I wake up every day thinking about the smoking ban. Most days I have nothing new to think about it. In fact most days I have nothing new to think about anything.
Or at least not initially.
But after I’ve woken up, and boiled the kettle, I sit in bed with a pad of paper in front of me, sipping tea and smoking roll-ups. And I usually write the date at the top of the blank sheet in front of me, once I’ve figured out what the date is. And then I just stare into space, lost for words.
And then eventually, sometimes after a few hours, I latch onto one of the ideas tumbling through my mind, and I pick up my pen and write something. I’m like one of those grizzly bears that sit by rapids occasionally scooping out a salmon. I suppose they must sometimes have to wait for hours before they manage to get their claws into one. Maybe some days they never manage to catch one at all.
And that’s how it was for me today. It took quite a long time before an idea coalesced and stayed long enough for me to get my pen into it. And what I found my thoughts focusing on was something I wonder about quite often: the curious passivity of smokers in the face of smoking bans.
I quite often get talking to smokers in the pub gardens round here. But one thing we almost never talk about is the smoking ban that has us sitting outside in the garden rather than inside around the bar. Or when I do raise the topic, I’m usually greeted with dead silence, as if I’d spoken of something unmentionable. And I wonder why they don’t want to talk about this, our shared exile.
But I had a new thought about it this morning. And it had me grabbing the pen and writing a few words on notepad. I could see a new explanation for their silence. A very simple explanation. And it was this:
They were lost for words.
One day – and to be precise, the 30th of June 2007 – they were respected members of their pub society. And the next day = the 1st of July 2007 – they had become outcasts. About 10 or 15 million smokers became outcasts that day. It was an event of such enormity that they were lost for words to describe it. And they’ve remained lost for words ever since. And that is why they say nothing about it.
I still remember that day. And I was lost for words too. I went home in a towering rage that day, and remained enraged for months. An 11 years later, I’m still angry. But I’m not quite as lost for words as I was that day. After all, I started writing my blog a couple of years later. And I think I occasionally manage to say something new about the smoking ban.
In fact, if I was lost for words that day, a fellow smoker outside the pub – a complete stranger – was not lost for words. He came up to me and said: “It’s not a free country any more.” And he was exactly right. And that’s one reason why I never forgot what he said, at a moment when I myself had nothing to say.
It could of course be that most smokers simply aren’t much bothered by the smoking ban, and take it in their stride, and get on with their lives. And many of them give every impression of doing exactly that. They’re Keeping Calm and Carrying On. But occasionally they show a flash of anger.
There are lots of things that happen which are of such enormity that nobody can quite put them into words. The Brexit vote was one such recent event. It was a tremendous shock, and left a lot of people sputtering and lost for words. And the election of Donald Trump was another such event. It’s left many Americans shocked and sputtering, and once again lost for words. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome. And I suppose that puts it into words. It helps to have a name for something. It’s a start.
And in many ways these three events = the smoking ban, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump – are all comparatively minor events. Nobody was killed by them. A hundred years ago today, WW1 was drawing to a close. And the sheer enormity of that event has still not been forgotten. Did anyone ever manage to put that event into words? It’s remembered in silence every year. Nobody speaks about it. We remain lost for words a century later.
I bought a book of war poetry a few months ago, And I suppose the war poets were people who were trying to put the event into words. But did any of them ever manage to do so? Did they ever manage to fully encompass that event? I don’t think so. I think the best they ever managed was a snapshot here and there.
I’m always trying to find words to describe the sheer enormity of the smoking ban. And it’s like catching salmon with your bare hands, or claws. Or it’s like burrowing your way slowly out of the Château d’If, stone by stone. And today I felt like I’d dislodged another small stone. Today I felt that I’d seen something I’d not seen before. Though it might have been an illusion.