Jake and I had done a bro-trip once before, driving from Lusaka, where he lives, down to the Luangwa Valley; but this was going to be very different. Instead of travelling cross-country, Mad Max-style, with driving beer and guns, we were going to be following the Lonesome Dove trail, from widescreen Texas all the way up the plains of Montana.
Jake has been obsessed with Larry McMurtry's Western novel – in which several Texas rangers drive a cattle herd north in the twilight years of the Old West – since it was first published in 1985, and for some years it has been his intention to drive the trail. As Jake is a former ranger and a bit of a cowboy himself, he originally wanted to do it all on horseback. When I told him I could spare five days and five days only, we opted for the next best thing. Which was a massive Ford Bronco Everglades, an SUV so large I suspect at some point it will be awarded its own zip code.
We picked it up in Austin, where we started the trip, poring over the route in the city's new Soho House. I felt so at home there I almost ordered a white-wine spritzer, but in the end opted for a margarita that was almost as big as the Bronco. Suitably fortified, we retired for the night, preparing ourselves for the next day's 10-hour, 600-mile drive to Dodge City.
Out soundtrack was obviously all-important, and we opted for traditional cassette-era rock, where you're never far away from a Bob Seger ballad or a Doobie Brothers singalong. Were Jack and I a cliché? Only completely.
By now we had bought cowboy hats – of course we had!
Kansas was far more rugged than Texas, a largely empty place that keeps its scenic charms so well hidden you might never find them. We certainly didn't. Our Best Western was misnamed. Hungry from having been in our designer tank all day, we wandered around half a dozen malls before finding an awful-looking Mexican restaurant with strip lighting, plastic chairs and worryingly cheap burritos. It was, of course, wonderful. Cheap Mexican food is always better than expensive Mexican food.
The following morning, following age-old advice, we got the hell out of Dodge.
And headed for Nebraska, which appeared to be Kansas squared. Sure, there was a lot of it, maybe slightly more than necessary. I felt as though I'd had enough of the place after an hour or so, so goodness knows what McMurtry's cowboys must have felt like as they ambled through.
By now we had bought cowboy hats – of course we had! Jake's was traditional, while mine looked like the kind Nick Cave might wear. Black. Svelte. Gentrified. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter, driving into Wyoming, the penultimate stop on our trip, and one of the most beautiful places on earth. This is real cowboy country, where the Rockies cast a shadow, both real and metaphorical, making you feel you could easily be steering a herd of unruly cattle across the Great Plains. Instead of Great Plains I had an irascible co-pilot with even lower blood-sugar levels issues than mine. We stopped for burritos almost as often as we stopped for gas.
Wyoming is Americana maximus, where every vista is lunar, and every backyard is full of discarded cars. I reckon Bruce Springsteen came here on vacation when he was 16 or so and inhaled enough cowboy/highway/blue-jean imagery to keep him going for an entire career. Honestly, after we'd been driving for three or four hours, I felt as though I could write a Springsteen song myself. Either that or a McMurtry novel.
Crossing into Montana makes you feel life's great achievements ought to be immediately downgraded
If Wyoming was our favourite state, Montana came a close second. Sure, every town looked like a larger version of Port Talbot, and yes, all its rivers had long since run dry, and yes, the mountains appeared to have been replaced by forests of grain silos, but there was no denying its beauty. Crossing the state line into Montana makes you feel as though life's great achievements ought to be immediately downgraded. It is so gargantuan, so preposterously epic that even our Bronco felt small.
On arrival at our Airbnb, Jake read me an email from the own: "I hope you boys have a great time in town. Just remember not to leave any trash outside. We have a rather cantankerous bear."
Being a cowboy, and the kind of chap who never goes anywhere without his Leatherman, Jake found this terribly amusing, whereas I immediately reverted to my default Reservoir Poodle disposition and started sulking. We never saw the bear, but this was only because we were distracted by the contents of our local liquor store. Having had dinner in the local tavern (yup, burritos again, and they were terrific), we decided we needed a couple of Northern Hospitality beers to take the edge off the night. As we walked in, wearing our cowboy hats, singing "Long Train Running" and swaying rather too enthusiastically for men who had only drunk two medium-sized margaritas, we saw a store-within-a-store full of firearms. And just as Jake was about to start fondling one of the assault rifles, the assistant stopped us in our tracks.
"Sorry boys, you can buy your beers and your whiskey but the gun shop's closed for the night. If you wanna buy a gun you'll have to come back at eight in the morning."
As I was flying out of Billings early the next day, I missed the concluding episode of our trip. But Jake's gone worryingly quiet and there have been no sightings of the bear since October.
Dylan Jones' latest book, Faster Than a Cannonball, is out now. This piece appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Esquire, out now
It wasn’t long ago that cigarettes were content with just slowly killing the people who smoked them 10 or 20 times a day. More recently, the tobacco industry wants to do away with itself, too. In an act of slow-burning suicide, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of cigarettes has chosen to quit smoking, stubbing out a multi-billion dollar business on the back of its own hand.
In the summer of 2021, Philip Morris International announced that it intended to “un-smoke the world”, including stopping the sale of Marlboro cigarettes in Britain within a decade. Audaciously, the tobacco giant also proposed the notion of “a world without cigarettes”. It called on the British government to actively ban the sale of its tobacco products, with Philip Morris International CEO Jacek Olczak suggesting that the UK should start treating cigarettes like petrol-powered cars, the sale of which is due to be banned from 2030.
An interesting approach when one considers that, just two years ago, Philip Morris’s Marlboro brand was the world’s most valuable tobacco product. Estimated to be worth $33.6 billion, Marlboro’s value sat alongside brands like Nike and American Express.
And get this: with its marketing muscle now fully behind the IQOS e-cigarette, a device that heats tobacco to deliver nicotine without the smoke and tar that cause diseases, including cancer, Philip Morris planned to reposition itself as... wait for it... a “health and wellness” brand.
At epoch-defining, culturally seismic moments like this, it is, one feels, important to spare a thought for the cruelly victimised community who will be most acutely affected by such a game-changing decision: the supermodels.
Without Marlboro Golds (the cigarette formerly known as Marlboro Lights and still called that by, well, everyone) what on earth is Kate Moss going to do? What will the fashion industry X-rays in Paris, Milan and London do with their hands and mouths between shows, looks and shots? How will the stylists, photographers, PRs, party organisers and model -agency mavens get through the day without a draw on their cork-tipped cylinders of poisoned pleasure?
Hard to believe, now that smokers have become pariahs and outsiders (quite literally, dar-ling), but throughout the naughty 1990s and beyond, Marlboro Lights were everywhere, as ubiquitous as drop-waist Maharishi combat pants, Nike Air Max and “Wonderwall”. Back in those days, an old party-hard friend of mine would stop at his front door every time he ventured out for an evening — so that’s every single evening for a decade — taking a second to ensure that he had everything he required, in hand or pocket, for the next few hours’ carousing. He called it the “C-check”: cash (for cabs and cocaine), credit cards (for cocktails and champagne) and, most crucially, cigarettes. Marlboro Lights, of course. No other brand was acceptable.
At times it seemed as if the whole of Swinging London was bumming from the same pack
My pal knew, as we all did, that those perfectly formed paper tunnels, packed tight with heady brown leaves, were social mobility sold in crush-proof packs of 20. Mini chimeneas of glowing orange and sweetly intoxicating acridity that flirted and swaggered, even on the lips of dorks and in the hands of wallflowers. Simply everyone who smoked, smoked them.
In 2021, smokers are regarded as bad influencers, but in previous decades they were cover stars, rock stars, Soho blades, record-company tyros, movie directors, Primrose Hill yummy mummies. And, at times, it seemed as if the whole of Swinging London was bumming from the same pack.
Though truly a global product, Marlboro Lights seemed to flaunt a certain London look (the brand was named after a Philip Morris factory on Great Marlborough Street, W1), neatly and expensively and serendipitously positioned as the vogue cigarette long before Vogue cigarettes became a thing. More than just a smoke, they were a pop icon, with their architectural logo, its letters crenelated like the Manhattan skyline, pack graphics designed in geometric, constructivist style by Frank Gianninoto.
Launched in the 1920s, advertising for Marlboro was originally based on the cigarettes’ “lady-like” filter tip (big tough men obviously preferring their smokes full strength and unfiltered). Marlboro’s cork filter had a printed red band around it to hide lipstick stains. “Beauty Tips to Keep the Paper from Your Lips” went the sales blurb.
The Marlboro Lights’ foggy hegemony and swanky social mobility was baffling and frustrating for its rivals, who spent just as much on sponsoring F1 teams as they did but couldn’t quite get in the game. Indeed, so all-asphyxiating was the great American smoke in the Big Smoke during the last millennium that other brands were forced into guerilla marketing tactics in order to stay competitive.
At Oliver Peyton’s wildly fashionable Atlantic Bar and Grill in Piccadilly, cigarette girls would walk the floors brandishing trays of Camel Lights. If they spotted some hipster inhaler — Bono or Helena Christensen — with a pack of Marlboro Lights next to their Cosmopolitan cocktail, a Camel cutie would insert herself and offer a whole pack — gratis — so long as the celebrity smoker stubbed out his or her Marlboro Light and sparked up a Camel instead. It didn’t work. Marlboro Lights carried on being the default-setting smoke for bad-boy actors and 3am-eternal fashion mannequins; girls who lit boys who lit girls who lit boys, as the Blur song goes (nearly).
How much was Philip Morris paying Kate for this incredible PR? Zip. Zero pounds
But it was getting the supermodels on board that was Marlboro’s greatest, accidental coup. All the big girls knew that a pack of Marlboro Lights a day kept the hunger at bay. Especially when paired with copious sea breezes and the company of a lizardly rock star.
And then there was Kate Moss, perhaps the greatest smoker of all time. During the 1990s, Kate was said to be raking in around $10 million a year from contracts with Burberry, Chanel, Calvin Klein and more. But her most loyal and gilded partnership was surely with the Marlboro Lights flip-top pack, which she promoted with reliable and casually professional zeal. Pretty much every night, for around 20 years.
How much was Philip Morris paying Kate for this incredible PR? Zip. Zero pounds. Kate was Marlboro’s coolest and sexiest brand ambassador— and she did it for free. For the love of the warm glow of the yellow flame ignition, the long, noirish drag, the fuggy blast of sweetly noxious, bluey-grey cloud.
And now? Time for Kate — and the rest of us — to prepare for a world without the Marlboro Golds. Either that, or move to the developing world. No plans, so far, to stop selling the cancer sticks there.
Simon Mills is a contributing editor to Esquire. This piece appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Esquire UK.
An acquaintance asked me recently if I ever worried about getting another boyfriend. Surely, he said, my job would put potential suitors off? Later on, I tried to think of another trade men might say this about, and could only come up with sex work. I am not a sex worker, though I have something in common with escorts and cam girls. I too am engaged in the business of selling myself.
I am a writer who writes mostly about her own life. I sometimes pitch ideas about other subjects, but they rarely get picked up. In the past year, I have written nine articles. Seven of these could be classed as memoir. Three were about ex-boyfriends; relationships relayed in less than glowing terms. The men were disguised, though not so well that they wouldn’t recognise themselves.
This is another question that comes up a lot, when you write memoir: What happens if a man spots himself in your work? The answer is nothing, most of the time. Despite the fact we have some of the most stringent libel laws in the world, you have to be very rich, or inoperably maligned, to bring suit. If someone is telling the truth, you can’t sue for defamation; you’d have to try for invasion of privacy. And provided the writer has made an attempt to obfuscate your identity, that’s fairly hard to prove.
I can’t say when, exactly, it became my job, to write bitter essays about men
The ethics are less clear-cut. Unless you’re writing about your time as an anchorite, other people are going to feature in the story. As with most things, it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission. People generally fall into one of two camps: those who love being written about and think the whole thing is a terrific wheeze, irrespective of what you actually say, and those who are horrified by the idea, and will consider even the most carefully rendered portrait to be a violation. There’s nothing you can do to please this second camp, short of leaving them off the page. I suppose you could always deploy that flimsy but time-honoured excuse: I was just doing my job.
I can’t say when, exactly, it became my job, to write bitter essays about men. Some time after my bitter memoir was published. The book was about an ill-fated affair I had with a married offshore worker. It contained the ghostly imprint of another book, the book it was meant to be: a piece of straight reportage about oil rigs. No one came out of it well: not me, or him, or the other men, or the oil industry itself.
Yet the only person who objected was a woman: my ex-boyfriend’s wife. Long before the book was published, she wrote to my editor, concerned I might smear her husband’s good name. When my editor asked me what I thought we should do, I suggested a tactic I’ve used all my life. You might say it’s the very principle b ywhich my existence is organised. It’s called: Let’s put our heads under the duvet, and hope it goes away. Curiously, my editor took my advice. More surprising still: it held good. Nothing came of it. The book enjoyed modest success. I got offers of other work. Over time, a new connection was soldered in my brain. Psychic pain means money.
The industry has an endless appetite for female self-disclosure. To the point that I no longer think of my life as a series of chapters, but as discrete episodes that can be turned into features and monetised. Editors like personal essays because they’re quick to turn around, compared with other types of journalism. There’s no research to undertake, no interviews to conduct, no travel to expense, no PRs to win over.
I tend to hoard certain conversations, noting the stupidest and most insulting things people say
Writers like them because they’re pretty straightforward to do. You just need to sit down at your desk, disinter some buried grievance, and transcribe it. When I was struggling with my book I often used to wonder if writing a novel wouldn’t be easier. Now I am writing a novel, I can say, with complete certainty, it is not. Of course, I already have a title in mind for the essay I will pitch, should I decide fiction is not my forte and junk the project altogether (“Couldn’t Make It Up”).
Admittedly, the work has left me with some weird habits. I tend to hoard certain conversations, making notes of the stupidest and most insulting things people say. If I have a fight with a man, I’ll write it up, while it’s still fresh in my mind. And I’m more sanguine about breakups, because part of me will be thinking: “Good. I can go off and convert this experience into cash now.” I’m not quite at Liz Jones’s level (yet). Her tales of marital woe and unhinged spending once made her one of the best-paid columnists on Fleet Street, but she said the job warped her behaviour. She used to find herself picking fights so she'd have material for her next piece. This is Nora Ephron's mandate, pushed to its furthest logical limit. If you truly believe that everything is copy, and allow these magpie instincts to rove unchecked, then pretty soon, your whole life will be plotted per the vectors of the market place. The more money you earn, the more convinced you'll be there was no other course.
As to whether it puts prospective boyfriends off, it's very hard to call. Men don't get in touch to tell you they're not going to ask you out, then list their reasons why. A more reliable metric might be to audit your old relationships, and see how often the issue came up. When my last boyfriend and I argued, he used to say I didn't care enough to write about him, which suggests that, far from being scared off, he quite fancied the role of muse. Personally, I think this is an insane complaint. But then, I would never want to go out with a writer. They might promise to respect your privacy while you're together. They very rarely honour that agreement in the end.
Tabitha Lasley is the author of the memoir Sea State. This piece appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Esquire UK.
Originally published on Esquire UK