Gone in a puff of smoke

A report from Edinburgh on the last night of legal smoking.

Timandra Harkness

Topics Politics

I was full of great plans for the weekend. When I found out I was going to be in Edinburgh for the last night of legal smoking, I vowed to go out and smoke until the last possible moment, in solidarity with Scotland’s oppressed minority. I don’t smoke, and I don’t like smoke, but when there’s a principle at stake, sacrifices must be made.

First problem – I can’t actually pull it off in practice. That’s why I recently declared myself a ‘political smoker’ along the lines of a woman I was at college with who announced solemnly that she was now a ‘political lesbian’. We were too embarrassed to ask how her boyfriend had taken the news, but she explained that she wasn’t going to actually sleep with women – just put them first politically. We were also too embarrassed to say we thought that didn’t count; it was the height of political correctness, and as Film and Drama students we stood proudly at its peak.

A dry run on Friday night proved that even a rollie reduces me to pathetic coughing in seconds, so actual smoking was out. Like my right-on friend I’d have to express solidarity without doing anything with my mouth that my body didn’t go for. So, plan B – stay out till the stroke of midnight and join the rioting or sullenly acquiescent hordes as the heavies of the health police attempt to enforce a mass stubbing-out.

Second problem – being Scottish, when they say ’24-hour drinking’ they mean it. Not like London, where every pub I know still kicks out before midnight, or even like Great Western Trains, where a smug steward displays beer behind glass on a parched Friday night while refusing to sell it (not that I’m bitter…). No, Scotland’s smokers would be extending the night before until the sun came up at 6am. Since I had to be hard at work by 8am, there was no way I was going to see it through to the bitter end. Not any more. All-night drinking, sadly, is another thing I can support only in principle.

But I did squeeze in a quick drink in the Grassmarket’s Last Drop pub, tears pricking my eyes as the selfish part of me looked forward to being able to sit in a smoke-free bar next time I come. Because I’m not against smokeless socialising, or waking up without your clothes smelling like you work in a kipper factory. I’d be the first to put in huge air-conditioning units and allocate no-smoking sections, especially around food.

I consulted the chalkboard in the Last Drop’s ladies’ toilets. ‘Hail the Ban! – coming from a smoker’ wrote one altruistic soul, or somebody who wants to be forced to do what’s good for her. ‘Hangover will be better – no fag taste’ added another sensible voice. And it’s not as if nobody knows the health risks these days. Who’d start a campaign for more smoking? Except somebody who sells cigarettes, of course.

‘My social life is over!’ one poor smoker bewailed. Or was it a smoker? In fact I’m not looking forward to the ban’s impact on my social life either. A short tour around Ireland, where every romantic drink in a bar was interrupted by having to go outside for a fag, showed me how disruptive it’s going to be. Faced with the choice between freezing outside for absolutely no reason, or sitting alone like a lemon while my fella shared a light with the good-looking barmaid, I got rapidly nostalgic for the fug of a pub where he could indulge his vice without breaking up the party. And as another chalker noted, now in Ireland ‘all we smell is loo’.

The first contributor, possibly the most sober, managed a longer opinion. ‘Give in to this and there will be more to follow – what’s happening to our country?’ I’ll tell you what’s happening: every aspect of our private lives is being watched and discussed, and apparently it’s all for our own good.

Hardly anybody I spoke to was prepared to say the ban was a bad thing. Sunday morning revealed no signs of smokers having made a final stand, though I did hear about ‘last suppers’ at which chefs had served tobacco-based dishes in every course. The Last Drop will gradually lose its old-ashtray ambience and smokers will start affairs with each other on the pavements outside while their non-smoking partners do the same indoors in the warm.

I’m not sorry that fewer people are smoking. I won’t be sorry when it’s looked on the way we now regard Laudanum. But I am sorry that, in the name of health, we can be dictated to with scarcely a whisper of protest. Or in my case, a cough.

Timandra Harkness is a writer and broadcaster. Visit her website here.

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Topics Politics


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