a whiff of revolution in the air
Barred from polite society, the new militant smokers are demanding their own space. Eleanor Bailey on places to be seen through the fug
Sunday 01 December 1996
The revolutionary call to the new militant smokers, the Das Kapital of the smoke-and-be-damned philosophy, is London's first smoking guide: where to do it, when to do it and how to look cool along the way. The images throughout Smoking In London, a book produced by Forest (the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) make one thing clear; that, contrary to what your teacher told you, smoking is both clever and funny and people who smoke are more sociable (60 per cent of pub-goers smoke, compared to 30 per cent of the population as a whole). After last week's Budget they may be 15p a pack worse off, but smokers are still more amusing, more well-adjusted, tolerant individuals than their pink- lunged counterparts.
The guide is littered with pictures of urbane, white-haired Peter Cookalikes (proving that smoking and old age are not necessarily mutually exclusive), career women looking meaner with a fag, cool black musicians and sexy clubbers. There is not, it must be said, much representation of the less savoury smokers who look like the inside of an ashtray. (But there is a picture of Auberon Waugh.)
Special marks are awarded to places where smoking is not just tolerated but encouraged. The Canal Cafe Theatre, W2, is held up as a shining example. Its administrator, Antony Nichols, says that smoking is "practically obligatory".
According to the guide's editor, James Leavey, the best places to be seen smoking are the various fashionable Cuban bars such as Cuba Libre, Kensington, because as well as a smoke, you can also pretend to be Ernest Hemingway. "Quaglinos and Mezzo, too, are of course very good because of the cigarette girls who put the glamour back into smoking," says Leavey. "Any of the newer cocktail bars are very smoker friendly because smokers look so good." The bar/theatre Portobello Gold is so into smoking that it is displaying cool smoking shots from the Forest guide. Customers not only smoke with impunity but know they are art forms within an art form - what more can the aspirational West Londoner ask for?
The guide emphasises smoking as a sophisticated activity of choice rather than yellow-fingered addiction. The writer, presenter and occasional smoker Andrew Jefford - whose newspaper tobacco column Smokes came out in book form this year - explains that smokers are not the moral equivalent of old-lady muggers with Imelda Marcos's self-control. But that with smoking, like with food and drink, our tastes have become more discriminating. "The 20th century may well be seen as something of a side alley," says Jefford. "Just as there is a Campaign for Real Ale, there may be a campaign for real tobacco. There will be a move away from the modern low tar cigarettes, which as they get lighter and lighter you have to smoke more and more to get any kind of effect. Instead people will smoke fewer, but better quality cigarettes. Enjoying it and making a statement at the same time." The Forest guide quotes cigar maker Zino Davidoff - "Less is more, even in smoking. Make it a philosophy, make it a delightful celebration."
"I gave up being 'a smoker' four years ago," says Penny, 28, a gardener. I had a year's complete break. Then one night I was eating out with old friends, all smokers, and I joined them. I really enjoyed it. It's a nice thing to do when you're out, it's more atmospheric. I didn't wake up the next morning with a desperate craving, I had no urge at all. I thought I can control this. And that's what happened. I probably smoke about a pack a month. I don't see why I shouldn't smoke a bit if I want to. I'm in control."
Witness the swing back to pipe and cigar smoking, the rebirth of cigar bars and the growing appreciation of smoking as a sensual experience. Simon Chase, Marketing Director at Hunters & Frankau, the chief importer of Cuban cigars into the UK, agrees. "Many smokers are making informed choices about what they smoke rather than being tied to their addiction." Last week saw the launch of a new brand of Havana called Cuaba, a return to the luxurious, torpedo-shaped cigar popular in the last century.
The place to smoke cigars is JJ Fox's in St James Street, W1, where there is an informal cigar divan where people (such as Harvey Keitel) "naturally gather". There are spontaneous jamming sessions and film folk. Oscar Wilde used to frequent and Winston Churchill's special chair remains in situ.
Cigar bars are now such a style concept in the States that Los Angeles, that health-obsessed city, is trying to wrest the title Cigar Capital of the World from London. Celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi and George Hamilton are falling over themselves to open bars, despite the fact that from the beginning of next year a ban on smoking in other bars, clubs and casinos comes into force.
Smoking equates with atmosphere and stirring of the creative juices. "Lots of artists have said that they need to smoke to think," explains James Leavey. "That's why there is such a grand tradition of it and why great thinkers have smoked, like Karl Marx and Mozart." It is perhaps also why many of his top recommendations are the creative and media haunts. "Jerry's bar in Soho is always a splendid fug," says Leavey. "Keith Waterhouse goes there, and Richard Littlejohn. And the place is awash with actors." The nearby French House is another top venue. "It's always full of West End stars." Noel, the landlord, famed for his Elvis impressions and star of the recent documentary on Soho life, is a firm believer that smoking is essential to the celebrity personality.
The inference is, smoke the right cigarettes and you will be associated with the live fast, die young film star ethos. And if one needed confirmation that the trend was transatlantic, Smoke, the cult Wu Wang/ Paul Auster movie was set in a Brooklyn tobacconist. The follow-up, Blue in The Face, featured a laconic Lou Reed puffing through much of the film.
It's not just a style issue. Members of the public are fighting for their right to light up outside bars and restaurants. Commuter Peter Boddington, 43, has sunk pounds 20,000 into an as yet unsuccessful court case against British Rail for banning him from smoking. "I spend two-and-a-half thousand a year on a season ticket and at least as much again in the buffet," he says. "And they won't even let me have a cigarette with my coffee." Boddington has been escorted by police from the train twice for smoking, but he continues to light up with what he claims is a growing band of militants who rendezvous in the buffet. "The buffet has become a sort of unofficial smoking area. They don't say anything any more. Banning smoking was nothing but a PR exercise because they couldn't improve anything else."
Boddington claims huge support from the public. "Loads of people have written letters," he says. "They even stop me in the street. We're standing up for ourselves. We won't be treated like lepers."
The militant smoker believes the spread of bans on smoking in public is just the beginning. David Lancaster, Editor of Eat Soup, the new foodie magazine for new lads, (which claims its typical reader "always respects the rights of non-smokers - they are free to leave") says the "health Nazis" will not stop at smoking bans. "It will extend to anything dangerous; bungee jumping, riding a motorcycle.
"There has been too much emphasis on people being told what to do. People should be allowed to go out and enjoy themselves without feeling guilty. The perfect end of a good meal or the accompaniment to a good evening is a well chosen cigarette. It tastes nice. Whatever people say, it is still undeniably cool. It is inextricably associated with glamour and sophistication."
Julian, 29, a musician, explains the difference between the places where smoking is tolerated and places where it is not. "You only have to look at the difference between the Firkin pubs and the Wetherspoon pubs. Both are popping up all over the place, yet the Firkins achieve an authenticity whereas the Wetherspoons are huge, clinical, atmosphereless places. The main difference is that Wetherspoons have no-smoking areas. I don't even smoke and I wouldn't go near them.
"All the full of character bars such as Gordon's Wine Bar and Ronnie Scotts are full of smoke. It wouldn't be the same without it."
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