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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.