The London Snuff Club

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….!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?

NEW CLUB BOOK COVER JUNE 23RD 2013

“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.

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Snuff is renowned for imparting a pleasing, attractive temperament to the user.

Extract from “The Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – available to buy here…!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?

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Radio Times Tweeter of the Week, June 22nd 2013.

Radio Times Tweeter of the Week, June 22nd 2013.

Brag alert: I am ‘Radio Times Tweeter of the Week.’ It won’t change my life at all, though I have just dashed out and bought a Jaguar.

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June 20, 2013 · 6:39 pm

POMPIDOU! – BRAND NEW TV SERIES STARRING MATT LUCAS

A  fantastic new TV series has just been announced,  “Pompidou!” ~ which I am writing with Matt Lucas and Ashley Blaker. This is tremendously exciting for many reasons, chief of which that this is the first silent comedy TV series to be made for almost twenty years! – since Rowan Atkinson’s ‘Mr. Bean.’

You can read more details about the show here…

http://www.comedy.co.uk/news/story/000001102/bbc_one_order_silent_comedy_matt_lucas_pompidou/

and here…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2013/matt-lucas-new-comedy.html

Matt, myself and Ashley Blaker have created and written the show, working hard in the last year or so on the pilot – and BBC1 have commissioned six episodes to be filmed and broadcast in 2014. It is more than a delight to be working with Matt Lucas, who is not only a master of modern comedy but shares my love for the great visual comic stars of the past – such as Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and Marty Feldman, who have always been my comic heroes. We hope to create a series that is both fresh, original and of appeal to all ages – a true Saturday Night Teatime BBC 1 Family Show! 

 

 

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Extract from “The Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – The Free George Davis Society

The Free George Davis Society

George-Davis-appeal-007

As a gawky youth I became dimly aware on the fringes of my consciousness of a strange artist at work in the suburbs wherein I dwelt. Like the outpourings of some 1970’s single-issue Banksy, though artistically cruder, on walls, railway bridges, outside sports grounds, several mysterious words began to appear, daubed in white paint. It was a simple message. It never varied.

It consisted of three simple words: ‘Free George Davis.” True, sometimes it said “Fred George Davis.” I began to muse that “Fred George Davis” could be some wholly separate organisation, whose aims were merely to advertise the existence of said Mr. D. Either that or a slip of the paintbrush.

Being young and foolish and with other things on my mind I didn’t trouble myself to find out who or what George Davis was. The only thing I knew was that someone wanted him free. But from what? A sense of regret? A cardigan snagged on a nail? His illusions? As the graffiti spread, – here on a motorway bridge, here on a garden wall – so the figure of George Davis began to assume mythical proportions in my mind, like some kind of Prometheus chained to a rock by Zeus. Free him, by God, all Davis did was to provide man with fire!

The Society soon moved from mere paint to protest, from slogan to streaking. It was clearly not enough simply to write their protests on various municipal brick walls, they also felt compelled to show us their genitals at various sporting fixtures. Or am I incorrectly mixing up mere motiveless streaking with the George Davis campaign? Their chronological proximity in the 1970’s perhaps is the cause of this confusion. News reports in that heady decade seemed to contain little else but items on the continuing campaign to liberate Mr. D., and naked men running across cricket pitches. Nothing else happened, apart from a heat wave and everyone having to play scrabble by candlelight. Did members of the Free George Davis campaign use streaking as part of their PR? I cannot swear.

Mr. Davis had been a petty crook who had been banged up wrongly for a crime he hadn’t committed, of that we were all certain. Plenty of people were telling us so. He had committed many other crimes, but no one spoke about them. On 4th April 1974 a robbery took place at the London Electricity Board, Ilford. Do electricity boards keep the money we give them on the premises? I find that hard to believe. Nevertheless, their offices were robbed, and George Davis most emphatically was nowhere near the place. Of that we are certain. The Free George Davis Campaign told us so.

And yet the following year, in March 1975, he was convicted. His friends were outraged. And so they should be. He didn’t do it. It didn’t matter that he’d done loads of other crimes. Oh no. He did not do the Ilford Electricity Board job.

Celebrities rallied to his cause. Roger Daltrey of the “Who” sang about him; Bishops pleaded on local news programmes, activists wept in the streets. The 1970’s was a golden age of radical groups; organisations with so many letters in their names the cost of their stationery must have been astronomical took up the cause of the East End villain. Even the Angry Brigade got involved at one point.  Mind you, they got tetchy about practically everything.

One person who suffered at the hands of the Free George Davis Campaign was a chap called George Ince. He had his own campaign: the Free George Ince Campaign. It never took off like Davis’. No one sang about George Ince in the pop charts. I don’t think Roger Daltrey had even heard of him. There may have been a few slogans painted on railway bridges, but they didn’t last long. The campaigners must have used an inferior paint. I’m sure also that several of the more indolent members of the George Davis Campaign must have arrived, paint-pot in hand, at a railway bridge, spotted the rival message, and simply crossed out the “Ince” and replaced it with a “Davis.” It was a happy co-incidence that both were called George. It strikes me in hindsight that the two campaigns would have done well to pool their labour and resources. A better slogan might have been “Free the Georges Davis & Ince.” Once liberated they could perhaps have formed a double-act, “Davis & Ince” and sung comic songs in working men’s clubs.

But all the singing and all the marching and all the painting paid off, for in May 1976 the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins released George Davis. I believe he may have been pressured by representatives of the Department of Public Works, who feared the country would run out of paint. Whatever the reason, Mr. Davis was a free man.

And that would have been the end of the Free George Davis Campaign, were it not for the fact that not long after he was freed he was put in prison again.

How ungrateful. It’s as if eight weeks after Nelson Mandela were released he promptly went and robbed a post office in Pretoria. It would have been plain rude.

After his second imprisonment the Free George Davis Campaign showed a natural reluctance to revive their activities. Paintbrushes remained dried and unused in petty crook’s garages across the suburbs.

The original slogans became sad and faded. I’m sure there were plenty of people around who wanted him free again. But they stayed in their homes, and confided their hopes privately amongst friends and relatives over tea. Rumour has it that a campaign started that called itself “Don’t bother freeing George Davis,” but these rumours are unfounded.

Today, George Davis is once again free, and living a blameless life in his beloved Essex. Even as recent as May 2011 he was still fighting in the courts to prove his innocence over the LEB robbery some thirty-five years earlier. And the Judge did pronounce the conviction unsafe, though refused to completely exonerate him.

I admire Davis’ perseverance, but it is a bit like Goering at Nuremberg confessing to every crime in the book whilst being incandescent with rage that he’s been accused of jay-walking. Then devoting the rest of his life to expunging that one misdemeanour from his roll-call of aberrations. What is more, the eagerness with which every radical group in London rushed to the assistance of a known armed robber also sticks in the craw somewhat. It’s not as though Davis was a heroic freedom fighter, a Che Guevara of Barking – he was a thug who used weapons in his crimes and who was revving up the getaway car when a man was clubbed to the floor nearby.

But I cannot help wondering if he ever catches the train into Marylebone Station and, casting a baleful eye at the sidings, spots a strange fading sign still clinging stubbornly to the tunnel wall; and, a lump forming in his throat, leans back and – eyes glazed – thinks back  fondly on the days when, it seemed, the whole world wanted him free.

 

Buy the whole book here! – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?

NEW CLUB BOOK COVER JUNE 23RD 2013

 

 

 

 

 

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Extract from “The Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – The English Subbuteo Table Football Association

The English Subbuteo Table Football Association

     I have just returned from my first Subbuteo Cup Final, and I will never be attending another.  I am a shaken man. I was lucky to escape with my life. I have rarely attended a real football match in my life, let alone one consisting of miniature plastic figures. I imagined it would be a calm, carefree occasion, civilised, good-humoured and jovial.  Not a bit of it. If I say to you chairs were flung and noses bloodied, you’ll have a slight inkling of the kind of afternoon  I’ve had.  I am, of course, aware that the odd shindig takes place at actual football matches. But in the town hall in Winnersh, Berkshire, in the presence of at least three dignitaries from the local Rotary Club? It beggars belief.

           I arrived at 2.30pm on a sunny afternoon and was given tea and a fairy cake. So far so good. All very civilised. The ‘teams’ arrived. By teams I mean, of course, two men. That was fine. It was their supporters that proved the problem. About two hundred of them turned up, in coach-loads – all wearing scarves and shouting out their team songs. As soon as I saw them I knew – I get these gut instincts – that a cup of tea and a fairy cake each would probably do very little to quench their high spirits. These weren’t fairy cake kind of people. Some people aren’t. I forgave them that. But what I did not forgive was them producing numerous cans of lager from dozens of carrier bags and proceeding to neck them with the seeming thirst of John Mills in ‘Ice Cold in Alex.’

Nor did the organisers – the referee, linesmen and so on. Several of them were frowning. But frowning was not sufficient. The fans paid no attention to the frowns. So, the early drunkenness notwithstanding, the match began. Kick-off was without incident. I say ‘kick-off’ – I mean, of course, ‘flick-off.’ For those unfamiliar with Subbuteo, the game is played by what can only be described as a hefty (yet skilful) nudging with the forefinger of one of your men. This propels the ball – seemingly uncontrollably – across the felt pitch towards, hopefully, one of your other men,  and ultimately, into the back of the tiny net.

Often the ball doesn’t go towards one of your other men. Often it goes wherever it wants. That’s the nature of random imparted motion. Blame Isaac Newton – I think he discovered it. The fans didn’t blame Isaac Newton. They blamed their opponents’ fans. Volleys of yells and screaming followed each random flick. And when, seven minutes into the game, Winnersh scored, well – all hell broke loose. Chairs were thrown, fairy cakes stamped on. I had to take cover and shield my slice of Victoria sponge with my match programme.

And this was only the first goal. As the first half proceeded, so too did the ferocity of the supporters increase, almost exponentially one might say.  And it didn’t stop at vocal violence and excessive demonstrations of loyalty. These ‘fans’ take the game of Subbuteo so seriously that they have fashioned small plastic models of rioters, which they proceeded to invade the pitch with, throwing them on the baize like manic chicken-feeders scattering corn to a mob of starving hens. The referee bravely countered this pitch invasion by producing a small plastic model of his own – a single police constable. This miniscule officer, this paltry peeler, sadly proved no match for the marauding dolls he was facing. In brief, this tiny symbol of authority was ejected from the stadium like a pea shot from a pea-shooter’s gun, to land on the floor of the town hall some twenty feet away – the equivalent, if you scale it up, of an actual human policeman being thrown from Wembley to Perivale.

The scene was hideous. I, amongst the other civilised spectators such as the sports correspondent of the Winnersh Bugle and Mrs. Tillotson the caretaker’s wife who made the tea and supplied the fairy cakes, retired to the corner of the hall, our faces resembling the protagonist in Edvard Munch’s scream.  The last thing I remember is the pitch itself being pulled from the table like the denouement of some crazy magic trick, and the players being scattered across the parquet flooring. Mrs. Tillotson and I retired to the kitchens – where she consoled me with another fairy cake – and we were led out of a secret back entrance.

I learned later that the cause of the supporter’s ire was a recent transfer of one of the challenging team’s key players – one Rudy Stifgarten, a striker whose transfer was viewed nothing less than a defection. The transfer fee was a mere £8.50, but it clearly rankled. The mob were there to destroy the game, and destroy it they did.

As I said goodbye in the car-park to the Sports Correspondent of the Winnersh Bugle who, shaken though he was, was already scribbling his copy in a Staple’s notebook, I made a mental note of my own never to attend a football match again, miniature or otherwise. The participants in the contest may have been tiny, but the passions were huge. Human beings have vast reservoirs of emotion bubbling deep within them like larva, and if all it takes is a small plastic doll to release that pent-up aggression into an eruption of Vesuvian proportions – and in Winnersh no less – then God help us all.

 

Subbuteo Cup Final, 2012, seconds before violence tore through the stadium.

 

Buy the whole book here! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?

NEW CLUB BOOK COVER JUNE 23RD 2013

 

 

 

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Extract from “The Bumper Book of Curious Clubs!” – The Dutch Balloon Twisting Society

The Dutch Balloon Twisting Society

If you twist balloons and are Dutch then the chances are you are a member of the Dutch Balloon Twisting Society. If not, then you are almost certainly some kind of rebel, a maverick in the balloon-twisting world, and the DBTS is probably much better off without you and your anti-social radicalism. Go and make your balloon animals in Cuba, we don’t want you here.

I faintly remember balloon-twisting. When I was growing up it seemed to form part of the school curriculum. Every now and then, in between lessons, there would be some kind of occasion in the hall, and a feature of it would be a middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit making sausage dogs out of inflatable plastic. Sometimes he made giraffes. But mostly sausage dogs. Camels must have been trickier – I never saw a camel.

I don’t see many balloon-twisters around much these days. Are they a dying craft, like knife-grinders and chimneysweeps? Did they go the way of the miners? Are they the forgotten victims of the economic revolution of the 1980’s? Did Margaret Thatcher order police baton charges on hundreds of striking balloon-twisters? Were they hauled into the backs of police vans screaming ‘Get your hands off my sausage dog?’

They had a union here in the UK: The National Association of Balloon Artists (NABA). But perhaps they were led by a balloon-twisting version of Arthur Scargill, and the Conservative Government wanted nothing better than to see him destroyed along with all the other ‘beer and sandwiches’ brigade. For NABA, I am reliably informed, is no more. Its former leader, Oscar the Clown, ekes out his last bitter days in an old folk’s home in Bolton, showing his giraffe to anyone who cares to see it.

But in the Netherlands balloon-twisters obviously had a brighter future. They didn’t go on strike without a secret ballot. They weren’t secretly funded by an obnoxious Libyan dictator. They just quietly and peacefully plied their art in schools and halls up and down – or rather across, if we’re talking of the Netherlands – their grateful nation. Like clog-making and the manufacture of marijuana cigarettes, balloon manipulation has survived as a craft in Holland into the twenty-first century. To be a balloon twister and to be Dutch, therefore, is to be happy.

Are there any animals peculiar to Holland that the Dutch balloon-twister can make that his British counterpart cannot?  Certain snakes, no doubt, given the paucity of those creatures in these islands. The Rotterdam Filligrew Snake? The Groningen Hedgehog? I’ve just made those up. I just don’t know. There, I’ve said it.

One characteristic of balloon artists, of course, is that they all have extremely powerful lungs. An inevitable consequence of their chosen art. They develop, over the years, massive upper bodies. Some of them turn into freaks and have to be hidden away in secret hospitals. This is where the Dutch Balloon Twisting Society comes in – I am told that they fund various clandestine medical centres up and down Holland where victims of ‘Giant Lung Syndrome,’ as it is called, can go for a lung-reducing operation. Balloon twisters book into the clinic looking like Charles Atlas and come out resembling Twiggy. It’s remarkable. I’ve met some of them. Of course once they’ve had the operation they can never go back to balloon-twisting. Their new small lungs are just not up to it. They can scarcely come up with a prawn, let alone a sausage dog.

So if you are a young person on the threshold of life and are about to go in for your first Career Guidance interview at school – and if, when seated before your mentor a sudden vision floats before you in the form of a cylindrical inflated orange dachsund – then balloon twisting must be for you. It’s a calling, a vocation, like nursing or bookmaking. But let me give you one piece of advice. Pretend to be Dutch. To be Dutch and a Balloon-twister, is to be protected.

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A poignant work by Hans Stoefflerssen entitled: ‘Regrets’

Buy the whole book here!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Curious-Clubs-ebook/dp/B007FAXWHQ/ref=sr_1_1?s

NEW CLUB BOOK COVER JUNE 23RD 2013

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