The Dissolution of Civil Society

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?

About Frank Davis

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4 Responses to The Dissolution of Civil Society

  1. Anonymous says:

    Frank, I can honestly say that the two years since the ban came in have been the most depressing of my life, and virtually nothing has gone right for me. I fell out with my work colleagues very shortly after 1/7/2007, when we went to the nearby pub for a lunchtime drink.
    I immediately said how much I hated the ban and how ridiculous it was, only to get howled down with comments about “selfish smokers”. I tried to point out that the evidence for passive smoking was considerably thinner than they had been led to believe, at which they roared with laughter, mentioned Roy Castle and put forward the stupid anti-smokers’ theory that so-called “sidestream smoke” is even more dangerous than the smoke that the smoker inhale (unless they smoke through a mask, every smoker is breathing in that same “sidestream” smoke in much greater quantities than non-smokers all the time).
    Anyway, I ended up getting really angry, which they enjoyed, and they constantly teased me after that about my militant stance. One even found my name on an online petition where I stated that the ban was “destroying our traditional pub culture” – he referred to it in an email to me as “an amusing rant” (that was some time ago – funnily enough he hasn’t mentioned pub closures much recently).
    From having been very friendly with most of them until 1/7/2007, I came to dislike them more and more and it affected my attitude to work and, eventually, my work itself. At the same time, the smoking ban had an effect on our firm’s revenue (I work in a branch of the entertainment industry), so they have starting looking at cutting the staff levels. As a result of both of these things, I’ll probably lose my job before the year’s out – and the smoking ban has had an awful lot to do with it.
    Sorry for the ramble – most people would probably find what I’ve said to be ridiculous, but that’s been my own experience. As for pubs, I still go to them (with my non-smoking partner), but far less often, and only to those places where everybody, including the landlord and bar staff, are smokers, and everyone feels the same about this stupid ban.
    Just one last point: there is indeed widespread apathy and/or complacency about the situation, but that’s partly due to the almost complete media blackout on any negative news about the ban, accompanied by ever-growing scare stories about first- , second- and third-hand smoking. I know one particular case where a hospitality company put its falling profits down to the recession, changing social habits, cheap supermarket drink and the smoking ban – by the time the story appeared in the Guardian business news section, the smoking ban had disappeared from the list…

  2. Frank Davis says:

    Sorry for the ramble
    You have nothing to apologise for. Instead, I’d like to thank you for your comment.
    most people would probably find what I’ve said to be ridiculous
    Who cares what most people think?
    You raise a number of good points. It’s a mystery to me why Roy Castle carries such weight. I suppose it’s because he was a celebrity, and he ascribed his lung cancer to working in smoky clubs all his life. So why didn’t all the other stand-up comedians die of lung cancer?
    Most everyday anti-smokers know next to nothing about smoking or passive smoking. They’ve simply gradually absorbed poisonous ideas that have been peddled for 50 years and more. They are themselves the victims of a hideous kind of cancer.
    the almost complete media blackout
    That’s another remarkable and mysterious thing. The smoking ban gutted a traditional British culture, but the media did not report or discuss the atrocity.
    My own response has been to not bother buying a digital TV set. Why should I pay for that, and a TV licence, to watch TV channels that completely ignore seismic events like the smoking ban? I’m sick of it.
    I’ve barely been writing this blog for a week, and yet already I’ve had comments enough to use to write 3 or 4 additional posts. Amazing really.
    Thank you again.

  3. Anonymous says:

    My pleasure, Frank. There are plenty of us out here, and we all feel the same. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of smokers who don’t have access to the Internet and don’t get a chance to have their say. When people say (as they do), “What’s so difficult about popping outside?” I think of the old guy I saw in a Croydon pub last November who had to push his wheelchair out into the rain and cold simply to enjoy a cigarette – like everybody had been able to do indoors until this pernicious ban came in.

  4. Frank Davis says:

    I didn’t get anywhere near setting out my full experience in my post above. It’s what’s happening to the oldest people that infuriates me most.
    I know one man of 75, a smoker, and life and soul of the party, who used to regularly meet up with friends at pubs, but has largely stopped doing so now. “I’m too old to stand outside,” he told me.
    The same man used to meet up with other friends of his at a cafe, to talk and have a laugh. That’s stopped too.
    And this must be happening all over Britain. Networks of friends, built up over decades, being torn apart.
    It’s a crime. It’s a terrible, terrible crime.

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