Some ten or fifteen years ago, I fell into conversation with a couple of people at the bar of the River in Devon. We had not been talking long, when one of them told me that there were three matters which should never be discussed in pubs. The first was religion, the second was politics, and I forget what the third was. It simply “wasn’t done,” he declared. Because no doubt I had just strayed into one or other of the forbidden regions.
My response was to ask, “Then what’s there left to talk about?”
It seemed to me then, and now, that there should not be any forbidden subjects of conversation. If some matter is in contention, then that is the very best reason why it should be avidly discussed, rather than be forbidden to be mentioned. There is only a problem in such matters when people of a dogmatic character encounter each other, and occupy entrenched opposing positions, which can end up in a shouting match. But for those of a less dogmatic cast of mind, debate and discussion are the principal ways by which we humans resolve our disputes.
Around about the same time, I met (at the same bar) the friendly old submariner, Ron, who was one of the few ex-servicemen I’d ever met who spoke freely about his war-time experiences. Because, once again, there seems to be an unspoken rule among such people that the war was another thing that should never be discussed. You didn’t mention the war.
But I was also told, that while I might have liked Ron, a lot of other people didn’t. And this, it was explained to me, was because it had been Ron’s habit, after his wife died, to arrive at a pub, and burst into tears after a few drinks. It was further explained to me that it was “not done” to bring your domestic troubles to a pub. They were to be left at home.
But I could only feel sympathy for Ron. It must have been awful for him to lose his wife after many decades together. And only to be expected that he’d burst into tears periodically. If I’d been there, I’d have bought him another drink, not tut-tutted about his supposedly inappropriate behaviour.
But then, I’m someone who will talk about anything, with anybody, anywhere. I don’t have a rule-book full of forbidden topics. I’m always willing to learn, and to encounter new perspectives and points of view. Why should I not talk about what I so often think about, or write about?
Anyway, given so many different matters that many people seem to think should never be discussed, I was wondering today whether the smoking ban had become another such forbidden topic.
Because the people I meet (outside pubs) never mention it, even though it is the principal reason why they are sitting outside. And perhaps that’s because, in order to maintain the semblance of normality, all concerned must pretend that life is going on as normal, and that nothing has really changed.
I was not there, but I imagine that the same sort of thing happened during the blitz in London in 1940. When your house had been bombed flat, and you had only just managed to escape from the ruin, and you arrived at your local pub (assuming it was still standing), you didn’t describe in gory detail to everyone present what had just happened. No, you talked instead about Vera Lynn’s latest hit record, or a comedy show in the West End, or which horse had won at Ascot. You talked about anything and everything apart from the war, which you wanted to forget for an hour or two. You went to the pub to escape. And you didn’t want to be reminded of what you were escaping from.
And I think there’s a bit of this happening with the smoking ban. It’s called “putting a brave face on things,” or “keeping a stiff upper lip.” You pretend that everything is all right. You pretend that life is the same as it always was, even if everything has utterly changed.
But it could also be described as living a lie. The justifications for the smoking ban were all lies, and the claims that it is “very successful” and that “everyone likes it” are also lies. They are public lies promulgated through the mass media, and repeated by politicians. And to go along with this, by refusing to discuss it, is to become complicit in a vast public lie.
And once people have learned to live one lie, there can be no doubt that they can learn to live a great many more lies, until more or less everything they say or do is the product of a vast edifice of unquestioned and unquestionable lies, and they have become entirely empty, hollow, and superficial people.
Ron didn’t live a lie. Ron spoke freely and openly. And he showed his feelings. And he was a wonderfully friendly man. And he was also, of all the people I’ve ever met, the only one who was a real hero who had fought real and terrifying underwater battles.
And he was, in his last days, also issuing dire warnings that my generation would have to fight the same battles that his generation had fought. Although at the time I couldn’t see why.