Hallo, my name is Nicola, and I’m a smoker. In fact, I am smoking right now, and when I have finished this column, I will read it back to myself while blowing smoke at the computer screen.
With the hubris of the non-smoking brigade reaching hysterical proportions, I thought the whole issue of smoking should be examined. One cannot avoid the fact that smoking is unhealthy. I began smoking when I began to work. Work, for the most part (unless you are lucky enough to be a capitalist giant), is what you do for others (and consequently also mostly unhealthy). Smoking is what you do for yourself.
Thus I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never, as one notable wit pointed out, grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the South African workplace, “the only thing people have to call their own are the tumours they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them”.
In fact, I’ve bounced this idea off a number of colleagues, both smokers and non-smokers. Perhaps I smoke because it gives me a fleeting sense of self-autonomy in a grim environment. Perhaps I smoke because I know it teases, like the Duchess’s baby in Alice in Wonderland. Smoking is a wonderful excuse for extracting oneself from an uncomfortable or deadly boring meeting. And one builds a fantastic sense of camaraderie with other smokers: a group of outcasts, forced together by a dictatorial society, where one can relax and be completely honest without being confined by the company of mealy-mouthed do-gooders.
Consequently, I guess smoking does what great satire is supposed to do: it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Seems to me that’s why so many poor folk smoke, anxious folk, and a great many academics and journalists among them.
Where journalists are concerned, Baker points out in the latest New York Review of Books that this is journalism’s age of melancholy. Glumness is the prevailing spirit here, and for good reason. Newspaper people, he says, once celebrated as founts of ribald humor and uncouth fun, have of late lost all their gaiety, not surprising, as they have discovered that their prime duty is no longer to maintain the republic in well-informed condition, but rather to serve the stock market with a good earnings report every three months.
“Yesteryear’s swashbuckling newspaper reporter has turned into today’s solemn young sobersides nursing a glass of watered white wine after a day of toiling over computer databases in a smoke-free, noise-free newsroom,” he says. Small wonder so many old journalists tucked around pavement corners still puff away.
Yet the good hate smoking. Hodgkinson says that liberal commentators point out the stink and unhealthiness and wonder why poor people continue to waste their money, without realizing that it actually makes life worth living. The oppressed love it. George Orwell, writing of the physical hardships of being Down and Out in Paris and London, said: “It was tobacco that made everything tolerable.”
One of the first leaders of the antismoking crusaders was King James I, who in 1604 published his diatribe against smoking, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, “a rare example of good writing coming from the pen of a moralist”. King James, who was the sort of bloke who loved torturing folk he considered wrong doers and burning witches at the stake, considered smoking a primitive custom: “what honour or policie can moove us to imitate the barbarous and beastly maners of the wilde, godlesse and slavish Indians, especially in so vile and stinking a custome?” Hodgkinson argues that King James saw tobacco as a revolt against so-called civilized values: property, money-worship and deference to a Christian God.
Nothing much has changed in over four centuries. King James’ conclusion that smoking is “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse” is so close to most anti-smoking diatribes, one can only conclude they read his treatise and put the whole essay through a synonym application.
That’s not to say, at all, that any of this isn’t true. Smoking is bad for you. My life has been ruled by good intentions of quitting, and actually stopping on occasion when necessary (pregnant and breastfeeding). I don’t smoke inside (because it smells). I look at Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking book at least once a fortnight.
But ludicrous anti-smoking legislation isn’t going to help. Here’s a potential scenario:
“Hallo – is this the police? My neighbor is smoking in her garden in the presence of a toddler, plus which said smoke is wafting over my wall. Please come and arrest her immediately.”
“Sorry – we’re currently dealing with calls of 17 housebreakings, five car thefts and two murders in your neighbourhood. Your complaint may have to wait a while.”
Bleating away about smoking while the real baddies run amok with guns and scissors and various other weapons of random destruction indiscriminately slaughtering vulnerable folk and nicking their stuff seems to me a complete waste of time, effort and money. Leave us smokers alone, and concentrate on the real problems.
This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in August 2018.