I suppose I’ve been lucky in my life (or maybe unlucky) to have known a couple of active antismokers. By that I don’t mean hand-wavers and coughers, but people who were professionally active in the antismoking cause: movers and shakers.
The first of these was Dr W, in whose house I resided for some years in the mid-60s (while I was at university and my parents were living abroad).
He wasn’t an evil man. In fact, I think he was honest and sincere and totally trustworthy and decent in (almost) every way. It was in part thanks to him, after all, that I was living under his roof with his wife and children.
But he was a very strange man. And the whole time that I knew him I was utterly scared stiff of him. I never felt comfortable in his presence. It was perhaps because he was a singularly joyless man. I never once heard him laugh, nor saw him smile – although he could feign both in a sardonic fashion. As best I could see, he took no pleasure whatsoever in life. He would come home from his job in the evening, and go straight out and work in his vegetable patch in the garden, and then when it was dark come in and work on a variety of chores, mending this or that. He never watched television or even listened to the radio. He never read newspapers or books. He never played any games of any sort. He never went out to parties or to pubs or restaurants. He would occasionally take his family on holiday, but I always had the sense that he did so for their sake, not his own. Left to his own devices, I think he would have planted another few rows of runner beans, and relaid the gravel in the drive. And if he wasn’t busy in his garden, he’d be attending meetings at the BMA, where he was something of a force.
He never drank anything either, except a small glass of sherry on Christmas Day. And he didn’t smoke. In fact, smoking seemed to be the only subject that truly animated him, because from time to time he would inveigh against the “filthy, filthy habit” like a Presbyterian minister preaching against sin and the devil. It was quite shocking, and rather terrifying, to witness him at full bore. His hatred of smoking was visceral.
I fairly rapidly decided that he was insane. Not insane in the sectionable ga-ga sense, but definitely a screw loose. Or rather, a screw too tightly screwed in to ever be unscrewed. The whole time I lived under his roof, I avoided speaking to him unless I absolutely had to (unlike his wife and lovely daughters, who used to apologise for him, and tell me that his bark was worse than his bite).
He was the first antismoker I ever encountered. And one of the reasons I took up smoking a few years later was because his insane hatred of smoking struck me as being a perverse justification for doing so: it couldn’t be that bad if such a complete nutter was against it, I reasoned.
For there was nothing rational about his hatred of smoking. He didn’t ever produce any of the Doll and Hill research studies (although I’m sure they were somewhere in among his papers), or any other study. He would simply rant against smoking, as if possessed. In fact, there was no “as if” about it: he was a man possessed.
I more or less forgot about him after I ceased to live under his roof. The last time I ever saw him was when he was being interviewed on TV in his pinstripe suit outside the BMA. He died about 10 years ago. And a couple of weeks back I found an obituary of him online, in which I discovered that for much of his life he’d worked for the WHO, and was a fairly senior figure within it.
But for the smoking ban, I would have completely forgotten him. But now he seems to have come back to life (or risen from the dead). And I can still hear his grating, musicless voice raised in anger. I have no doubt that he was one of the doctors who worked tirelessly for smoking to be banned. As such, he has become for me the very personification of the antismoker. He is what I fight against.
The contrast with the other antismoker in my life could not be greater. For she was one of my greatest friends. So much so, that we went on holiday together, just the two of us, to France and Greece and Portugal. She had a lovely, beaming smile. She was something of a party-goer, and dressed in a rather bohemian manner, had lots of rather risqué friends. After she left university, where she’d studied French, Politics, and Philosophy, she worked at a variety of good causes (including a spell at Amnesty International), before ending up working for a few local authorities on “health inequality”. I was never quite clear what this was about, and never inquired. She was not in the least bit antismoking, and never complained about my smoking (or anybody else’s). I often smoked sitting at her kitchen table.
The last time I saw her (by which time I’d known her for over 30 years) was in 2005 at a birthday bash thrown by one of our mutual friends. I was put under oath by our host to on no account to light up indoors. And I spent much of the evening sitting outside in the garden with a few other smokers, experiencing for the first time (and with an uneasy sense of foreboding) the absolute division between the smokers outside and the non-smokers inside.
But when in 2007 the smoking ban came into force, she was the recipient of a letter from me complaining vociferously about it. She sent no immediate reply, but at Christmas sent a card in which she cryptically remarked that she was currently conducting research into smoking cessation, and furthermore had been doing so for some 25 years, on and off.
This was a tremendous shock to me. It now became clear to me at last what the “health inequality” business had all been about. And I had never known. Or perhaps it had just gone in one ear and out of the other one evening in a smoky pub.
It put me in a quandary. By 2008, I had already been engaged in the war against antismokers for 3 or 4 years, and Dr W had already risen from his grave to haunt me. It was a bit like learning (and I’m sure this must have happened in Nazi Germany many times) that one of one’s oldest chums, with whom one had spent many delightful hours, was now an Obersturmbannführer in the SS.
I mulled it over for almost a year. I knew that if I saw her again, there would be only one topic of conversation. Our friendship could never continue as it had before, because we were now fighting in opposing armies.
But eventually I decided that, rather than abandon the matter there, I should give her an opportunity to expand upon the matter at greater length than she had in her Christmas card. And perhaps, when she did so, I might learn that she was alive to the social and moral dilemmas posed by her work, and aware of the limitations of the existing research, and – who knows – maybe even that she was perhaps a bit disenchanted by it all, and was thinking of doing something else. So I sent her an email, with an innocuous inquiry about her work.
To my surprise, a lengthy reply came back the very next day. She said she agreed with the smoking ban, and said that most smokers wanted to give up smoking (although she conceded that I might be one of those who did not). She wondered if she might be a little hypocritical, but eventually concluded that she wasn’t.
I read her email with a sinking heart. There was no recognition in it whatsoever of any moral or political dimensions to her work. There was no recognition of the social exclusion of smokers. There was a lot of boilerplate antismoking dogma. It was quite clear that she was fully engaged in her research, and had no intention of doing anything else in the immediate future.
Over the next week I composed a long and impassioned email, complete with numerous references (there had been none in her email). Almost the whole of it was an attack on antismokers, rather than on her. But at the end I invited her to let me know when she had stopped persecuting smokers.
There was no reply. I have not spoken to her or heard from her since. Nor she from me.
I’ve been left puzzled that, for all her certainties about smoking, she had never once talked to me about it, in all the 30+ years I had known her. Me, the lifelong smoker. But she was someone who drew a strict division between her professional life and her social life. She did not mix business with pleasure. She didn’t talk shop. She would, it seems, quite cheerfully dance the night away at smoky parties, and the next morning go back to work to stop exactly that sort of thing from ever happening. She was two people, and I only knew one of them. It was something which she perhaps hinted at when she cheerily told me once that I wasn’t one of her “serious friends”.
And I suppose that I’m a little surprised that she wasn’t professionally interested in me, when I emerged as wholly and ferociously opposed to the smoking ban. For she could have used our contretemps as an opportunity to learn something about how smokers felt: it was her profession, after all. I’ve occasionally had the opposite thought: that I might have used the occasion to ask her some hard questions (other than those unanswered in my email), and learn something about antismokers. Perhaps she couldn’t take me any more seriously than she ever had. Antismokers never take smokers seriously.
But even now she’s gone, I can’t bring myself to hate her. For I always remember her with her dazzling smile. And even now I can’t really even think of her as being an antismoker, although she obviously is, and had also been when we sat together at table in the sun on a Greek island many years ago.