The fab four, smoke and Montale

I enjoyed the recently released Beatles documentary, ‘Eight Days A Week’  earlier this evening.


As a Beatles fan from a very early age, I didn’t learn anything new about the band or the times they lived in.  I was surprised, however, by the raw energy of their early performances, and once more impressed that the band could sing and play in time and in tune without being able to hear each other or themselves over the legions of screaming fans.  This level of achievement was not only due to their considerable individual talents as musicians, but also a result of their five year apprenticeship at clubs in the their home town and especially in Hamburg, where they played for up to twelve hours at a time. I always remember this when I hear how an artist arrived from nowhere. No one, in any field can get that great without a lot of graft.
Months before their last official concert on the 29th of August, 1966 ( the day I was born) the band had become sick of touring and wanted to spend more time experimenting with new sounds in the studio. What came across through this film was that inside the bubble of madness and mayhem that surrounded the band, they were very close. It was their humour and laddish bonhomie that enabled them to maintain their sanity and just about keep their feet on the ground. Another thing that struck me was the way the Beatles, and almost everyone in their circle, seemed to be continuously smoking. In one interview George Harrison sits behind John Lennon and mischievously and repeatedly taps ash on the latter’s mop top. And of course George Harrison sadly died of lung cancer at the age of fifty-eight.
In the UK and elsewhere,  legislation and vapour cigarettes have lead to great changes. In the nineteen eighties the canteen at my further education college, the cinema, the top deck of the bus, pubs, restaurants and my first work places were all filled with smoke. I even knew a heart surgeon at the tail end of the 1990’s who would light up in the staffroom before and after an operation.
I have two ‘smoking’ poems for you. The first is a translation of a Eugenio Montale poem that featured in the Italian translation section of the excellent ‘High Window’ magazine last year.


As I write this there is a fog outside, and I’m thinking of the black and white England of that Beatles film; of the foggy, cold and smoky railway stations where a young Paul Simon, visiting from the USA,  wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ as he waited for a train with his ‘cigarettes and magazines ‘.  The second poem is from my first book, ‘The Sun Bathers’ , published in 2013.

In the Smoke

after Montale

I’d often wait at the station, coughing
in the cold and fog, buy a paper
not worthy of the name, smoke cigarettes
that came in those bright packets
the fools have now banned.
If your train was cancelled or delayed
I’d watch carriages as they strobed past,
scan faces on the platform
until I saw yours, nearly always last.
It’s just one of the memories
that haunt me in dreams.

I Dreamt of Smoking 

the long abandoned sense of time
measured and slowed to a cigarette’s length;
necessity and luxury, the sparked up camaraderie
of bus shelter, fire-escape, a doorway in the rain.

My dream was not a pining for breath given substance,
for jellyfish pulsing in a projector’s beam,
nor for rituals of unwrapping, tapping and rolling,
or buried addiction, risen again.

But I know the source; it was you of course,
it was the two of us, smoking.



  1. just watched it last night…gotta love ‘LoveFilm’…..I think what always knocks me out is a) how young they were; Harrison off to Hamburg at 17….and I remember, as one of that generation, that it was, if not exactly normal, certainly not unusual. National Service got you at 18, and the Beatles (and me) just missed it. At 17 I was hitch-hiking around Germany. I guess we didn’t know we were young; b) how hard they worked at the music and for how long; the way they put the hard miles in for small reward. Part of the reason I have scant time for the current generation of small-talent overpaid pop musicians is that they’ve never paid their dues and, not least, c) Ringo. It was wonderful to hear McCartney talking about the way his coming into the band changed everything. And then to watch and hear what he actually did, the way he and McCartney drive the band together, the musicality of the bass, the inventiveness of Ringo’s riffs and fills. Totally different from Charlie Watts and equally the bedrock of the band. And the smoking. Ah, the smoking. Ditto with the Dylan documentaries. Have me coughing just to watch. Great post, Roy. Thank you.


  2. Thanks John. At 16/17 my generation (born 1966) was still hitching. And smoking- or at least me and friends were! Re Ringo. Yes. So good that he finally gets some credit after being compared to Moon and Watts- two entirely different creatures who were as perfect for their bands as he was for his.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s