This article is one of many from my book, the “Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – a miscellany of 50 of the world’s oddest organisations & strangest societies… available to buy from Amazon here….!
“Give me wine, women and snuff, until I cry out – hold, enough!” Not, perhaps, as profound or as well known as his ruminations upon the nightingale, but nevertheless penned by Keats himself. For Adonis too, along with such diverse figures as Queen Victoria and Grimaldi the Clown, was a lover of that nasal stimulation we have come to know as snuff.
‘Snuff ? You mean that strange brown powdery mixture we used to see our Grandfathers taking as they sat in their big floral armchairs, in a strange ritual involving the extraction of a small shiny box from their waistcoats, a soft click!, a pinching of stubby thumb and forefinger, a loud snort, followed seconds later by an elephantine sneeze ? Nobody takes snuff today, surely!’
Wrong. For according to the proprietors of G. Smith & Sons Snuff Shop, Charing Cross Road – London’s oldest purveyor of powdered nasal excitement and the occasional venue for the meetings of the shadowy London Snuff Club – the habit of inserting this (perfectly legal) substance into one’s nostril cavities is not only still indulged in but is growing rapidly in popularity, in particular with the under-forties. To understand why, I paid a visit to this cramped, Victorian establishment squeezed crookedly between dusty bookshops on the Charing Cross Road.
The shop door closed behind me with a muffled tinkle of brass bell. The noise of the West End receded. And with it vanished the twenty-first century.
I found myself in a dark, sallow, tobacco-coloured shop facing a dark, sallow, tobacco-coloured shop assistant – straight out of Dickens.
He smiled and bowed slightly like Uriah Heep,
All around me were exhaled the gentle, slightly sweet perfumes of snuff jars and tightly packed Abdullah cigarettes imported from Turkey. On the walls were what at first glance looked like faded Victorian circus posters, but which on closer inspection were making the proud boast that G. Smith was a leading “Importer of Havana, Mexican, Indian and Manila Cigars.”
“Tobacco Year Books” from 1940 sat alongside, incongruously, the works of Longfellow. Huge pot-bellied bell-jars stood stacked on the endless shelves, each packed with a powder of different colour and texture – rusty brown, ochre, fawn, earth-dark, pale wood-thatch. And the names, like a litany of spells from some old tome – Macouba, Old Paris, Santo Domingo… brands of a bygone age – Cafe Royale, Princes Dark, Wild Strawberry – each boasting its own scent – Saville, a dry light snuff flavoured with orange; Attar of Roses for the lover of sweetness.
“We sell pounds of the stuff,” boasted Uriah Heep, whose real name was Andrew Watson; “and I mean pounds in weight. Sometimes I look at all these big jars and think to myself – every bit of it’s going to end up in someone’s conk. Hard to believe really. Was that two ounces sir?”
He scooped a small silver trowel into one of the jars and deposited a few ounces of Spanish S.B. (I don’t know what the S.B. stands for, but you can bet it’s stronger than your plain Spanish) into a twist of paper. A businessman in navy blue pinstripe popped the small pyramid in his breast pocket and sidled furtively out of the shop.
Golden Cardinal, Dr. James Robertson Justice, Mortlaix… Despite its romantic soubriquets, snuff, however, still suffers from an image problem.
“I suppose it’s still a bit odd. It was never as glamorous as smoking – at least, the way the old movies made smoking glamorous. Though it’s less anti-social and, some say, less harmful.”
Indeed. There have been articles defending snuff in the ‘Lancet,’ no less.
Yet you rarely see anyone taking it. But according to G. S. Smith & Sons, this is a boom time for snuff. From the eager tone of the retailer I chatted with one fully expects it soon to be traded on the stock market along with oil and pork bellies. Snuff millionaires will have houses built in Essex in the shape of huge noses. The ban on smoking in public places has resulted in a boom.
So where are all these new snuff-takers ? Obviously doing their snuffing in private. Or in the back-room of the shop, where the meetings of the London Snuff Club take place. I am not permitted to pass through the door to the club-room. Perhaps it is a door that opens into a secret magical Edwardian kingdom.
And there’s the rub. There’s still seems to be something vaguely exciting, vaguely illicit about snuff-taking. It smacks of opium dens and Edwardian detectives, secret societies and shadowy villains. Even some of the slogans on the posters: “Bordeaux – piquant and refreshing, it never cloys and is a favourite with the heavy user” - suggest an affinity with substances plainly more illegal.
So maybe that’s the reason for snuff’s growing popularity. In an age when you can stroll down the Brixton High Road puffing brazenly on a joint, confident that the worst you will receive is a ‘tut-tut’ from a benign constable and the gentle wagging of an admonitory finger, then perhaps the ritual of snuff-taking offers a more esoteric high.
It’s time to try some. My nasal tutor is gentle with me, proffering a simple pinch of Café Royale, reputedly the most expensive snuff in the world. Manufactured from a special blend of North American and Oriental tobaccos, it is perfumed with pure coffee essence. The effect, I have to say, is rather akin to shoving a teaspoonful of Maxwell House up your hooter. For a few minutes my eyes are watery, my brain ablaze. It is like having a small firework going off inside your head. Uriah brings me down from my coffee high with a small twist of Wild Strawberry, a light medium milled snuff designed for the novice. It is a bit like having dessert after the coffee. I ask him if there is any beef flavoured snuff, enabling one to make a four-course meal of the thing. He doesn’t reply.
I snort my way across Europe and the Americas, from Old Paris to Santo Domingo. While the wine-taster spits between sips, the snuffer blows. I make a mental note to destroy my handkerchief afterwards.
By the end of the session I am light-headed yet strangely vibrant. In the dim quiet of the shop, I feel like a fin-de-siecle rake who has tasted the sinful pleasures of a limehouse opium den.
Which is maybe the whole point about snuff. As Uriah Heep bids me goodbye and I re-enter the twenty-first century din outside, I muse that in ten years time when we’ve tired of being able to purchase a neatly-rolled joint at Starbucks along with our espresso macchiato, then perhaps we’ll be lured into seeking the darker, more romantic domain of the Snuff-Café. Londoners will sit hunched over their chrome tables, alternately sipping frothy cappuccinos and entertaining their conks to a selection of snuffs just as varied as the coffees.
I pat my pocket. Secreted there is a small round box full of Smith’s Kendal Brown and a membership application form for the London Snuff Club. Seduced by the salesmanship of G. Smith & Sons, I am determined to spearhead snuff’s glorious revival.
All I need now is the wine and the women.
Snuff is renowned for imparting a pleasing, attractive temperament to the user.
Extract from “The Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – available to buy here…!