Only in designated areas: outdoor smokers in Melbourne, which may soon go completely smoke-free. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: I don't decry the smoking ban but I do miss smoke

Smoke draped a decent veil across interior vulgarities, while softening our loved ones’ hateful features. Designated smoking areas are an abomination. 

Books do indeed furnish a room – but tobacco smoke gives it volume, substance and an aroma. The decline in smoking has important consequences for our perception of space and place. When I was a young man I’d meet my father at his club, the Reform in Pall Mall, and we’d sit on the balcony smoking cigars and blowing long, pungent plumes into the cloistral atmosphere of the main hall. The calibration of lung capacity with exhalation length was, I think, akin to the automatic calculation we make in order to focus on objects; by means of it I related my own internal airspace to these much larger external volumes. If you like, smoking in a space is a physical version of the Cartesian cogito: I fill this with smoke, therefore I am in it. Another way of considering the matter is to observe that, by puffing away in a room, we remake it in the image of Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures: the smoke flows into all the fiddly little interstices and creates an evanescent – but for all that, real – cast of what is forever not.

I have no axe to grind about the ban on smoking in public places, nor do I resist the shift in social mores that nowadays makes it, oftentimes, a solecism to light up in a private home. Nonetheless I miss smoke; it draped a decent veil across interior vulgarities, while softening our loved ones’ hateful features. Moreover, it was something to look at: its chiffon convolutions and tulle thunderheads made perfectly dull places seem excitingly mysterious. I don’t think the NHS’s smoking cessation schemes make enough of this: what we smokers need to help us kick this obnoxious addiction is a portable son et lumière, not a packet of nicotine gum. Nicotine gum is in fact the spatial inversion of smoking: the gum-chewer, instead of looking out, as the smoker does, on a roiling boiling atmosphere, has his attention driven entirely inward to a dark and claustrophobic space where giant teeth clash and clash again.

One of the first things we all noticed when the smoking ban came in was how many smokers came out: almost overnight the streets were full of hurrying puffers, striding along, filling their necrotic lungs with toxins even as they exercised their way to the next rendezvous. Indeed, the thoroughfares of British cities can now be seen purely in terms of al fresco tobacco consumption, no office building, restaurant or pub being without its little gaggle of vampiric starvelings, huddled in the downdraft and sucking up their bloody habituation.

I wish that the exiled became more attuned to the built environment; after all, standing beside wheelie bins, or near delivery entrances, or under the warm air from ventilation ducts, they’re in a perfect position to consider the relations between form, function and finance that define the modern cityscape. But I’m afraid this simply doesn’t happen: going out for a fag is a duty and a chore; the smoker tries to imagine herself as some houri, reclining on cushions in a seraglio of the mind and breathing out perfumed smoke from her chibouk, yet she knows only too well that the reality is a low-tar Silk Cut sucked down in the loading bay.

I avoid al fresco smoking, whether walking or static. It’s a miserable business – and never more miserable than when the contagion is confined to a demarcated area, or even a booth. Is there any more disgusting or morally Stygian realm than one of those glassed-in airport cubicles where smokers congregate? The acrid stench, the nervous and lippy perseveration, the heavy atmosphere of shame – all these make such “zones” and “areas” quite insupportable. In the US, when the first public bans came in, some proprietors actually erected glass-walled rooms inside their restaurants. I remember eating at a seafood joint near Times Square and having the distinct sensation that I was a sort of lobster, floating in a tank full of smoke, and that if I remained in there long enough one of the other diners would point to me, then I’d be flung in a pot full of boiling water.

In Britain we’ve never applied much design ingenuity to the problem. Some establishments will have a few space heaters outside, and maybe a demi-pavilion to keep off the rain. Elsewhere they’re more inventive – I’ve been to quite a few Dublin restaurants that have had entire adjoining pseudo-rooms constructed, in the form of carpeted marquees equipped with their own tables, chairs and heaters, where people can smoke quite happily so long as they ignore one thing: that the space they inhabit possesses its unique characteristics purely because of their own weakness. It won’t surprise you to learn that I find these spatial compromises quite as irksome as going without.

“Poor Old Fred Smoked in Bed”, was the slogan on novelty ashtrays when I was a boy – painted across the headstone-cum-headboard beneath which reposed poor Fred’s annealed and besmirched skeleton. Needless to say, as the noose of prohibition has tightened around my oesophagus, I, too, have taken to smoking in bed. I lie there, funnelling my blue spume up at the ceiling, acutely aware of how all things must pass eventually, though I will probably quit the stage rather more expeditiously.

To die in one’s own bed, whatever the cause, is accorded a blessing. It’s dying in a designated smoking area that would be the real tragedy.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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