My local smoke-easy

Word of mouth suggests there are places all over the city where the management is taking chances wit

The smell was the first thing that struck me when I paid my first visit to the small pub in Peckham. "That's funny," I said to my flatmate, wrinkling my nose, "it's been months since the smoking ban." It was an unlikely location for us to be meeting friends for a noize rock gig - so unlikely that we walked past it twice.

But to my surprise, the crew of regulars ("If anyone takes my seat, I'll kill him," snarled one, convincingly, as he went to the bar) was far outnumbered by twenty- and thirtysomethings in skinny jeans and overwrought haircuts.

We sipped our drinks and waited. And then the barman motioned for us to go into the room where the band was going to play. It was dark and windowless and had very poor ventilation. And it had something I hadn't seen in a pub since last June: ashtrays.

"It's the last smoking pub in London," people stage-whispered. Within seconds, everyone was lighting up: grinning, chain-smoking and sharing cigarettes with immense generosity. The fiftyish barman observed the debauchery with a benevolent, patronising smile: the party had a rebellious euphoria you'd probably have found in the Prohibition era, when Americans brewed gin in bathtubs.

This is the essence of the smoke-easy, where the air is heavy with not only the haze of cigarettes, but also a collective naughty thrill. Now that there's a paternalistic edict against it, having a smoke in the pub is edgy.

It isn't really the last smoking pub in London. There are no statistics, but word of mouth suggests there are places all over the city where the management is taking chances with the law. If customers can't smoke, after all, they'll drink at home, as demonstrated by the dip in sales reported by company-owned pubs at the beginning of 2008.

I returned to my local smoke-easy in early February, a couple of days after the papers crowed with the news of the first couple of pub landlords - and drinkers - to be punished for permitting their patrons to carry on smoking indoors. "This was not about smoking, it was about people's rights," the London Evening Standard quoted a Bolton landlord, Nick Hogan, saying after he was fined £3,000 plus £7,000 costs for failing, according to the court, to "take reasonable steps to cause persons smoking to stop".

There was no gig this time, but the hipster crowd again dominated the dirty banquettes, drinking pints and playing chess. Everyone was trooping outside to smoke, however. Maybe the landlord had changed his mind.

One of our friends feigned innocence and requested an ashtray - maybe, we figured, you had to ask. "You can't smoke indoors in England," the landlord snapped, hearing his American accent. "Go outside."

But half an hour later the same man strolled over to our table and placed an ashtray in the centre most hospitably: after 11 o'clock, the smoke-easy is open again.

"Isn't this illegal?" I asked, when I went to buy a round. The landlord and barman demurred. "Not after the doors are closed," the landlord said positively. Then he paused. "But don't tell anyone."

What would happen if someone called the local police? I wondered. I suspect that the overstretched cops in this crime-ridden area might have more important rules to enforce.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty