It’s been the best English summer for a long time. And it’s reminded me of an event that took place a little over 9 years ago.
It was July 2005, and I’d been invited to an old friend’s 60th birthday bash in Somerset. I was living in Devon at the time, and so I drove there in the beat-up Metro I owned back then, picking up another old friend at a railway station en route.
We arrived early in the afternoon at what once would have been somebody’s large country house a century earlier, picked up some drinks and wandered out onto a very large lawn, surrounded by trees, on the far side of which there stood a little open pergola or pavilion. It was a delicious English summer day, and I wandered among the guests, meeting many old friends I hadn’t seen in years.
I can’t remember when I was first told that smoking wasn’t allowed in the house, and that I very definitely wasn’t allowed to smoke in the bedroom I was to share with the friend I’d collected. But it was only when I arrived that I learned that the pergola was the only place that smoking was permitted. You couldn’t just step outside: you had to walk the 100+ yards to the pergola.
Anyway, the afternoon passed off happily enough in a crowd of people standing on the lawn. A competent rock band played on a stage beside the lawn.
And then, after the sun had set, everyone drifted back inside the house, to grab food and drink from a buffet, and to continue talking.
Back in 2005, a smoking ban was a distant (and in my view, unlikely) prospect. It wasn’t something I’d thought much about, although I knew that the head doctor of the BMA had called for one. And so the indoor non-smoking party was the first I’d ever attended.
And I found it rather strange and disconcerting. There was something unreal about it all. There were familiar faces all around me, and there was a din of conversation, but everything was too bright and too clear, because there was no smoke in the air. And the fact that smoking had been banned lent an air of artificiality to it all (even though there weren’t any No Smoking signs that I remember).
Eventually, although there was music and conversation and laughter and familiar faces, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, and slightly oppressed. So I grabbed a drink and a plate of food, and headed off out to the pergola.
When I got there, I found a strange scene. There were already 20 or 30 people sitting on chairs in and around the pergola. They included all the members of the rock band that had been playing earlier. And they were all sitting in almost complete silence in the darkness, gazing into the distance, as if lost in thought. Periodically, one of them would go back to the house to refill their glass, and then return to the silent pergola.
I did the same. For I sat the entire evening out by the pergola, silently smoking and drinking, occasionally going back inside just to get another drink.
The non-smoking hostess whose birthday it was never came out to see her guests sat out by the pergola. Neither did the non-smoking friend who I’d collected from the station.
Eventually, as the party wound down, I returned inside, found my assigned bedroom, climbed into bed, and fell asleep.
In the morning, after a non-smoking breakfast (and another return to the pergola), I took my friend back to the station from which I’d collected her, where we parted very amicably, and I drove back to Devon.
In retrospect, I can see that it was my first experience of being “exiled to the outdoors.” But it was also my first experience of the tremendous divisiveness of smoking bans, with the majority of non-smokers chatting noisily indoors, completely oblivious to the silent, excluded minority of smokers outside. For the fact that the pergola was the only permitted smoking area had meant that all the smokers congregated there, and served to emphasize the degree of the division that had taken place.
And also in retrospect, the experience of that night had the character of a portent or premonition of what was coming, and how a sunny and friendly English summer afternoon would be followed by a darkness of deepening exclusion and division. And all played out, like a Shakespearean play, in a single afternoon and evening, years before the event that it prefigured.