For the past week or so I’ve been toying with an idea for a cartoon of someone sitting smoking outside a pub. I thought of a number of possible variations on it, including sitting outside a derelict or ruined pub.
Today I fired up Manga Studio 5 and produced a sketch outline of it. It went through various iterations, before arriving at this night scene:
I was a bit surprised that it had developed in this way, and that I’d added a background treeline. But this evening I realised that I had been drawing from memory.
Back in July 2005, when any smoking ban was completely unimaginable, I was invited to somebody’s birthday party at a large country house in Somerset. But before I arrived the hostess impressed upon me that smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere inside. And since I was going to stay the night, I was put under oath to not smoke in my bedroom – something that didn’t bother me too much, since I’m not in the habit of smoking while I sleep.
The party began in bright sunshine on the spacious lawns surrounding the house. A band played as everyone stood outside, drinking and smoking and chatting.
And then, when the sun set, all concerned began to drift inside to get something to eat. But when I went in, I immediately felt uncomfortable without a cigarette. Parties where no-one is smoking are as unfamiliar as parties where nobody is drinking, or nobody is talking. So I got myself a plateful of food, and topped up my drink, and headed out to the only place that had been designated as a smoking area: a pergola about 100 yards from the house.
I soon found out that I wasn’t the only one to have this idea. For when I reached the pergola, I found that most of the seats around it were already taken. The occupants included the entire band that had been playing during the afternoon. There was no lighting. And no tables. And all concerned were sitting silently eating, drinking, and smoking, or just gazing quietly into the distance at the trees surrounding the lawns. For most of them, this was probably their first experience of a smoking ban.
I spent the entire evening out by the pergola, apart from occasionally returning inside to top up a drink. And so did most of the others. Eventually, as the indoor party wound down, I found my way to my bedroom, and fell asleep.
In retrospect, the entire episode appears as a dark premonition of what was shortly going to happen everywhere – the smokers exiled to the outdoors, and the social division, the disbelief and bewilderment.
Many of the people present on that occasion were friends I’d known for 30 years or more. And that was the last time I ever saw most of them.
If anything is different today, it’s that my estrangement has only got deeper. Back then, I was simply excluded from the indoor party. But now I am estranged in lots of other ways. I’m socially estranged, but also culturally and politically estranged. The Welcome Inn could be simply a pub, but it could also represent society as a whole, or various cultural events – concerts, art galleries, museums -, or the mass media, or the political parties. The Welcome Inn could also represent England or the EU. And I’m sitting outside. And I’m always sitting further and further outside.
There was one other feature of that night in July 2005: the hostess whose birthday it was never came out to the pergola that night. Nor did she mention it the next day when I departed. Although I couldn’t help but wonder what she thought when a quarter of her guests spent the entire evening sitting in darkness 100 yards outside the house,
But that also was prophetic. Non-smokers never notice the smokers outside. They never see the social division that is taking place. They’re completely oblivious. One day, three or four years later, with the country-wide smoking ban in force, I ordered a snack at my local pub in Devon – a place I only visited when it was sunny enough to sit outside by the river.
“I’ll bring it to you when it’s ready,” the bargirl said.
“And where will I be?” I enquired.
“Where you always are,” she replied cheerfully. “On the table in the corner by the window.”
“I haven’t sat there for nearly two years,” I told her. “These days I only ever sit by the river.”
She simply hadn’t noticed. She was completely blind.
And so is the government and the media and nearly everyone else.