Monday, June 6, 2011

I am a Better Man than my Father, by Victor Sullivan

 © 25/8/2010

How a trivial remark to a child has benefitted three generations.

Three times a year we visited my mother's childhood home. Even before I knew enough words to describe it, on a fine day the view from the front door of my uncle Tom's farmhouse amazed me. On one particular visit to this idyllic place I experienced a life-defining moment, one that stands out vividly in my memory.

My parents had brought my sister Audrey and me on a visit to my uncle Tom and my Grandmother. Following the excellent meal in the farmhouse kitchen, my father felt the need for his customary after-dinner smoke. He left the table and went to the open front door where he selected a cigarette, lit it and inhaled deeply while admiring the glorious scenery that spread out before him: hills, mountains, sea, Bere Island, the stark chimneys of ruined Dunboy Castle rising above an expanse of moorland with grey rock outcrops, gorse and heather. Cattle and sheep grazed in green fields across the valley. Hungry Hill towered above the magnificient Berehaven harbour with RĂ³ncarrig lighthouse as its centre-piece. Beyond the lighthouse the bay extends all the way to the town of Bantry, where my father was manager of Warners Grocery Store.
Uncle Tom eyed him with grim disapproval. He had an intense dislike of tobacco smoke and a poor opinion of all who smoked 'weeds.'

Tiring of the grown-ups' chatter, I left the table also and was promptly and sternly ordered by my father to go back to my place and ask for permission to leave the table before getting up.
'Well you didn't ask permission to go for your smoke.' I responded.
'Don't give cheek to your betters!' snapped my father angrily as he stood silhouetted in the sun-lit doorway, his head surrounded by swirling cigarette smoke.

As I slunk back towards my place at the table I began to whimper but the strong, work-hardened hand of my uncle grabbed my left arm very firmly and he announced loudly,
'Listen boy! As long as you never smoke you are a better man than your father!'

Even at the age of six I was aware of the high esteem in which my father was held by everyone. Some important people knew him and called him Mister Sullivan. Now, thanks to my uncle Tom's declaration, I had been instantly elevated to somewhere above my respected father's public status. I would have to keep such knowledge to myself until I grew older, of course, but it gave me a new confidence just knowing that I was not only better than my father but better than many of those I was expected to look upon as my 'betters.'

From then on I began to keep a silent look-out for my inferiors. Finding them was easy; my schoolteacher mother for a start.
Everyone in the house next door were quickly catalogued as my inferiors, as was the local doctor, a couple of policemen, a railway inspector, clergy of two denominations and at least four of my mother's teacher friends. Farmers passing on their way to the creamery were observed and added, almost without exception, to my growing list.

Many pictures in newspapers of the time showed people smoking. These would have been the important kind of people who got their photos in newspapers and magazines. Who they were didn't really matter, they were simply important people who smoked; the relevance did not escape me. Posters outside the cinema often showed the great film stars puffing their way down my social scale.
There was that photo of Winston Churchill wearing his hat and that cigar.... and Stalin.... and Princess Margaret; I wasn't sure about Eamon deValera, I never caught him smoking.

I cannot remember how long I basked in the knowledge of my superiority over such entities but the experience has been immensely beneficial because it made me into a lifelong non-smoking SNOB.

In my teenage years mature reason modified the notion of my personal superiority and I developed the theory that those who were intellectually, emotionally or even physically weak needed the artificial support of nicotine to keep up with their non-smoking superiors, people like me.

Even now, enjoying my retirement, I find myself glancing at the drivers of other cars as they wait for the lights to turn green and the ones with a cigarette are automatically downgraded both socially and intellectually. Observed pretty girls walking past become distinctly less pretty when I see them light up. (I told you I was a non-smoking SNOB).

Over six decades after my uncle's declaration that I was a better man than my father, I can proudly claim that my three adult offspring and three grandchildren are all fervent anti-smokers having been brought up with this story and the concept of the superiority of the non-smoking sector of society.

Thanks, Uncle Tom, thanks a million.

Photo by Victor Sullivan
(reflected in a cigarette advertising mirror from his father's shop)