01 May 2007

Smoking in Public c.16th Century-2007

Smokers from the Castlerock to Crossmaglen and from Bangor to Belleek are today shouting short-temperedly at their partners and downing their Guinness with extra haste in memory of Smoking in Public, which has gasped its last, wheezy breath following the introduction of a ban on public smoking in Northern Ireland. The province's ban affects workplaces, pubs and restaurants but not sectarian bonfires or smouldering rubble. With public smoking already banned in Scotland and about to be outlawed by CCTV, Asbo and threat of extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay in England and Wales, Smoking in Public is on its way to the Great Ashtray in the Sky.

Smoking in Public took its first puffs in the 16th century after Sir Walter Raleigh finally gave up his attempt to convince Elizabethans to adopt the practice of smoking potatoes and putting lashings of salt and vinegar on their deep-fried tobacco, and instead filled his pipe with some rough shag he’d brought back from the New World.

Thanks to its addictive qualities (as well as the fact that it makes you look dead sexy ... usually about 30-40 years before it just makes you look dead) Smoking in Public became hugely popular. It was not without its critics, however: in 1604's A Counterblaste to Tobacco King James I himself was moved to warn that smoking was “A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse”, much to the amazement of courtiers who were unaware that he had ever been to Birmingham.

It was in 1605 that Smoking in Public really caught the public’s attention, when Guido Fawkes(1) attempt to "poppe into the cellares for an crafty one" nearly blew up King James and the whole of Parliament. Luckily for him and everyone else in the building, guards prevented Guido's carelessly-discarded cheroot from accidentally igniting the pile of old barrels stored in the cellar. As a warning they took the foolish Guido aside and had a quiet word with him about the dangers of smoking, while hanging, drawing and quartering him just to make sure the message got home. And that is why, to this day, Britons burn bonfires on November 5th to remind themselves of the dangers of smoking.

Despite the early knowledge of the harmful effects of inhaling the smoke of cured tobacco leaves, 17th century man, woman, child and, in some circuses, chimpanzee took up the habit with gusto – puffing away on their pipes and roll-ups without a care in the world – assuming that the blood they were coughing up was just the harmless first sign of tuberculosis or plague.

Smoking in Public caught on like wildfire, as - during hot, dry summers - did much of the surrounding countryside. By the 20th century, stoked by popular images of Hollywood stars moodily inhaling a Lucky Strike or Chesterfield whilst eyeing up the femme fatale, looking at the dead body or relaxing after the train had entered the tunnel, everyone – from new born babes in their mothers’ arms to grandfathers (quite literally) breathing their last – was sucking on a fag, meerschaum or hookah.

In the post-war years, however, people began to realise they were alone with a Strand and that the smell of a busy day at the crematorium that hung about them might have something to do with it. With the arrival of new scientific evidence that nicotine was more addictive than Deal or No Deal (but not quite as harmful), Smoking in Public came under heavy pressure to pack it in, knock it on the head, go cold turkey and try patches, hypnotism, and that silly ceramic pipe that everyone’s too embarrassed to use.

Eventually, even the appearance of increased intellectual activity and emotional intensity derived from inhaling a Gauloises with the filter broken off began to pall. With the increased awareness of the fatal consequences of smoking – that unique kipper-factory odour, Judith Chalmers-style leathery skin and a voice deeper than Mariella Frostrup’s – Smoking in Public began to cough, hack, wheeze and expectorate colourfully. Complaining of a lack of breath, Smoking in Public exhaled a final plume of blue-grey smoke and was extinguished.

Smoking In Public will be cremated behind closed doors in a private ceremony with a special licence to smoke. There will be regular five-minute intervals – every five minutes – for smokers to step outside and bang another nail in their coffin. The congregation will sing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes… And Your Throat, Lungs, Heart, And May Harm Your Unborn Baby”.

(1) No, not this one. (2)
(2) Or even this one.