John B Keane: Sucking on butts - a great art in decline

ART is a word which I suspect greatly. I suspect it because it confuses and also because nobody has defined it properly or in depth. When I was a boy I took it that art meant painting, but as I grew older I would hear, from time to time, a great variety of people referred to as artistes. Footballers and hurlers qualified for the title. So did dart players and accordion players, not to mention melodeon players. I hope that nobody is under the foolish impression that I am being patronising. Far from it.

ART is a word which I suspect greatly. I suspect it because it confuses and also because nobody has defined it properly or in depth. When I was a boy I took it that art meant painting, but as I grew older I would hear, from time to time, a great variety of people referred to as artistes. Footballers and hurlers qualified for the title. So did dart players and accordion players, not to mention melodeon players. I hope that nobody is under the foolish impression that I am being patronising. Far from it.

I wholeheartedly endorse the terming of the above mentioned people as artistes and the reason I opened in such a vain was to pave the way, as it were, for that which is to follow, to wit; the art of butt-sucking. It is an art which is now largely confined to the poor and the needy but this does not make it any bit less artistic.

Others who indulge in the art are the young, but since these are nearly always poor and needy there is hardly any need to bracket them.

I would not, I assure you, be writing about the art of butt-sucking at all were it not for the fact that the view from my upstairs window impelled me to do so. There I was vainly thinking of something which might contribute to the making of an essay when I noticed a man with a torn overcoat leaning with his back against the wall of a house. He was smoking a cigarette, most of which has been burned and puffed away. What was left was hardly half-an-inch long. In spite of the length he continued to smoke it until it was no longer visible and it seemed that he was smoking his fingers.

Indeed, there was no sign whatsoever of the butt and an innocent bystander might be forgiven if he thought that the man was smoking his fingers. So it would seem, but those of us who smoked in our youth would know otherwise and would be in a position to appreciate the finer points of the efforts our friend was making to prolong the life of the butt.

As he drew on the remains of what was once a proud cigarette his lips protruded like the suckers of a lamprey eel. The muscles on his neck stood out like mountain ranges on a relief map and he was hunched forward like a rugby hooker the better to draw the last breath of life from the infinitesimal weed between his fingers. This man knew his job. If he were a rich man he would have discarded the cigarette at the halfway stage and lighted another. He would not, however, have enjoyed it nearly as much because hunger is the best sauce and there is nothing as sweet as a cigarette butt when you have not got the means of obtaining more.

As I watched, the more I admired, and he reminded me of the not too distant days when I was a butt sucker myself.

My first attempts to smoke were somewhat abortive but as time passed I found I could smoke with ease, and after a while I became an addict. It is not easy to become an addict when money is scarce, and worse still, when everybody else finds money scarce as well. As a result of this scarcity of money fags were hard to get and one had to be content with butts. There were many others like myself who became so proficient at butt smoking that it was almost impossible to detect the butts between our fingers.

Often we would be taken aside by well-meaning adults who would warn us of the dangers of smoking. We would promise that we would never smoke again and all the time there would be a smouldering butt between the fingers, not to mention the fact that the hand which adjoined such fingers were also thrust into a trousers pocket.

As I said, however, we were so proficient that nobody could tell what we were smoking save possibly another butt sucker. Just because butt sucking is an art does not mean that it is good. On the contrary, nothing is more calculated to speed up a person’s departure from this world. Having made myself clear on this point, let me say that the art of butt sucking which flourished with abandon for so long is now positively on the way out. Affluence is the cause and these days almost everybody throws the cigarette away before it is finished.

Still one comes across the occasional sucker. Almost always he is a poverty-stricken wretch, but nevertheless he serves to remind us that great art can flourish in any climate.