You’re not the boss of me

At my local pub, I am reminded that Britain is becoming
a vast public urinal monitored by cameras

An ethical poser: meeting Razors and Stefan the ex-barman at the Duke, I ask a couple of young women if they wouldn’t mind sharing their table with us. This is accepted protocol and, moreover, it is sunny, so everyone wants to sit outside. The women are pretty in that not entirely enticing we-read-every-issue-of-Vogue kind of way, and have those big fashionable sunglasses pushed on top of their heads (ladies: it makes you look like you have four eyeballs. Just so you know) and don’t look entirely thrilled to be joined by us, but we have no intention of pestering them.

Razors has kindly brought me some Lucky Strikes back from his holiday in Cuba. Manufactured cigarettes are a bit of a treat for me, and I intend to get stuck in to them. But as I take the packet out, the woman sitting diagonally opposite says: “Would you mind not smoking? I get asthma.”

There’s a great Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy bangs on Charlie Brown’s door during a rainstorm. “Sorry,” says Charlie Brown, “my mom won’t let you in because she doesn’t like the smell of wet dog.” There’s a silent frame as Snoopy looks indignantly at the door, and then he says to himself: “My mind reels with sarcastic replies!” Well, my mind reels with sarcastic replies at this point, too.

For a start, we are en plein air, which is, these days, the smoker’s fiefdom. We’re not allowed to smoke inside, you see. There are all these little signs telling us not to. (There are, absurdly, such signs at the entrances to the pedestrian underpass by Baker Street Station, and on some of the phone boxes nearby. Strangely, whenever I have broken the law by smoking in them, no one has objected.) Second, the idea that outdoor second-hand smoke, with the breeze blowing it away from you, can bring on an asthma attack is ludicrous. I should know: I have asthma, too. Third, the women aren’t eating or American or anything like that, and fourth, well, dammit, do I have to go on? This place is my local. You are as likely to find me there as you are in my own living room.

I begin to suspect that the woman is playing the health card not because she really does suffer from asthma, but because she just likes bossing people around. I know it is frightfully ungallant of me to say so, but there is such a type. I am, in fact, intimately familiar with it.

Anyway, I decide to meet her on her own ground, and tell her that I, too, suffer from asthma. (“Tell you what,” runs one of my unspoken sarcastic replies, “I’ll suck the smoke into my own lungs and keep it there as long as possible so it doesn’t bother you, OK?”) The look I receive, though, tells me that she is not exactly on the verge of either embracing me as a fellow sufferer or saying, “Oh, go on then, I was only messing you about.” So I say, “I’ll see how long I can hold out for,” which turns out to be about five minutes; I swap places with Stefan so the bossy woman can’t see me, as everyone knows second-hand smoke offends only if the smoker is in your line of vision.

But the episode does give me occasion to reflect on the way this country is heading. There’s a Derek and Clive routine where Peter Cook plays the part of a murderously drunk driver who, having been pulled over by the police, says the country is turning, in his vivid phraseology, into “a Gestapo khazi”. It really does seem to be becoming a vast public urinal monitored by cameras and, where there are no cameras, busybodies. The informer, the sneak, is very much encouraged by the powers that be. Look at all the confidential hotlines being advertised these days. And do people become community police officers, I wonder, because they feel a debt to society, or because they like shoving their noses into other people’s business? I imagine it is not entirely the former.

The thing to do is to make a stand. Taking the kids on the pedal boats at Regent’s Park the other day with my friend R–, we note on our return to shore a list of six extremely petty rules, five of which we have broken, and broken extravagantly. By getting our deposit back we seem, technically, to be breaking another one. The children, naturally, are delighted – it is important for their authority figure to look as though he is above the law. (I couldn’t break the no-smoking rule myself, because smoking in front of the children just isn’t worth the aggravation, but R– can do what she likes. And, as I can verify from over a quarter of a century’s friendship with her, she usually does).

Later on, Razors and I have one of those mindless but strangely pleasing bet-I’ve-broken-more-laws-than-you-have conversations. I win by a whisker, but I don’t think I’ll be going into details here. You never know who’s snooping around.

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 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom