Fuming mad in New York

Some thoughts on smoking as the outdoor ban is extended in New York to beaches and parks.

One evening in November 1492, as the wintry chill descended on a stretch of North American coastline, Christopher Columbus welcomed back two exhausted crewmen aboard his ship, the Santa Maria. Luis de Torres and Rodrigo de Jerrez had been sent ahead months earlier on a fool's errand: to search for China in the deep forests of Cuba. On their journeys, the Spanish scouts had witnessed natives "drinking" the smoke emanating from the end of "a musket formed of paper". De Jerrez had been curious enough to partake in this obscure ritual and, in doing so, became the first European to light up, cough and insist to sceptical friends that it was a pleasurable experience, honest. When he returned to his coastal home town of Ayamonte, he was swiftly sent to jail by the Spanish Inquisition; witnesses were so alarmed by the satanic clouds billowing from the corners of his mouth that a seven-year sentence was deemed necessary.

So began the white western world's troubled relationship with the nicotiana tabacum, bane of health-care professionals and tutting parents who insist upon sunning their children in the beer garden of the Prince George on Saturday afternoons (despite knowing that it is commonly used as a smoking area, as the stacked ashtrays suggest). In the Beatles song "I'm So Tired", John Lennon places the blame for cigarette addiction on Queen Elizabeth's goombah, Sir Walter Raleigh, who is dismissed as a "stupid get". It is, however, a curse that has deeper roots in America than in Britain.

Europeans may have "discovered" (or claimed) it when they "discovered" (or wreaked genocidal havoc on) the New World but the practice can be traced back as far as 5000BC, when it was used as part of ritual practices by ancient civilisations across North and South America. The plant has existed in its present form for millions of years: the oldest fossilised specimen, which dates back to the Pleistocene era, was unearthed in the Maranon river basin in north-eastern Peru last year.

The arguments against the evil habit are powerful and largely correct -- in November, a World Health Organisation study found that 600,000 deaths are caused each year by passive smoking, of which 167,000 are children under the age of 15. Smoking reduces your life expectancy by eight to ten years; each puff of smoke contains 60 substances known to cause cancer. More than five million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses, which, in Britain alone, cost £5bn in public spending -- about 6 per cent of the total NHS budget.

This week, councillors in New York State approved an extension of its public-smoking restrictions, prohibiting the yellow of tooth from puffing away on beaches, in parks and even in Times Square. In March 2003, the state introduced its controversial ban in the city's 20,000 bars, clubs and and restaurants, overcoming resistance from anxious bar owners and the 1.3 million local smokers for whom they catered. Yet this latest extension of the law, passed by 36 votes to 12, seems to me to be an excessive move that will only encourage the anti-ban lobby.

According to the BBC, the new rules make it "an offence to smoke in any of the city's 1,700 parks and along 14 miles of coastline". The passive-smoking argument wielded so convincingly in 2003 cannot be applied to outdoor spaces; this gives the impression that the extension is driven by cosmetic, rather than health, concerns. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, after the vote, "This summer, New Yorkers who go to our parks and beaches for some fresh air and fun will be able to breathe even cleaner air and sit on a beach not littered with cigarette butts." If litter is the problem, surely strengthening litter laws should be enough? Smokers have rights and should be allowed to damage themselves if they want to: the state shouldn't be given more powers over people engaging in legal activities that harm no one but themselves.

The western history of ciggies started with de Jerrez's persecution. In this light, perhaps this invasive development isn't so surprising. Now, off for a smoke...

 

PS. Apologies for the Daily Mail-esque headline.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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