I wrote to my MP last week. I wrote to him to protest about the treatment of prisoners in British prisons. They are being forced to stop smoking. All in the name of “health”, of course.
I doubt if my letter will do any good. My MP probably gets lots of letters. He’s probably a very busy man. But my letter will be filed, and passed along to one ministry or other. And someone will read it, and they’ll file it too.
My letter was made of words. And words are like sand. In fact they are less than sand. They are not even fine dust. Or even breaths of wind. They carry almost no force at all.
But then even sand and wind shape things. The world is full of things that have been shaped by sand and wind. Even tiny forces, ones we can’t feel, exerted by the Sun and Moon, act to raise and lower tides.
And maybe my letter will exert a similar tiny force, much like my vote. And all these tiny forces add up.
Would it have helped if I had sent my MP a long letter, made of thousands of words? Would it have helped if I had written it in big black capital letters? Perhaps I should have included accompanying helpful pictures?
Maybe I should make such letters as short as possible, rather than as long as possible. Maybe I should make them into little works of art.
For it’s not as if governments are immune to public opinion. Or even as if I am immune to government. Many years ago, I walked into a government office to tell them that they should add several inches of insulation to buildings, in order to save energy. They listened to me with great interest. They even made me a cup of tea. And most of them more or less agreed with me. But one man did not. And he said something to the effect that what I was proposing was rather fascistic: it would force people to do something. But I exerted a little influence on them, and a few months or years later they did indeed add a requirement in the building regulations for additional insulation. But by then, I had changed my mind. For I had woken in the middle of the night to remember what that one man had said, months before, and I’d realised he was right, and it was rather fascistic to force people to add insulation to buildings, even if it kept them warmer and saved them money. And I also realised that I was a little fascist.
That lone man in the government office didn’t say very much. He listened to what I was saying, and what his colleagues were saying, as they were all agreeing with me. When he spoke up, when prompted by his colleagues, it was to speak very briefly. And he probably thought that he was fighting a lost cause. For he could see how enthusiastic his colleagues all were to add insulation to buildings, maybe even bending the law to do so. And he could see how enthusiastic a little fascist zealot I was. And he probably thought his words were wasted. For he looked a little dejected.
Yet that one man I now count among the most influential people in my life. It took months for his words to sink in. It took months before I woke in the night to realise that he was perfectly right. And I stopped being a little fascist. Or became rather less of one, I hope.
And perhaps that’s what fascists are. They’re people who think they know what’s good for everyone, and who then go and make them do it.
And now the fascists in Tobacco Control are doing this in Britain’s prisons. They know what’s good for the prisoners in them. So now they’re forcing them to do it. They’re forcing them to stop smoking.
But now, some 50 years later, it’s me who has written to government to point out the fascism of what they’re doing. And maybe my words will filter through to one person, And he will wake up in the middle of the night, months from now, and understand what I was saying.
After all, if one quiet voice in a government office could exert such great influence on a member of the public like me, then one quiet voice from a member of the public can also conversely exert great influence on members of the government.
And I get lots of government voices speaking to me these days. In fact, they’re mostly shouting at me in big black capital letters.
They are the converse of the letters to the government that I send my MP. They are letters the government sends me. And they’re written on the tobacco packets I buy, usually accompanied by gory pictures. My current one yells: Quit smoking – stay alive for those close to you. Alas, government smoking bans have long since blown away all those who were once close to me. And stopping smoking won’t bring them back.
And reading this letter from the government (which is accompanied by a helpful picture of a young mother cradling a baby in her arms as she stands over an open coffin containing what must be the dead body of her husband) I found myself reading it in the way that MPs or civil servants must read letters from their constituents. Who is this person? Why is he writing to me? What is he trying to say?
And in many ways, the letters you write to people always tell as much about you as they tell to them. My MP knows quite a lot about me, without me actually stating anything about myself. He knows what sort of English I write. He knows what I am concerned about.
And what do the little letters I get from the government say about them? Well, it tells me that they’re the sort of people who will deface anything to scrawl their messages over it. They would vandalise graves. And in this case, that’s more or less exactly what they’re doing. And in this case they’ve also erased the logo and artwork of the tobacco manufacturers in order to superimpose their own strident message.
And they’re also bringing ugliness into the world. Their ugliness. Their strident ugliness. They’re printing their ugly, strident images on hundreds of millions of tobacco packets.
I hope that in my life I have not brought ugliness into the world. I would have liked to be an artist who painted beautiful pictures, or wrote elegant poetry, or set out enchanting ideas.
And I think that with this “plain packaging”, Tobacco Control has made a huge mistake. For they are going to be remembered as people who printed millions and millions of nasty, ugly, shouty pictures. They’re going to be remembered as nasty, ugly, shouty people who brought a lot of ugliness into the world, and made it an uglier place. These “plain packets” (even the name is a monstrous deception) will be displayed in museums one day, behind armoured glass, as the testament to a barbaric era.
For in these words and pictures they’re telling us who they are and what they stand for. They’re telling everybody. They are being condemned by their own words, coming out of their own mouths.