Self-portrait without cigarette

Who on earth wants to know what a columnist looks like?

Two weeks into the redesign and I am still really not sure about this new byline picture. One does not want to get into any conflict with the management, but I was never keen on a photo in the first place - who on earth wants to know what a columnist looks like? We're shy, retiring people and whether we are beautiful or not, we all think we look like gargoyles. If we smile, we look like preening idiots; if we don't, we look like surly, spoilt children. Far better, surely, to have the faceless authority of a name?

As byline pictures gradually became inescapable - I blame Thatcher, for reasons too complex to go into here - few days would go by without my shrieking in disgust as the latest revelation of a columnist's plainness/ repulsiveness came shockingly into view. And there are some columnists for whom the removal of their byline photo would be a positive kindness. (I think it best not to name any names at this point. But I must say that if I were ------ -------, I'd have shot myself by now.)

The only picture of myself I have ever been vaguely happy with was my old one in this magazine, because although, like every other official picture of me, it fails to capture what nigel molesworth called "yore strange unatural beauty", it was taken by my daughter. The vile image you see before you, as of someone who has discovered an unpleasant smell just under his nose, is what happens when a photographer - a nice, chatty, professional photographer, mind you - asks me to smile. Not good, eh? There's another photo of me on the NS website that my friend Kate from Perth says makes me look as though I'm two seconds away from saying, "Actually, that's a common misconception."

But if you eally wanted a picture of me that caught my essence (God, had I known it was going to be full-length, I would not have worn those Converse), you'd probably have to have one with a fag in my hand, or mouth. Or - why not? - both. If not in the company of smokers, I tend not to start until the evening, but then away we go.

Love, too, for some reason encourages lighting up, if the two lovers smoke. It becomes another thing they can do together and goes well with the accelerated endorphin rush of love. I know, I know - smoking is bad for you. So are certain emotional states, come to that. But I will persevere with it for a while, I think, not only because of aforementioned emotional states but because it fits in so nicely. I think it was Zoë Heller who said that drinking without smoking was too wet, and smoking without drinking was too dry; and if there is a better accompaniment to a pint than the burning leaves of Nicotiana, I'd like to hear about it.

After my trip to Paris, I have a bunch of French-bought cigarettes. The last of the filterless Gauloises has gone, the very smoke spiralling into the evening air like the ghost of a delirious dream of happiness. But I also have a stash of Craven "A"s - the ones with the Black Cat on them, also filterless, which you can't get here any more. But you can in France. They may have banned indoor smoking there, but they still have the right attitude, and you can smoke a last gasper right outside the door of your Eurostar carriage - right there on the platform - before it goes, without some officious little wowser fining you £1,000. Moreover, my packets warn me that "fumer peut entraîner une mort lente et douloureuse", and yes, I do know what that means, but it still sounds almost like it's a line from Baudelaire.

Smokers huddle outside

The summer encourages one to ramp up one's smoking, because outdoors is nice; as winter comes, it stops being so. Smoking being discouraged in the Hovel, we repair to the Duke and huddle outside under its orange heaters, which do not exactly warm you up but do seem slightly to prolong the time it takes to become completely frozen. They are more like strong light bulbs than anything else. If all the heaters are on at once, the fuses go and the whole pub is plunged into darkness, which is quite fun unless you are trying to work the till, I suppose.

Imagine then, if you will, a cig dangling from the lips of the person photographed here, defying reason, the precepts of good health, the advice of thousands. I don't give a damn.

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 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush