I want to start by saying that I understand the harm caused by smoking cigarettes, my past smoking of cigarettes was not a time spent in blind ignorance to the world of facts and science. I knew of diseases that are caused by smoking, the increased risk of cancer caused by smoking. I would also like to preface this by stating that I do not smoke any more, and I would define 'I do not smoke any more' as not smoking regularly, allowing oneself to indulge in the odd cigarette as an irregularity and to make sure that that irregularity does not become a regularity. I justified all of this inhaling and exhaling of nicotine in many complicated and self-deceiving ways. For example, "I'm so stressed right now by this meaningless thing or that slightly more meaningful thing so I'm going to smoke", or "I'm angry at the man, woman or group on the television in the paper in my face that are opposed to my view of the world, so I'm going to smoke". All of these things were a constant parade of bright, garish excuses which could be rolled out and said to be notionally to blame for my desire to smoke. The hardest habit of an addict to kick, be it an addict of nicotine or of any substance, is not the habit of imbibing or inhaling the liquid or smoke, nor is it the act of lying to the ones whom you surround yourself with or that love you; it is the act of lying to oneself. I became very good at being able to lie to myself about my dirty little habit. I used to tell myself, "one more won't do any harm" or "oh don't be a prude you have guests! If they're having one, you have one!" and so on and so forth. The moment you begin to lie to yourself, it becomes far more comfortable to lie to those around you, the ones who want you to be around on this earth that little bit longer than you were presently giving yourself time to for.
But those reasons you gave have nothing to do with the title of this piece of writing you may cry! And you may cry, for no they were not the title of this piece of writing, but as with all things in a person's life, they are inextricably linked with one another. Late February 2018, the air is thin and cold, and I have decided that the best use of my time and money is to pay for my work to be shown in an art fair. A venture into which my space cost around £400, and all together including travel to and from the historic town of Oxford in which it was being hosted as well as accommodation, food and sup, it amounted to around £700. I had taken some time as a holiday from the bookshop in which I worked to go out into the world and sell my work. Looking back at this now, I can say with far greater clarity that the decision to show my work at this art fair came about from the then current bout of depression. A sickly sweet state of mind in which the honeysuckle-scented promise of success, and more importantly of recognition and achievement were within my grasp. These mistakes we must all make at some point or other in the greener years of our existence. Looking at my choice to pay my way into a showing of my work shows you the depths to which desperation and depression can take you. I was willing to hand over the money I had worked for a group of flim-flam men and shysters. These organisations prey on people like myself, those with the aspirations of taking their careers forward while acknowledging that the odds are pretty harshly stacked against them. By handing my money over to these shadows of reputability, I had signed my own Faustian deal, but on a far shorter time frame than of 25 years. Four days, I had four days, to solidify all the dreams that had been floating limply around my head for the past year since I had finished university. I had handed over my capital (the manifestation of everything I had been working for the previous year) for four days of exposure. Little did I know that at the end of those four days, my drive back to wales across the flat plains of the home counties would become my own journey through hell. The bargain I had struck would loom over my car like a great, dense cloud waiting to release all the shame that the heavens of the south-east of England had to offer up. I get ahead of myself; however, I'm not even there or set up yet, let us move swiftly to this point.
My space measured no more than 2 metres in height and a metre in width. There's nothing more terrifying to an artist than the feeling claustrophobia washing over you like the thin white paint of the board that my work would hang on can cause you. The power of that blank, white space to chill you to your core. The realisation at what I'd done by committing myself to this fair of partial unfairness, took a bit longer than it should have to dawn upon me. Looking back now at that time, the depression which grew out from underneath the feet of constant rejection and the desire for more had led me to this point, to handing over what for me, was near all the money I had left after being unemployed for such a long time. I had only been working at my bookshop job for three months at this point, no way near digging myself out of my student overdraft let alone my insurmountable debt. I'd not been smoking for a few months at this point, I felt I'd put the worst of the gnawing impulses behind me. The desire to fix myself up by lighting up a rollie which I'd quickly crafted behind a bus shelter or a post box to protect the contents of the thin Bible paper from the wind seemed to be a distant memory. I'd stopped for all the usual reasons, health, tastes of those around me and the distaste that had been growing within me. However, I can say now that standing in front of that skein of white paint made me consider for the first time in months the dark, caramel taste of tobacco on my lips, the wisps of smoke rolling across my tongue and falling deep, cascading into my lungs. I wanted to be filled with something I had control over, If I were going to fail and blunder my way through life, I was going to do it knowingly but ripping carcinogens through the fragile membrane that wheezed inside my chest.
The first time I felt the urge crawling from the back of my neck, rolling down to the fingers of my right hand where I used to hold my cigarette was that first day after I'd hung all of my work up on the wall and took stock of the situation I found myself in. Around me lay the efforts of nearly fifty other artists. Some of this group were obviously far more used to this alien landscape than I was, they'd descended upon the hall with crates of work, prints piled high of dogs that had been seen and captured in etching or flowers they had recreated in the digital realm. Business cards falling out of jacket pockets and leaflets littering the floor around their prized work. People who had travelled far further than with far more space and much more looked pleased to see themselves in a place where they knew they would make money. This flagrant confidence was the thing that drove me to buy my first pack of Golds over those four days. How could they be so confident I asked myself, they must have known something, they must've talked to someone, what was I missing? I stood in a throng of people on the opening night with my complimentary glass of champagne in my hand craving nothing more than to leave and smoke my way through that pack of twenty I had bought only a few hours before. There is a point at which most developed people meet their breaking point. The run-up to one of these breaking moments is not the big deal you'd imagine it to be. It was not that high wall of adversity raining down from the heavens, a torrential storm of unavoidable moments and circumstances which lead a person to cinematically fall to their knees and weep. Nor was it a time to claw at the closest person, to hold that person close and ask what it was you could have done differently to avoid the torment you find your fragile soul in the middle of. No, these moments of stillness come from the silence in between breaths, they erupt out of awkward conversations and meek words that are spoken into the wrong wind, carried off to some unknown place between here and whatever dark hole it is your mind crawls into when life reveals that it's hard.
My second pack bought on my four-day excursion into purgatory was probably obtained late into the second day. I have recollections of a small corner shop, one of those corner shops that's seems to both be everything all at once and yet nothing at all. It's a phone provider and repair shop, a post office, a bank, a supermarket, a chapel of gambling as well community centre. I only recall this particular corner shop as I was visiting Oxford for the day less than a month ago, I found myself in that town once again, this time I was not alone I was with my girlfriend. She had no idea that this hole in the wall tobacco provider was once my place of solitude, a sanctuary from all the noise bouncing around my head. Calls of ineptitude, inadequacy, contempt I held for myself and my actions. I pointed this place out to her, but as I did so, I knew that in this fleeting moment there were only two people in the world this shop held any significance with, myself and the shop keeper. But does he feel as I do, a longing to understand how four walls and a door, the exchange of money and a small carton of cigarettes can make a person feel? Does he realise that he may have saved me that weekend? Without that wonderful man and his beautiful shop and those packet of regrets he had sold to me, my experience of that weekend could have been very different.
Looking back the opening was the most challenging period from that whole block of lost days, the wandering, the waiting, the mumbled greetings and niceties which we all must adhere to was nothing compared to that moment of panic when somebody takes a sincere interest in your work. A slightly older woman appeared before me, the experience felt semi-spiritual in that she seemed to arrive with no warning, a burning bush that set itself alight in front of my very eyes. She was everything you want a person to be, open, friendly, and she appeared to be genuinely interested in some of the paintings I was showing. This came right in the middle of the evening when the crowd is not sure whether it is coming or going, are they drinking their complimentary free drink or placing it down and agreeing to all leave on mass and drink something proper and abandon the artists as a form of protest? I was unsure of all of this as well as my place in that whirring merry-go-round that is known to most as a commercial art fair. She asked me questions probing me for information about my influences, my style, what it is that I am trying to evoke within the art. With each issue, my thoughts began to spiral into a cascade of non-answers, I became a mirror to her questions, she asks me about what influences my work, I ask her what she sees within it. She asks me what it is that I am trying to evoke, I ask her how does it make her feel? Each and every answer I give this wonderful woman, I think that I push her further and further away. I fear that my awkwardness comes off as reclusive, my lack of conversation as stuck up. After a few minutes, she mentions that her husband had taken an interest in one of my pieces and will circle back later. My breath snags on my tongue, which seem to have fallen back down my throat. I'm speechless, I nod at her like a child being promised Christmas in mid-July. I remember the elation that came with those words, she said them with such confidence and normality, which led me to think that the couple bought art from unknown artists at least once a week.
The urge that had only hours before to buy that devils bargain with big tobacco now seemed utterly ridiculous. Who needs nicotine when people deem you worthy of their warm praise and a bulging wallet. What little there was left of the evening now was outlined with a radiance that one would only ever expect to see in the stained glass of the grandest of churches, all are welcome to the house on the hill, home of high culture and lofty dreams. Spires made of silk and liquid light, pews carved from whole oak trees and upholstered in silks adorned with intricate patterns of birds in flight holding olive branches in their beaks. An organ cast in platinum, tubes reaching to touch the domed roof of the holy building, fingers hoping to feel the touch of heaven, joy is carved from the sweet songs that reverberate from of all creation and coming to finally rest with your ears. A thousand fluttering notes held still all around me in anticipation of that wonderful, old Scottish woman's return. But she did not, my heart fell to a place closer to the soles of my feet than the middle of my chest. All the exhibitors and visitor's had begun to file away, the last few stragglers hovering around half drunk glasses of cheap fizz, I knew it was time to leave. That was the night I found my way to smoking half of that first pack.
The next morning my head was filled with the thick fug of cigarette smoke and the aftershocks of cheap alcohol, the sort of smell that clings to your skin no matter how many times you wash, it has found its way into your pores and the only way to get rid of it is to sweat it out. I was staying just outside of Oxford in a premier inn. Nothing was exciting about this commuter belt budget venture apart from its proximity to the Mini Cooper factory. Each morning I would find myself jumping into my fiat and stuck in the web of traffic lights and roundabouts which encircle the town. Try to place yourself against this scene, a monolith of grey corrugated steel, miles upon miles, a never ending patchwork of rivets and solder housing a purring engine of capital production. A heaving mechanism lies within, a constant movement of steel upon steel, hand upon metal. Outside of this mighty endeavour sits a man with a paintbrush in his pocket and canvas in the boot of his car. I felt overwhelmed by it all, the presence of such a place gives me cause to shudder all over again. The scale and output of this factory placed all of my work into some sub category. There is no reason to try and compare the two, art and car manufacture, but the human mind is not a reasonable piece of engineering like that of a spark plug. The brain weaves in and out of pros and cons, it meanders along the long path of association, associating itself with things it has no right to mingle with. No, the human brain is less like a spark plug and more like a stray cat. It pays attention to what it likes when it wants, it can become easily distracting, and it is ultimately self-serving of its own interests and one of the most exciting and confusing things to have ever existed. My brain, on this occasion, was trying to compare the production of paintings to the manufacture of a mini cooper. Leading me down a winding path, feeling as if all my work and efforts were futile as none of my pictures would ever reach the value of a new mini cooper (which if we are pricing a fictional mini cooper priced painting on the lower end would be £16,195). Nor would any of my work be able to develop the means of internal combustion and drive off into the sunset, or sync up to my phone to drown out my sorrowful moans with whatever music would take my fancy as I zoomed down the lanes of the Oxford countryside atop my car canvas. That weekend proved to me a person can be tormented by anything, be it the feeling of failure, the lack of human contact or professional acknowledgement or a large, sprawling car factory. I think I smoked my way through the rest of the pack of Gold's by lunch that day after having the factory drive itself through my subconscious.
It is said that things get better with age, and this may be true for something's, like wine or cheese, but many of the other things that we surround ourselves with do not. Time spent alone pondering on your place can be spiritual, life-affirming experience for some, but place yourself in a crowded hall surrounded by unsold paintings and the heavy musk of aspiration, and you will find that that is a cocktail that doesn't age well. Little to no good came from that short holiday away from reality. By my third day there I was well into my second pack of Marlboro Golds. Now let us consider the fact that I had not smoked a for a few months leading up to this artistically deflating excursion, I had set myself away from the quick relief of nicotine. Now, this had led me to be a bit quicker to comment as you may imagine when the withdrawal from tobacco starts to kick in. Becoming more irritable than cat dropped in a bathtub by a degree with every passing day. I'm not sure at what point I was that I knew I had become something other than the man I thought myself to be. It may have been the moment I opened the second pack, picking away the thin strip of cellophane and throwing the plastic sheet towards the nearest bin as I watched futility as it floated away, catch on the breath of a passing gust of wind. It may have been as I tore at the paper that protects the perfectly formed little cylinders from the carton they live within, or it may have been as I lit the fifth cigarette in that second packet. All I know is that I lost something that day, which has taken me a long time to rediscover. When your life and your decisions can be thrown away with as little care as that delicate piece of cellophane that held together that packet of Golds, you acknowledge that the things you value so dearly, your decisions and your morals mean nothing. They are just the flimsy sheets of plastic that you clothe yourself in, trying in vain to protect your way of life from the harshness of reality. By giving into my lowest urges, I was defiling my ambitions of self-improvement, or optimism over the light that cast deep shadows around me; but more than that, I had felt like I was accepting my failure lying down, mouth slightly ajar and sulking in on a Gold after Gold. That third day was hard, with nothing of great importance ever taking place. The highlight, if we exclude the momentary excitement of lighting a cigarette was going across the road and drinking a pint in the beer garden, while also lighting a cigarette.
Waking up the last day, the truth of the past four days had truly sunken in. I had willingly cast off my time into a bottomless void, a place of unending hardship and the most severe cold imaginable. I had removed all ties to any recognisable reality, the time spent in Oxford was like being marooned on a desert island, feeling more like a dream than some solid here and now place. Each decision felt like something separate from my everyday life, beginning with the decision to spend £700 or so on entrance into an art fair and being able to sleep in a warm, dry and incredibly uninspiring national hotel chain. All leading me to the point at which in a few hours I would be packing up all my paintings into the back of my very small fiat 500 and driving back to south Wales and having to pay for the privilege of crossing over a bridge into my home country. Insult after insult. Mistake after another painful mistake.
Standing outside that old town hall smoking my penultimate cigarette all I wanted to do was scream, scream at the next tourist who passed by me, to rant at buses and kick lamp posts. A desperate fury, inexhaustible in its capacity and scale, an open-ended vessel at both ends with one opening considerably larger than the other. Every time more of that liquid antipathy is poured into it, it fills while slowly exiting at the other end. A constant supply of new and refreshed anger aimed at both myself and everyone else around who was unfortunate enough to be within a 5-metre radius of me when the vessel was being topped up by the ever-present gods of taking the piss. Difficulties arise when you find yourself faced with an undeniable truism, something that only the naïve or the ignorant could deny. But if you find yourself in a moment where you are able to look at your actions, the way your life has played and is playing out, and acknowledge that not all the cards are stacked against you, that you happen to be holding most of the deck yourself, you give yourself the chance to pull yourself up again. I seem to have lost track some of the truths that could be found within those four days, not every moment is terrible, not every breath laboured. On that last day, an hour or so after my penultimate cigarette, I sold my first and only painting to date. It was only a small thing, no more than 15-20 cm in both height and width, the sort of art you could hang in a room and forget about for the next 10 to 20 years, you could live a lifetime with it, and you may never even see it again. It was that little Scottish woman whom I mentioned previously, she returned to bargain with me. I started at what I thought was a high price of £120, she was having none of it, adamant that she would never go anything over £50. At this point in the day, hours away from having me packing away and finding myself behind the wheel racing my way down the M4, I couldn't have cared less what she offered me at that moment. But letting her talk about the price allowed me some time to think, I was worth more than £50! I wanted the asking price, and if not that then something nearer to it than an amount that felt like I would be rolling myself up into the gutter, £50 was as good as having her spit in my eye.
When we finally agreed on a price, I could've kissed her. She had made my four-day escape just that, an escape. An escape from the reality I knew, to a place where someone I had never met would actually want to buy something I had made. Looking back on it, I can say that I undervalued my work. The piece was probably worth twice the £100 I actually sold it for. But in that instance, selling my first work was all that mattered to me. It had been everything I had thought about for days, for months leading up to that perfect moment. I've talked to people about this, and nearly every one of them has said that I should've asked for more, but can understand why I didn't. In the act of undervaluing my work, I present to myself and those who look at the painting that I do not value myself. If an artist does not judge themselves highly enough, why should an art collector value your work or you as an artist? They shouldn't, and they don't. But all of the people I have talked to can understand my reasoning for wanting to sell something, searching for that recognition that you can only find in the validation of cold hard cash, It's an ugly truth, but it certainly is one of the simplest and clearest truths that can be found within the murky world of art.
I can say with all certainty that cigarettes did more than just provide me with the nicotine high they advertise to kids with cartoon camels and hyper-heterosexual cowboys, they offered me a crutch with which to take the emotional slack from which my ego had long since given up on. They gave me a way to carry on, day after day, grinding my teeth into a forced smile so that I could present a mask to the world. The fragile paper cylinders of dried leaves were there for me, when I was alone, lost in my thoughts. Even the simple act of asking a shopkeeper for a pack of cigarettes gave me some of the most positive human interactions of those four days. A greeting and a simple request followed by the delivery of a tiny cardboard carton and my swift payment. A small conversation, but something that would go onto helping me find myself later on in the day, late at night or early in the morning, I would think back on the gentleness that he carried in his voice, the life that flickered in his dark brown eyes. The act of talking, of holding out a hand and finding someone there to lift you up. I will never smoke like that again, it's a horrible habit that latches onto a person's insecurities, but for those four days, I thanked God for Marlboro Golds.