I refuse to give up tobacco. Put that in your pipe and smoke it

I am still fuming, so to speak, with the news that the government intends to ban the display of cigarettes and tobacco from all shops by 2015.
It is, in a perverse way, reassuring to know the spivs, gangsters and poltroons (from Old Italian poltrone, a coward) running this country can irritate at the micro as well as the macro level. One can also imagine how successful this idea will be. In comes the nicotine addict, desperate for his or her fix. But there are no tobacco products to be seen! He or she thinks to him or herself: "Oh dear. I might as well give up."

Then again, in my youth the massed ranks of striking, sometimes classy cigarette packets did go some way to persuading me that smoking was desirable. But I wonder if treating cigarettes as pornography used to be - sold under the counter - might not make them seem more alluring. Proper tobacconists will now, absurdly, have to have frosted windows, like porno­graphers, which is surely an invitation to the imaginative shop designer. In a reverie, I consider opening a tobacconist's myself, with a storefront painted to look like a tin of Ogden's Nut-brown Flake. Of course, I am channelling Ezra Pound's 1916 poem "The Lake Isle":

O GOD, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxespiled up neatly upon the shelves . . .
. . . And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
where one needs one's brains all the time.

Younger readers will have to imagine what a tobacco-shop looks like, unless they happen to be in the neighbourhood of G Smith and Sons on Charing Cross Road. Fribourg and Treyer in the Haymarket went years ago, turned into a shop selling tourist tat; all three of Cambridge's tobacconists have gone, al­though the one opposite the Round Church hung on until relatively recently; it now sells sweets.

Sic transit gloria mundi, even the little ones. For solace I turn to Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkin's splendid work, The Cigarette Book: a Celebration and Companion (Quartet, 2009), in which you will learn, among many other things, that Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl (1604) features a tobacco-shop onstage, and that the cigarette lighter was co-invented by an engineer who had lost an arm in the First World War and found matches impossible.

My favourite datum, though, is from a study presented at the European Society of Cardiology in 2003, which found that 250ml of red wine countered the harm done to the arteries by each cigarette. Apparently you have to be drinking at the same time as you are smoking, which presents no problem. The authors calculate that a 40-a-day habit would entail drinking three bottles a day, "which, as anybody who has worked in the City or advertising in their heyday would acknowledge, is perfectly doable".

Penny drops in

I know, I know, it's bad for you. In some cases, very bad indeed. Please save both your time and mine by refraining from writing to remind me of this. But when loathsome people tell me to do something, my immediate inclination is to do the precise opposite. If David Cameron and his gargoyles told me to carry on, there is every likelihood that I would recoil from the habit. But something tells me this isn't going to happen. And while there is economic hardship - and something tells me this is going to be a persistent and increasingly pervasive condition - there will continue to be smokers.

Poor people smoke not only because the habit is a diversion from circumstance, but because it is also a minor act of rebellion; an indulgence, too, of the Freudian Thanatos. Saying to life, as it were: put that in your pipe and smoke it. And one thinks, too, of the cartoon showing two decrepit old men sitting in a ghastly retirement home, one of them saying to the other: "Just think, if we hadn't given up smoking, we'd have missed out on all this."

Meanwhile, there is momentous news from the Hovel. A third person will be joining myself and Emmanuelle: this magazine's very own Laurie Penny. How this will all go I cannot foretell, but she doesn't take up much space, so that's promising. She also smokes. Which I would like to think is one of the reasons she writes so well.


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 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world