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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. 

Only in designated areas: outdoor smokers in Melbourne, which may soon go completely smoke-free. Photo: Getty
Only in designated areas: outdoor smokers in Melbourne, which may soon go completely smoke-free. Photo: Getty

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