Attack of the vapours

By Emma Soames, Wednesday 12 December 2012

Emma Soames takes up vaping, puts a ‘remembrancer’ on her Christmas wish list and has some wily gift ideas
Saga Magazine Editor-at-large Emma Soames will be hosting our event at the Hay-on-Wye literary festivalSaga Magazine Editor-at-large Emma Soames will be hosting our event at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival

As one who has had a complicated and almost lifelong relationship with smoking – on and off like a traffic light – I was recently laid low by a chest infection. As a result, I’ve dropped smoking and taken up vaping – smoking electronic cigarettes that give off vapour instead of smoke. Of course much of the health lobby and anti- smoking brigade are up in arms about e-cigarettes and are quick to point out that they may be tar-free but small quantities of other nasty chemicals can be found in them. And they question whether they are safe.

Of course it would be safer not to smoke or inhale anything at all, but given the alternative for nicotine addicts – the dangerous and noxious business of smoking – it is definitely better for this hardened smoker to vape the fakes rather than smoke real cigarettes. My improved lung capacity and clearer skin are proof of that.

The most hilarious and pompous response to vaping has come from the World Health Organisation. It says e-cigarettes should be banned because they ‘undermine the denormalisation of tobacco use’. In other words, they would prefer us to die from tobacco smoke than to use a replacement purely because it looks like smoking. Duh.

My age group, I have noticed, is obsessed with memory loss – the reality or just the fear of it. One novel way to circumvent the sound of escaping marbles is to employ a remembrancer. In his marvellous family memoir – The Zanzibar Chest (HarperCollins, £9.99) – Aidan Hartley tells how, when his father worked in Aden in 1939, he visited Abyan, an area blessed with a river delta in a desert. The many clans of Abyan were endlessly feuding over which tribe had the right to harness the flood waters that rushed through the delta. So complex, tangled and complicated were these life-threatening feuds that one chieftain employed a remembrancer, whose only job was to recall whether a man was friend or foe. I think we all need one of these, if for less extreme reasons. A remembrancer is now top of my Christmas wish list.

Talking of Christmas shopping... I have identified two rather wily ideas for some of my far too numerous family, who bring me to near bankruptcy every year. One is to give a ticket voucher to visit the viewing galleries of the Shard. I recently enjoyed a sneak preview, and the views of London from more than 700ft up above London Bridge from the 69th floor are unspeakably exciting.

It is a thoroughly 21st-century experience. Two lifts whisk you up to the top and at 800ft on the 72nd level you will even be exposed to the weather through chinks in the glass structure left open to the elements. Specially commissioned orchestral music wafts you up where it won’t only be the wind you hear whistling. You will hear sirens, the chink of pint glasses, market sellers’ calls and other sounds of the city going on at ground level as you enjoy the amazing views, enhanced by some rather incredible digital telescopes. The Shard doesn’t open until February, so giving someone a £24.95 ticket this Christmas for undoubtedly the best view of London will have the whiff of the new, as well as an exciting experience to look forward to (

For those who suffer from late onset vertigo (and there are many), I’ve discovered something equally exciting to enjoy with one’s feet firmly on the ground. A quarterly literary review called Slightly Foxed (£36 for four issues) is a beautifully printed, very quirky little publication perfect for anyone of our generation who loves reading and books. The latest number features pieces about Edmund Gosse meeting Alfred, Lord Tennyson and others, the early novels of Edna O’Brien and a riveting profile of a very unattractive character, Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter. The joy of Slightly Foxed is that the pieces are satisfying on their own, although I cannot promise that you won’t be ordering the books themselves. No one could possibly complain if you give them a subscription to this. The eponymous bookshop is at 123 Gloucester Road, London SW7 4TE (020 7033 0258 or

Also in the current issue, Oliver Pritchett has written about the etiquette of browsing bookshops. He says only children should sit on the floor, explains the difference between browsing and lurking and emphasises the importance of respect for one’s host (the shop).

He astutely draws the supermarket parallel where it is acceptable, for instance, to sample a grape but not to take a whole banana. He suggests time limits on browsing: quite arbitrarily he says an hour and ten minutes is the maximum for fiction, 44 minutes for non-fiction. He also points out the necessity to buy something after a satisfying browsing session, be it only a birthday card or a bookmark.

Read Emma Soames every month in Saga Magazine.


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  • Michael Woodbridge

    Posted: Saturday 23 March 2013

    Dear Emma Soames,

    I was appalled by your description of Henry Williamson as a very unattractive character. You are entitled to your opinion of course but I can't help thinking that it must be based on ignorance rather than knowledge of the man and his work. You give absolutely no reason for your attitude other than what we might surmise you acquired from reading a hostile article in 'Slightly Foxed'. I would strongly suggest that you repair the damage and treat yourself by reading his books.


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