I sketched out in my previous post the impact upon me of the smoking ban at the my local pub. Previously a daily visitor, I now always sat outside. And then only on warm, sunny days. And sitting outside I ceased to belong to the little pub community inside.
It’s hard for me to judge how the ‘indoor’ pub community fared, because I wasn’t there to witness it. But from the few reports I heard, what had been a vibrant little social hub had more or less imploded. It’s not hard to imagine how that happened. Smokers like me simply ceased to go to the pub. Others went less often, or didn’t stay as long. And as the smokers vanished, the non-smokers probably began to wonder what was the point of driving several miles to enjoy an expensive pint of beer in solitude, when they could do the same at home far more cheaply.
But this probably didn’t affect the River’s profits too much, because it had long since become a pub-restaurant, with a good clientele of families or elderly couples who came for lunch or evening dinner. These were people who had probably originally been attracted to pubs by their cheery, welcoming ambience – so different from quiet, formal restaurants -. Now the River had become, on the inside, more or less a restaurant. There was hardly a young man’s face to be seen inside at lunchtimes, with table after table with elderly people quietly eating, and no laughter and banter coming from the bar, and no music playing on the juke box.
For me, however, exile from the River was only the beginning of a gathering social firestorm.
Although I hardly knew anyone in Devon, I knew fellow-smoker J pretty well, and we’d used to meet up quite often to play pool at one pub or other. In the past, these meetings had taken place in fairly crowded pubs. After the ban, the pubs were always near-deserted, and the games of pool were interrupted by smoking breaks outside. J didn’t like the ban any more than I did. In the end she suggested that I come round to her place, where we could drink and smoke to our hearts’ content. Except that J had a rather jealous boyfriend. So the evenings at her home turned out to be few and far between. We began to drift apart.
But there was another reason for the growing distance between me and J. And this was that J belonged to the "There’s nothing that can be done" school of smokers. Her attitude to the ban was one of resignation. And my attitude was one of anger. I used to tell her that she could do something: she could write to her MP. But she wouldn’t even begin to contemplate this. Her jealous boyfriend belonged to the same resigned tendency as her – with the difference that he’d get angry with me for daring to suggest that there was something that he or she could do about it. In this manner, we smokers began to fall out among ourselves.
I’d left life in a city to come to Devon, and I still had quite a few friends there. They were mostly friends that I’d used to meet with at one or other city pub. The smoking ban now began to exert its baleful influence upon this network of friendships also.
For I now began to divide my friends into smokers and non-smokers and anti-smokers – something I’d never done before. Over the years some of the non-smokers had metamorphosed into antismokers who banned smoking in their homes, and in these cases the pubs had become neutral ground on which to meet. Although in a few cases they’d taken to refusing to go to pubs because they were "too smoky". In these latter case there was no neutral ground, and meetings with them had already become less frequent. But now there was no neutral ground anywhere. I’d used to not much enjoy visiting the non-smokers in their homes, but now their non-smoking homes had expanded to include the pubs.
While all the smokers I knew uniformly hated the smoking ban, and had a variety of different responses to it, for most of the non-smokers the ban was a non-event. They hadn’t really noticed it. For the most part, when asked about it, they usually said that they agreed with the ban. But while for me the ban had been an earthquake signalling my precipitous exile from my pub community, for them it was not some sort of converse joyous repatriation. It was just a slight improvement.
We had begun to inhabit different worlds. In their world, life had continued unaltered by the smoking ban. But my life had been turned horribly and nightmarishly upside-down. And it was not just that we no longer had a shared neutral ground on which to meet, but that we also no longer had a shared reality in which we both lived.
And if I ever tried to explain to them, as I sometimes did, the impact of the ban on my life, they would listen to me patiently and blankly. And the usual signal that they had not understood would come an hour or a day later, when they would say to me, "We really must meet up and have a drink sometime!" Either that, or they’d become irritable, and tell me I was making a mountain out of a molehill.
This indifference wasn’t universal, however. At a party where the smokers were (as ever) standing outside, a couple of non-smoker friends came out to join us.
"What brings you here?" I asked.
"We’ve come to demonstrate solidarity with the smokers," one said.
"And I enjoy passive smoking," said the other.
Such sympathy was fairly unusual. Indifference was the norm. And sometimes there was outright hostility. I spent one evening talking to T, whom I’d known for over 20 years. He strongly approved of the ban. After listening to me a while as I complained about the ban, he declared:"It was what I wanted!" He was perfectly indifferent to what happened to smokers, now he’d got his way. All of which meant that he was indifferent what happened to me.
And sometimes the fracture was explosive. L had been a friend for 35 years or more. We’d gone on holiday together several times. We’d last met a year or two before the ban, delighted to see each other again. I’d never paid much attention to the work she did, which had something to do with public health. But after I’d sent her a letter complaining about the smoking ban, she’d replied to inform me that she worked in Smoking Cessation Research, and had done so for 25 years. This was a bit like discovering that a dearly beloved old friend was an Obersturmbannführer in the SS. While L had been my cheerful friend all these years, she’d been quietly working to ‘denormalise’ smokers like me. Nevertheless it took me a whole year of agonising before I said goodbye to L .
These various events (and more) did not happen all at once. They unfolded over many months, one by one. But it gradually became clear to me that, in the wake of the smoking ban, the entire fabric of all my friendships was being torn apart. Divisions of one sort had grown up between myself and almost everyone I knew. It was something I had not foreseen. And yet it had a seemingly inexorable logic to it – an accelerating chain reaction of cause and effect.
Now, of course, anyone reading all this might say, "You belong to a tiny minority, Frank. Those non-smoking friends of yours had a far better grip on reality than you do. The smoking ban really was a non-event, and it’s about time you moved on, and woke up and smelled the coffee, and got with the programme."
And anyone may be right. Maybe it was just me who took this so badly. But what if my experience is actually one that is shared by hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of people across Britain? What if I’m actually just articulating (so horribly inarticulately) a little bit of the experience of a quarter of the population of Britain?
Because if I am, then the whole fabric of society across Britain is in process of accelerating dissolution, as the ties that once bound people together into communities are everywhere snapping and sundering. To the idealistic anti-smoking legislators, the smoking ban probably looked like it pulled the plug on a minor circuit in the national grid of personal interconnection. But what if they’d unwittingly switched the whole damn thing off? What if we are now seeing a civil society slowly and completely fragment?
I see you shrug disbelievingly.. Your rolling eyeballs declare that such things don’t happen and can’t happen.
But are you sure? Perfectly sure?