Back in 2011, at Stony Stratford, one of my regrets about that otherwise remarkably successful demonstration of smoker solidarity was that, having held up their protest placards for the TV cameras, and listened to a few speeches, and imbibed a few drinks (and smokes), all concerned simply jumped back into their cars and sped off in all directions back the way they’d come.
I’d hoped that there would be long conversations that would run deep into the night, exchanged phone numbers, planned new meetings, and so on. But in the event I only spoke to the organiser, Dick Puddlecote, for about 60 seconds. And I only spoke to Chris Snowdon for about 5 seconds. And I only exchanged a casual wave of a hand with Pat Nurse as she passed my table. And I said not a word to Nigel Farage, standing three yards away. By late afternoon, more or less everyone had gone.
I suppose that for most people, the job – of protesting against a proposed outdoor smoking ban – was done. Nothing else needed doing. But I thought that there was another implicit purpose in all these people meeting up in one place: to speak to each other. To me it seemed important that like-minded people should build ties between each other, compare notes, argue, dispute, agree, disagree. As it was I felt that, after meeting up briefly, otherwise atomised smokers returned to their atomised, separate lives.
And this was why, when I got an invitation from Emily Wieja to appear on the Smoking Section, and talk to a couple of other smokers, I jumped at it. Because I don’t want to engage in combat with antismokers. It always seems like a futile enterprise. I want, if you like, to help build an army to defeat the antismokers. And to build an army you must bring people together. Smokers need to be brought together all over the world. There are about 1.5 billion of them in the world. And while they’re all living isolated, atomised lives, they are completely powerless. But even if only one tenth of 1% of them could be united, they would form an invincible army.
But how might that be done? Smokers have all been expelled from society, “exiled to the outdoors”, almost everywhere. And they have been excluded from the mainstream media. You never see any smokers on TV. At least not smokers who are actually smoking. Smokers have zero representation. They have no voice. They are completely submerged. And they are atomised into separate, isolated individuals.
But in my brief half hour conversation with Emily, at a distance of some 5,000 kilometres, I began to see a way in which smokers might overcome their exclusion. All they needed was a webcam and a microphone, and Skype or Facebook or Google Hangouts, and they could meet up with anyone, anywhere in the world, for a beer and a cigarette. They might no longer be able to meet up, person to person, in a delightfully smoky little pub or cafe, but – thanks to the astounding power of the internet – they could meet up online. The whole world could become a smoky little online pub.
I did actually try out Skype a few years back, when I met up online with GaryK, Nisakiman, and the late Lysistrata. But I think that having 4 people together at the same time was a bit over-ambitious. It was also plagued by feedback that rendered conversation impossible.
I now think that a simple one-to-one conversation, with earphones to prevent the feedback that loudspeakers cause when the sound from them enters microphones, is likely to be a more successful format. In fact, I know that it is, because since meeting up with Emily on the Smoking Section TV show, we’ve met up on Skype a good half dozen times, and talked animatedly for hours. And it cost us both nothing at all (except the price of the beers we drank)!
So I’m now thinking of meeting up with lots more people. In fact, anyone who’d like to talk to me, face to face. Emily wants to do that too. And maybe if a few smokers get talking to Emily and me, they’ll start meeting up with a few other smokers.
But, quite apart from having people meet up and talk, there was a second purpose. And this was to record some of these conversations (with the consent of all concerned), and publish them on YouTube or Vimeo. And in this manner, voiceless smokers could begin to gain a voice. They could tell their stories. And they could tell their stories to other, sympathetic smokers who had themselves shared many of their experiences. Smokers may not be allowed to appear or speak in highly-controlled mainstream media, but they could do so in the alternative online media. And they could smoke while they did so.
To this end, I’ve been collecting video recording and editing software, and posting up one or two test videos on YouTube. Emily has been doing the same. We are planning to make a video of the two of us talking about how to make such videos. They won’t be slick professional productions, of course. There will be awkward pauses, skewed webcams, noisy microphones, perhaps even cats that walk through the scene.
And then, with luck, we’ll be having regular conversations, of half and hour or so, with all sorts of wonderful people, with all sorts of different points of view, and all sorts of different ideas. There might even be bitter arguments. Strong disagreements. Amazing discoveries. Or that is the hope.
And for me it would be something welcome. I may write a lot, and read a lot, but I can go entire days – even weeks – without speaking a word to anyone, except the occasional bartender or shop assistant. There are lots of benefits to such an hermitic existence: you get plenty of time in which to think, and I do think a lot. But I don’t really want to be thinking and reading an writing all the time.
Anyway, I give notice of my return to Skype. Readers may begin to ask themselves whether they would like to appear not just in the comments here, but also in occasional Skype encounters and YouTube videos as well.
Of course, nothing may come of it. But, on the other hand, it might stimulate a wave of such online meetings, and a tsunami of YouTube videos, as 1.5 billion people find a way to express themselves.
The only shame is that Harley no longer seems to be around to join in. I’m sure he would have loved to.