I always knew I wasn’t going to like the smoking ban. But I was astonished at the ferocious intensity of what I felt when that day actually dawned.
I became angry. Incandescent. And I’ve stayed angry ever since. It’s an anger that waxes and wanes, but it’s anger that never goes away. It’s been a real eye-opener to feel such anger. For I used not to be someone who ever got angry very much. I used to be rather proud of my equanimity. But now all that just seems like past history, like some remembered idyllic holiday in Greece or some place long ago.
On the days when the rage comes boiling up like a dark sea fret, and the sun dims, and the sky turns a low and livid crimson, I relive the fantasy again.
There are three of us who rap at the door. There is a delay before it opens an inch, and a querulous voice asks plaintively, "Who’s there?" And with one kick, the door is wide open, and we step over the fallen housekeeper, and into the hallway of the house, moving past the antlered stag heads on the walls, the coats of arms, the gold-framed oil portraits.
We find him in his living room, standing in a grubby dressing gown, a cup of cocoa in his hand, looking a little startled by the din of our entry.
"Good afternoon," I say. "We won’t be staying long. Let us introduce ourselves to you."
"On your right, my very good friend, a smoker." I gesture with my left hand.
"On your left, another good friend, and another smoker." I indicate with my right.
"And myself, why… yet another fucking smoker."
I see his eyes begin to widen, and his mouth gulp open and closed.
"Look," he quavers. "I don’t know what you want. This is my property. It’s private property…"
"It’s public property now," I rasp, "And it is a public house," as his hands are grabbed and tied behind him.
"It was a necessary thing to do," he burbles. "I had a duty. A duty to save lives. It was a long time ago… I’m a doctor…." His voice trails away.
"Shut up," I snarl, as strong hands bundle him towards the door, through the French windows and the flower-scented conservatory into the garden outside, and beneath the spreading branches of the apple tree.
I slip the rope around his neck, beneath his quaking dewlaps, and toss the other end over a branch above.
And as his mouth works, gagging open, I ram a large Havana cigar into it, and light it.
"Think of it as a premature, smoking-related death," I say.
And then with a grunt, Sir Liam Donaldson is swinging a foot above the ground, to and fro, his legs kicking.
Over these Devon hills, five centuries ago, irate Cornishmen marched with pitchforks up the London road. The English crown of Edward VI had forced upon them the new-fangled Book of Common Prayer to replace their familiar Latin Catholic rites. With this one act, the English crown had reached deep into the holiest places of their hearts, with a law intended to make every church in the land papist-free, Latin-free, and incense-free. Even for a Cornish people who couldn’t speak English. Yes, them too.
It was to take several centuries of bloody conflict before the obvious compromise was reached, and it became permissible to have in the same town not just a Protestant chapel, but a Catholic church, and even a synagogue.How about that! It was called toleraton. Freedom of conscience. Choice. It seems that such notions were unfamiliar back then. And it seems they’re just as unfamiliar today.
I used not to understand the Prayer Book rebellion. I couldn’t see why those Cornish Catholics had risen in revolt over something so apparently trivial and unimportant as a new prayer book. Did it really matter whether they sat in their pews listening to incomprehensible English prayers instead of incomprehensible Latin prayers? They’d have got used to it soon enough, surely? Surely they would have enjoyed those incense-free services, with those stinking thuribles finally extinguished?
It took the smoking ban – another stupid, callous, one-size-fits-all law enacted by the English crown, that reached so deeply into my own heart – to make me understand those Cornishmen, armed with their pitchforks, marching up the road. Oh yes, I understood them perfectly now. I understood their murderous rage completely.
But, who knows, after another century or two, there might be in the same town a smokefree pub on one side of the high street, and a smoke-filled pub on the other side. And it’ll be called toleration. Or freedom. Or choice. How many centuries does it take?