I have been opening up some dusty cardboard boxes from the loft that need sorting out before we can downsize. In one box, amongst a miscellaneous collection of vases and general bric-a-brac, I found a rather handsome silver cigarette box that belonged to my late father-in-law.  The engraving on the lid says: Rev T H Lewis from The Congregation, Alexandra Garrison Church, Singapore, 1959.

Even without the engraving, I remember the cigarette box well.  Always well stocked, it used to occupy a side table in my father-in-law’s study at Highclere Rectory.  He was rector there for 16 years after a career as a popular army padre.  The discovery of the cigarette box is poignant because smoking killed my father-in-law.  That grateful congregation, back in 1959, effectively handed my father-in-law a poisoned chalice.

John Lewis (he was always called John, even though his first names were Thomas Herbert) was a heavy smoker for more than 40 years. He was a charismatic preacher and filled churches wherever he went. The Garrison Church at Alexandra Hospital in Singapore was no exception – I know because I was there as young officer doing my National Service.  The pattern had been the same at all his postings.  He’d inherit a handful of stalwarts and gradually, by word of mouth, the congregation would swell so that the church filled to capacity. 

When John Lewis left Singapore at the end of the 50’s, a silver cigarette box would have seemed a benign gift.  Just about everybody smoked back then. Sir Richard Doll’s report linking smoking to lung cancer was first published in the British Medical Journal in 1950 but its impact by 1959 was negligible – certainly in the Far East. Confirmed smokers sought consonance by insisting it would never happen to them and rubbishing the statistical methods employed by the likes of Sir Richard Doll (including, when I went to university in 1959, my lecturer in statistics – a heavy smoker!).

 John Lewis, for the last 10 years of his life, suffered from chronic emphysema. At first the breathlessness seemed innocent but, remorselessly, his damaged lungs reduced him to a total invalid who couldn’t walk across an averaged sized room without numerous pauses to fight for air.  And this was a man, 27 years my senior, who used to thrash me at tennis.

Bedridden, a few months before he died, my father-in-law gasped that he had some good news; he had given up smoking and found it ‘remarkably easy’.  Of course, I proffered my congratulations – what else could a dutiful son-in-law do?  After he’d died, my mother-in-law continued to smoke until she too died of emphysema.

The silver cigarette box, empty now for nearly 20 years, is obviously blameless but, when I open the lid, I’m sure I can smell tobacco….. and hear ice cubes gently clinking in a gin and tonic…. and feel the heat and humidity of that far off tropical air.

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