexual act.

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Fast forward to September of last year, and picture Poor Old Fred smoking in bed. (This was a novelty ashtray that I remember from the Sixties: a charred skeleton reposing on a bed-cum-grave, with "Poor Old Fred, he smoked in bed" carved in the pillow-cum-gravestone. It was an innocent era!)

In the darkness, my exhalations seemed hardly more substantial than myself; clearly, it was time to pack it in.

I went back to my former regime: cut to three fags a day, and began divesting myself of one of the finest tobacco collections known to man. The aim was to go down to two fags a day in October, one in November, and be off altogether in December – I'd allow myself as much snus, gum, lozenges and patches as I required until February – then I'd wean myself off the evil fucking drug altogether.

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But then came vaping. Naturally – or rather, unnaturally – I'd vaped before; you don't get to be a nabob of nicotine such as I without trying every hit that's going, whether it's chewing pitjuri with desert aboriginals, or dipping snuff with duelling banjo-pickers in the Appalachians. (The former was way more scary: pitjuri, a scrubby little weed, contains oodles of nornicotine, a far stronger compound of the drug; in my trance I encountered the aborigines' Rainbow Spirit, and he took a dim view of my shenanigans.)

Around 2005, my friend Nicky had one of the early e-cigarettes which was made by a company called Gamucci. It looked like a plastic fag and did nothing for me whatsoever: the vapour was as ethereal as the ghost of a net curtain; the "throat hit" (a disturbing coinage we'll be mulling over a lot more in what follows) was as feeble as a newborn's right hook; and although people at parties were intrigued by the thing, I knew I looked like a wally sucking on this ineffectual teat, and after a few weeks messing around with the thing – it was a fucker to charge – I relapsed into time-honoured combustion.

Even when, four or five years ago, the clouds of vapour began to mushroom, I remained steadfast in my opposition to vaping: "What's the point," I'd lecture anyone I could bully into listening, "in giving up smoking by taking up a simulacrum of smoking – Christ knows our lives are already inauthentic enough, do we really need this ersatz puffing?" I saw men my own age, grizzled veterans of the early morning expectoration, happily vaping.

Others assured me that the throat hit had been sorted out, as had the flavouring of the e-liquids, while the health risks remained, putatively, non-existent. Still I resisted: it was too late for this leopard to change his tarry spots, better to erase them altogether

Then my wife, who had tamed her own savage fag habit by heavy vaping, gave me one of the damned things for Christmas and, rather than offend her, I assembled the gizmo.

I realised what successful vaping required was a suspension of disbelief: it was important not to think of it as a substitute for smoking at all, because there were so many fundamental differences.

The taste of the e-liquid was cleaner and more wholesome than tobacco; the throat hit was more accurately targeted and so less harsh; and the vapour cloud wasn't like the smoke one at all. At a subconscious level, the tobacco-smoker registers his smoke: the bluey shreds and curlicues pluming from the lit tip; the brownish puffs and mini-cumuli expelled from the damp lungs; all are combined into a miniature atmosphere that enshrouds Planet Me.

It is this profound sense of autonomy gifted by his personal thunderhead that makes it possible for the smoker to ignore the reality: he's just one more of the myriad drones whose behaviour is severely restricted – and whose lifespan is severely curtailed – by this picayune addiction.

But vaping produces only water vapour, and whether inhaled or not, the vape cloud has the same hue and dynamic: a steamy, greyish-white plume that rapidly disperses into the kind of sfumato Renaissance painters delighted in creating, a tawny-golden haze, softening the Apennine peaks ahead and filling in the Umbrian valleys behind.

The vape cloud reminded me of an installation the artist Antony Gormley made for a retrospective of his work at the Hayward Gallery in 2007.

"Blind Light" was a rectangular glass cabinet full of water vapour; art-lovers could enter and wander about in this damp and clingy opacity, occasionally looming into one another.

The effect was to simultaneously encourage a sense of intimacy, while rendering those you were closing in on entirely anonymous, whether you knew them or not. And, of course, that's the experience of vaping as well, because as with any new fad or habit on the scene, its adopters find themselves thrown together in makeshift comity: standing on street corners, waiting for public transport, we vapers strike up conversations about our kit and our gear, then we move on to discuss the weather, and how we're making it ourselves.

The more I vaped, the more I realised that the vape cloud was also beautifully expressive of the whole essence of vaping: for this was no crude organic process of combustion ending in ash and cremains, but a digitally-calibrated, electronic one, worthy of a brave new world!

Yes, yes, dear reader: you've guessed it, it took only the spirit of Christmas to do the nasty trick and by the time Boxing Day dawned, I had become powerfully and hopelessly addicted to vaping.

As is my nature, I began lecturing on the subject at once, observing to my long-suffering spouse that vaping was really a perfect example of human ingenuity: smoking had been digitised and rendered harmless – it was one small puff for a man, one giant hit for mankind! The brilliance of designing the vape pens with LED readouts (my iTazte features variable wattage, voltage and a "hit counter"); the efficiency of supplying them with USB-plug chargers, so they become another computer peripheral; and the heft of the things – all of it can be described by one word: genius.

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And yet there's no single individual who we can laud as the inventor of this revolutionary device.

The vape pen – unlike the telephone or the steam locomotive – has no Bell or Stephenson who can step forward and receive our sweetened and cloudy acclamation.

Almost uniquely among the digital technologies that have transformed our lives in the past quarter-century, the fully-effective vape pen has shimmered into being due to collective endeavour: somewhere in the wilds of the Pearl River Delta, where the boatmen fish with trained cormorants and the world's microprocessors are finickied into being by hundreds of thousands of hair-netted finickers, one factory manager had the idea of seeing if he could devise an electronic device that would replicate the experience of smoking while not generating the notoriously toxic smoke.

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Apparently – or so the folk tales have it – his initial design was refined by many others, working selflessly, collectively, until this great benison of mankind reached its current, highly-efficient form.

That the vape pen should've been created in the shadow of the giant Foxconn factories makes perfect sense; after all, while the English-speaking world once smoked, in China they're still bang at it; moreover there's an intensity and commitment to Chinese smoking that puts the rest of us puffers to shame.

My favourite book about tobacco use, Ian Gately's La Diva Nicotina: the Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World (2001), begins with its author on a train in China sitting with a full compartment-load of native puffers.

When Gately refuses the cigarette offered him (he has never smoked), the Chinese are utterly bewildered – and one of them explains in halting English that they have never encountered anyone before who doesn't smoke!

So, there's this socio-cultural suitability, and there's also the technological evolution: in the field of Sinology there's something known as "the Needham Question", which was proposed by the British historian and biochemist, Joseph Needham. The question is this: given that China has the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, and that the Chinese invented a whole host of technologies – from printing, to explosives, to ocean-going ships – many centuries before the upstart West, how is it possible to explain the relative backwardness of their material culture since the 1500s?

There are many different approaches to the Needham Question, but one solution to it has taken very solid shape in the Pearl River Delta.

Observing the great technological leap forward in the last 20 years or so, it becomes increasingly likely that the retarding of Chinese technology was simply a half-millennium-long hiatus, and that with the inception of the new digital economy, China is once more assuming its rightful and eternal position as the dominant human culture.

Moreover, there is one great innovation that establishes this supremacy beyond any cavilling — no hong mao guizi ("red-haired devil") can look upon the gleaming perfection of a well-designed (and beautifully finickied) vape pen without being overpowered by a deep and abiding sense of his own inferiority: let us bow down before the sun that rises in the east!

Let's face it, what's more important to us, representative democratic institutions and the rule of law, or a harmless and effective nicotine-delivery system? Well, I for one may not have come up with the answer to the Needham Question, but I know the answer to the question of the chronically needy: yes.

Not, you appreciate, that I go on about such things when I'm hanging with my vaping buddies. Up in leafy Hampstead, once the preserve of donkey-jacketed old lefties, now a clone-brand-logo zone like any other, there's a gaff called the Vape Emporium full of young men (and some women) whose extravagant beards are wreathed in nicotinous haze.

At the Vape Emporium, I buy my stocks of Red Vape Havano Gold and other exotic e-liquids; I sit in the broken-down leather armchairs and sip on new scented vapours and discuss the lifespan of coils (the electrical component that heats the e-liquid and turns it into drug-steam); we set the world to rights and survey the ease and legality of vaping in myriad jurisdictions – is it true that one can vape in airplane toilets? Will a double-inhalation render the vape cloud transparent? Are the tales of vapers being arrested in Singapore exaggerations?

Since I began vaping, I have, of course, been testing the limits of its social acceptability.

I've vaped on the train and the bus; in cafés, bars and restaurants; I've vaped while recording radio programmes, and during television interviews. I'm waiting for someone to object, but they haven't yet: it seems that anti-vaping has yet to get going in a big way, at least at the social and interpersonal level. And why should it? The vape cloud disperses in seconds, while harming no one (including  the vaper himself) in the process.

Standing on tube station platforms, two great diaphanous tusks of vapour curving down from my nostrils, I feel more alive than I have in years – it could be the nicotine, or it could be that vaping, by making us airier and more insubstantial, confirms in us the truth about human existence. One recalls Prospero's impassioned speech at the start of the final act of The Tempest: "We are such stuff, As dreams are made on, And our little life, Is rounded with a… vape."

Still, not only should joy not be unconfined, we may as well face the uncomfortable truth, one that dawned on me after about three days of heavy, happy vaping: if something is this good THEY always want to control and ultimately ban it.

In the East, where the tobacco lobby is still firmly entrenched, it's their lobbying behind the scenes that's putting the vaporous interloper under threat. However, in the West, where successive governments have found spurious moral kudos in banning public smoking (while continuing to top-load their tax base with tobacco duty), vaping presents a more serious philosophic challenge.

When I began working on this article, Esquire's editor, furtive puff-man Alex Bilmes, responded to my newfound enthusiasm for the practice thus: "Yes, but can anyone truly look cool while vaping?" To which the only possible response was: surely, coolness is in the eye of the beholder? And vape pens are undeniably cool-looking bits of kit, what with their shiny, steely, glassy components and their slim, jet-streamed nacelles, they have far more potential for being reconfigured as stylish items of personal adornment than the case, lighters and holders associated with their moribund and stinking predecessor.

And that's the real problem in a glass tank: my vape stick, the silvery iTazte, fitted with a still shinier Nautilus Mini tank, looks uncomfortably like the sort of antique glass syringe Sherlock Holmes would've used to inject his seven per cent solution of cocaine.

It's this blurring of the species-barrier between therapeutics and recreational drug-taking that THEY will not abide, for it trespasses on the most heavily-guarded monopoly there is in our economies: medicine.

Only doctors are allowed to peddle mood-altering drugs in our societies (with the obvious, and therefore vexed exceptions of nicotine and alcohol), and they are extremely protective of their monopoly.

Take my word on it: within five years, vaping will be under strict controls of one sort or another; either medical ones, so that you have to get a prescription for e-liquid, or commercial ones that make it prohibitively expensive (and stop the market diversifying).

Either way, THEY will do all they can to stop the fun. So, take my advice, and get steaming while you can, because only that way will you have the opportunity to find out what it feels like not just to be an ex-smoker, but a former vaper as well.


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