Friday 22 June 2012

The Lost World Of Smoking

Hollywood starlet Sheila Terry
Please note:  this is not about the smoking ban, which I’ve written about previously.*  

I grew up with smoking. Many of my relatives smoked, including my mother and grandmother, and although my father didn’t, he worked for over 45 years in the tobacco industry. Films and television were full of people smoking, and adverts for cigarettes could be seen everywhere. Many of my student friends, including my girlfriend, smoked and, although I’ve never tried even one cigarette, I let people smoke in my room. When I got a job in the DHSS, smoking was allowed everywhere in the office, and the desks all had glass ashtrays with “Government property” stamped on them.

Smoking was sophisticated - glamorous Hollywood stars made it look so – and offering a cigarette was the mark of good hospitality. Accordingly, there sprung a whole world of paraphernalia around smoking: cigarette holders, cigarette cases, both portable and larger ones on the coffee table, expensive lighters, both pocket lighters and table lighters put out for guests to help themselves. Most lighters you see nowadays are plastic and disposable. Pipe and cigar smokers had accoutrements and rituals of their own. In places like the pub, smokers offered their cigarettes around the company before lighting up themselves, and the scroungers who always took one but never bought their own were well-known, in much the same way as everyone knows the drinker who joins in rounds but never puts his hand in his pocket. Funny how they seem to think no one notices.

Liberated? Looks like it. 
Sophisticated? Not a chance. 
Harry Windsor's ex, Chelsy Davy
As a child, I liked the designs on cigarette packets: the Player’s Navy Cut sailor, the horseman firing a rifle on Rough Riders, Senior Service showing a sailing ship, and later the more stylish Benson and Hedges Gold and John Players Special with gold lettering on a black background (modern packets don't seem as attractive to me - perhaps they're reflecting the health lobby's increasingly vocal disapproval by not appearing too eye-catching). Many times as children we went around the cigarette factory where my father worked, watching the process that began with raw leaves and ended with sealed packets of cigarettes.

Smokers would often say to us kids, with a knowing smile to the other adults in the room, that it was a filthy habit and “you don’t want to start, son.” Do as I say, not as I do, probably the least effective advice you can give. In the shops you could even buy sweet cigarettes in packets that looked just like real cigarette packets, and of course we pretended to smoke them. Imagine the moral panic today: "Sending all the wrong messages to impressionable young children!" As if we wouldn't know the difference. But smoking was completely normal then: until the 1980s when smoking bans began, the only place I can recall that smoking wasn’t allowed was in the classroom. In my school, the pupils used the time-honoured location of behind the bike sheds and the teachers used their common room. You could always tell which teachers smoked because their predictable tweed jackets had the musty smell of old smoke, but you thought nothing of it. 

My father told me that the cigarette industry in the 60s was preparing itself for the legalisation of marijuana. They had brand names, packet designs and recipes all ready to go: all that was needed was the lawmakers to do their bit, which of course never happened. I asked him whether he could get me one of the prototype marijuana cigarette packets for interest, but he told me that they had all been destroyed when it was clear that legalisation wasn’t going to happen. I assume that, as the tide turned away from the possibility of legalised marijuana, the industry didn’t want people to know that they had ever taken the idea seriously.

For a few years, I was a section supervisor in the DHSS, and for a while in charge of five staff who all smoked. Although not anti-smoking, I did find this uncomfortable, but it never occurred to me to complain, as I knew it was permitted. Then in the mid-80s, the department introduced a policy of smoking rooms. I thought this was a wonderful solution: the office air was clear, but smokers could have smoking breaks when they needed them. Everyone was happy. Except they weren’t: the 80s was the decade when the general acceptance of smoking as a part of everyday life began to break down. As the office union rep, I had non-smokers demanding I take up with management the fact that smokers had smoking breaks and they didn’t. I pointed out to these disgruntled members that they could, and did, take time to go and make drinks, but the reply was that smokers could do both. I wasted my breath arguing that we now had a smoke-free office, and wasn’t that good? It was, certainly, but not good enough. I finally gave up trying to persuade them and said that what the smokers were doing was allowed by departmental policy, and that was the end of the matter. Any complaints that some smokers took excessively long breaks I bounced back to them: they should take it up themselves with the manager who was being too lenient, because I was not prepared to fire their bullets for them. But they never did, as they didn’t want to fall out with their smoking colleagues; much better if I was the villain instead.

As a non-smoking union rep, I often had to stand up for the rights smokers had under DHSS (later DSS, then DWP) policies. When the DWP introduced a complete ban in all their buildings less than 12 months before the national smoking ban, I issued a union circular questioning why they had jumped the gun, which seemed to me unnecessary at that late stage. I concluded that our employer simply couldn’t resist one last opportunity to annoy staff on the matter.

Nowadays, the image of smoking is completely different from its earlier Hollywood sophistication. Smoking is banned in all buildings except private homes, thus pushing it onto the streets and - ironically - placing it much more on public view than before. Once when walking to a DWP office in Bootle for a meeting, I saw a large group of people standing in the street outside a Home Office building. I assumed it was a picket line and wondered why I hadn’t heard they were on strike. Then I twigged: they were smokers.

Next month sees the fifth anniversary of the ban. I’ve become so used to it that when I watch a film or TV programme over five years old, it looks odd to see people smoking in offices, restaurants and pubs. But then it also looks odd in programmes like The Sweeney to see police lifting out bottles of Scotch from their filing cabinets and drinking at their desks; I remember some old DHSS hands doing that in the 80s, but you’d face disciplinary action if you tried it now.

The people I have come across who are most intolerant of smoking are ex-smokers. Many years ago I had a girlfriend who was vehemently anti-smoking and wasn’t afraid to say so, to the point that I occasionally felt uncomfortable listening to her going on about it in company. Several years after we finished, I came across her smoking in a pub – she had taken the habit up again. I had some fun reminding her of what she used to say, and she had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed.

This is just a meandering and quite personal view of smoking and how it has gone in my lifetime from being seen as a sign of maturity to something that is barely tolerated. My final observation will be, as someone who often goes to pubs and whose circle of friends includes smokers and non-smokers, that I find there is generally less intolerance on both sides in real life than you would conclude from the on-line debating society.

* If you want to see my previous posts about the ban, click here.


  1. As a former civil servant in DSS/DWP and union rep, the arguments about excessively long breaks taken by people who smoked sound very familiar. I suppose the same complaints were heard in every office.

  2. Probably. After a while, I gave up arguing and just told them it was a management matter, not a union one, if staff were away from their desks too long, so go to the right person.

  3. My mum used to collect vouchers in Players No 6 packets, for spectacular gifts, after smoking at least 200 packets. I must admit I do feel a bit sorry for smokers as they huddle in pub doorways, but I would not want to go back to smoke filled pubs. There is a wonderful old film "Millions Like Us" with an idyllic county pub. When the lead characters go in it is a veritable pea-souper inside, with all the customers puffing away. Love the bit in another old film "Now Voyager" when the leading man Paul Henried lights up two cigarettes and hands one to Bette Davies. It did look sophisticated then

  4. As a kid I used to collect cigarette packets and stick the front of the packet in an album; I've probably still got them somewhere. My mate Ken and I used to go under the ruins of Wigan Central station and collect the packets from the dirt and grime. My Dad used to go mad. Both my parents smoked (but gave up) and thought nothing of sending me on an errand to buy cigarettes from the corner shops when I was small, but then the matriarchs who ran these shops - Mrs Briggs, Mrs Greenhough and Mrs Wareing - knew that the cigarettes weren't for me. Society somehow survived intact.

    I prefer pubs without cigarette smoke, but I can think of other factors about pubs that annoy me more, such as excessive swearing, TVs showing sport on every wall and, erm, smokers standing in the doorways of pubs. Never wanted to smoke myself, but as for ex-smokers intolerant of smokers, in the words of Dr. Johnson, "there is no bigger hypocrite than a convert".

  5. I used to pop across the road to the sweetshop to get a packet of Woodbines for my Grandma. Despite that conditioning and normalisation of smoking, I've never been tempted.

  6. Former pubgoer23 June 2012 at 01:16

    The lost world of drinking - coming soon to a former pub near you.

    In twenty years' time, drinking will be something done out of sight, not admitted to, and definitely not in pubs.

    The template is there - it's up to you whether you draw the lesson.

  7. If that happens, which I doubt, it will be because of people like you - Former Pubgoer - the explanation is in the name you use. This post was NOT about the smoking ban, as I made clear. If you reply with a further smoking ban related comment, I shall delete it as irrelevant and self-serving.

  8. Former pubgoer23 June 2012 at 15:19

    Not a smoking ban comment at all - just an observation that what has happened to smokers is now being visited on drinkers. As I said, it's up to you whether you draw the lesson.

  9. Very portentous-sounding, but meaningless from someone who is part of the problem, unlike a regular pubgoer like me. I think you'll find Curmudgeon's blog more tolerant of your crocodile tears.


Comments, including disagreements, are welcome.
Abuse and spam are not and will be deleted straight away.
Comment moderation is installed for older posts.