Blowing Smoke

31 03 2009

[You can listen to this episode here.]

The first time I ever smoked a cigarette there was an almost audible collision of clichés. It was behind the Cricket Pavilion at school. We’d just left the sixth-form dining club, where we’d been listening to Admiral the Lord Boyce encourage us to consider the military as a career. Slightly the worse for drink, and sporting ineptly knotted bow-ties it was decided that a quick cigarette would make us even more grown than we already reckoned ourselves to be.


Well, in the short time since then – some four, maybe even five years – there has been a noticeable change in the attitude towards smoking. We’re told that long ago it was socially acceptable to drink and drive. Today such an activity is ranked with pulling the legs off spiders and tripping up old people. It’s just not on.


Well, it seems smoking is going the same way. Us smokers – I am by no means a regular, but when writing a dissertation it does help to provide an excuse for a break every now and again – we have now been banned from practising our dark arts within public spaces and have been relegated to the street. Just a few days ago a woman crossed the street from me so that she didn’t have to inhale even the slightest pollution emanating from my cigarette. Don’t get me wrong – this is all most definitely good stuff: Smoking is bad for you.


I am not in the business of denying the undeniable mountain of evidence that tells us this. Smoking is bad for you. Smoking is remarkably likely to give you cancer. Smoking will definitely make you less fit. Smoking will make you smell of smoke. All this I grant you. Even if I found some fancy argument to defeat all the scientific proof, you would still know from your own experience – either as a smoker yourself, or as somebody who’s been near a smoker – you would still know that there is no rational case for anybody to smoke.



The world will undoubtedly be a better place when, in just a few years from now, there aren’t any smokers left at all. But when it has gone – not just the fag ends on the street corner, but the whole culture of smoking – I think that we will miss it just a little bit. The world will be a slightly less romantic place.


It’s not scientific, but we cannot deny that sometimes there is just something inherently cool – something sexy – about smoking a cigarette. Would Audrey Hepburn’s iconic photograph be quite as alluring if she were holding a breadstick? Would James Dean, leaning against the wall – rebel without a cause – be quite so attractively rebellious were he sucking on a Haribo starmix?


Earlier this week I was at a house party. Our hosts very generously allowed smokers to exercise their filthy habit inside. The next morning my clothes stank of smoke, and I’m sure their house did. But, for now, let’s put that aside.


Somehow the smoke made the whole place a more exciting place to be. For whatever reason, it was acceptable to have a conversation about the true purpose of art. One couple managed, to the tremendous enjoyment of the rest of us, to take off an astonishing portion of their clothes in the course of their encounter. I simply can’t believe it would have been the same party without the smoke.


The same goes for pubs. How many have we been into since the ban on smoking in public places that feel dead, cold, empty? Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps the smoke was hiding the fact that we were drinking in what were actually very dull places. Nevertheless, it’s not quite the same.


Of course not all smokers pull it off – your average teeth-stained, lank-haired, gravelly-voiced drunkard isn’t the most convincing evidence for my case, here. And they probably make up the majority of smokers. Nevertheless, we’re all striving towards an image of some sort, I suppose.


Then we come to what I believe to be the most attractive aspect of smoking – it is a very sociable habit. Or at least it is at the moment. One of the finer symptoms of the smoking ban was that all smokers were squeezed out the main arena and into one concentrated group. Sometimes this is simply the street, while other times there is a dedicated smoking area kitted out with the latest in patio-heating technology – presumably just to make sure smokers are condemned by the green lobby as well.


As with any persecuted group, bonds are formed and some the best friendships I’ve ever made have been formed over the loan of a lighter. Well, that’s a lie. Actually, they tend to be fairly fleeting liaisons – about the six or seven minutes needed to light and smoke a cigarette. But they lack nothing in intensity. For those few minutes you really are the best of friends.


And of course how often is it, on a night out to whichever student dive the weekly schedule appoints, that you get to have a few moments’ peace, and a decent chat to somebody.


Now none of these, I know, are convincing enough to justify a smokers’ habit but I would ask that when you next bump into a smoker you take a few moments before you recoil in horror. By all means, chastise and scold. Even reward yourself with a smug smile of satisfaction that you are right – smoking is bad for you. But that never stopped anybody doing anything.


From here we have to make a quite triumphantly tenuous link. So bear with me – we’ll get there in the end. First we have to go to Rome, in particular the Sistine Chapel where, the election of a new pope is signified by blowing smoke of a particular colour up a chimney. Then that brings us back to London and the news that Catholics are to be allowed once again to marry into the Royal Family. Do you see what I did there?


It does seem remarkable that, just days before hosting one of the largest meetings of world leaders in recent years, designed to tackle the most serious financial crisis of a generation, the Prime Minister is happy spend his time talking about reforming the Monarchy and the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. But, I suppose it is his call and he must know what he’s doing.


For anybody not intimately familiar with the 1703 Act of Settlement, it is the piece of legislation that bans any Roman Catholic from sitting on the throne, or marrying somebody in line to the throne. The idea was to prevent the Pope from meddling in our affairs. Last week a Liberal Democrat MP (and somehow it just has to be a Liberal Democrat), put forward legislation to lift this ban.


In covering the story many journalists have made considerable efforts to make it relevant and dramatic. Either way, it seems, we are headed for constitutional disaster. Failure to act, and Prince William may well find himself a Catholic bride and inadvertently remove himself from the succession in favour of tabloid-favourite Prince Harry. Alternatively we change the law and run the risk of getting a Catholic Head of State. That would, of course, be disaster for the Church of England, which is headed up by the Queen.


So we end up in one of those entirely theoretical disaster situations where everybody gets terribly excited and insists that something must be done. Unfortunately nobody knows what to do. It’s a little bit like dealing with global financial crisis. The only difference is that the G20 meeting actually matters.


Good luck, Mr Brown.




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