I don’t know if you’ve tried snuff (the tobacco product I mean, not the hyper-realist brand of horror film). Unless you’re a character from a Victorian story-book, the answer is probably “no”. But if you ever have to dine at Oxford University, and want to avoid looking like Donald Trump at an all-you-can-eat buffet, snuff is something you better master. Or so I discovered.
Oxford’s formal dinners involve suits, gowns, candles, banter, and an assumed knowledge of obscure and idiosyncratic table etiquette. The successful diner is one who quickly learns the chocolates are in the pineapple, or that passing port the wrong way leads to a better-than-average chance of being flogged by a butler – a side of Downton Abbey we never saw.
After you’ve quickly mastered Latin, gongs, and dissecting game-birds with a blunt dinner knife, all the while conversing with an astrophysicist and consuming the amount of wine usually seen only when a mob bellows “CHUG”, you might be forgiven for wanting to quietly vomit (or noisily vomit, depending on how successfully you deboned your guinea-fowl) and then go home.
But first you have to negotiate the snuff.
Put simply, taking snuff involves racking up a line of desiccated tobacco on your fist, then snorting it. It involves getting the right amount on the right part of your hand, not letting it fall off, lining it up under the right part of your nose, and then snorting a pile of black powder while, across the candles and silver, your colleagues look on. Trying to artfully get the stuff up your nose while avoiding the amateurish mistake of a colossal black smear wending down the lip or explosively sneezing a plug of snotty baccy at the prof sitting opposite, is a challenge.
Being a good graduate student, I’d prepared in advance by straining to remember the Victorian novels I’d skimmed in college. There, snuff was a sort of mild, retired kind of thing. Vicars smashed it constantly. From what I recalled, you took a sizeable pinch, whacked it on the back of the thumb, huffed in a great gust, and hey presto! Pass the silver, take a drink, and go on pretending to listen to Mr. Darcy.
So, I thought, I’d go gonzo as a Victorian protagonist and get my snuff on.
My table was quiet, the diners replete. Dessert wines circled, lit only by candle-light. Then, the snuff box arrived in front of me. A kindly old prof smiled encouragingly and beckoned, ‘Go on, old boy. Give it a shove’.
The conversation silenced as the diners turned to watch.
I was, I have to say, pretty confident after my sort-of research. I grinned at them, courageous, slipping effortlessly into character as “Reverend Twigglyweed”, a vicar I invented on the way over. The diners looked back with eyes that glinted – or would have, if their glasses weren’t so thick. I (or should I say, Rev Twiggers) pinched a huge clump and racked it up with raffish ease. I continued to grin. And then I took a hearty ‘snnnnnort’ and turned back to the… MOTHER. OF. GOD. I’ve killed Reverend Twigglyweed!
Imagine, if you will, sitting at a table and attempting conversation while an enormous Glaswegian punches you in the face (twice), tips you backwards, pours vinegar up your nose, follows it up with a high-pressure air-hose, slaps you a couple of times for good measure, then lifts you back into your seat, and finishes with a perfunctory attempt to brush the lint from your shoulders. The agony! The AGONY! It coursed through my sinuses, suffusing my face then filtering through the right side of my brain.
“Oh Lord!” I whimpered softly. “Half my head’s dissolving.”
My face was swelling. The plug of tobacco in my nostril fizzled and spat. My eye began to bulge and stream as all the powers of the devil ran beneath my skin. If I was later told that the butler, being short of sight, had mistaken the tin saying SNUFF for the one reading GUNPOWDER, I wouldn’t have blinked. It felt roughly as if I’d smoked four or five cigars, in my nose, all at once, and then, rather foolishly, mistaken hot cooking oil for eye-drops. My vision reeled and spun. The table swum away and back, away and back. The silver and candles began to whirl. The conversation burbled and moaned, muttered and flowed. Every ounce of constraint was rallied forth to stop me from slamming my fist into the table and bellowing ‘OOOOHHH GIDDDDYYY FUUUUUCK!’ while trying to clear my nostrils with a fruit-knife. Great Scott! I thought, I shall pass out on the table! I shall swoon, like a consumptive, and suffocate on tobacco! How poetic!, how cruel, this life!
For ten minutes I tried to keep my end of the conversation up with minimal gurning, eye-twitching, or whimpering. And without breaking down on the table and sobbing ‘my … nose! It … fucking hhhuuuuuuurrrrtss!’ Eventually, I threw propriety to the wind and ran to the bathroom.
Believe me truly when I tell you that I projectile vomited out of my nose.
Not actual vomit. But the equivalent in nose-blowing. I shan’t taint your screens with a description of the Satanic produce there created. Save to say that it took some cleaning up. Again and again I “nose-vomited”, swaying, eyes shining with tears. Again and again and again, until I thought that chunks of my soul must be unburdening. Eventually, dry-nose-heaving, I finished, gasped for air, and washed my face.
I returned to the table, nonchalantly.
‘Hello!’ I said brightly.
‘Are you quite alright?’ asked the worried-looking philosopher sitting opposite.
‘Me? Oh, spiffy’, I lied.
Be warned, friends. Snuff is not for the faint of heart. Or stomach. Or sinus. Or head. And Victorian novelists? Fucking liars.