David Hockney: The fuming man

The proposed smoking ban has turned our greatest living painter into a campaigner. We are now so scared of dying, he tells Julia Stuart, that we are forgetting how to live
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The Independent Online

Hockney is a contented puffer. The pleasure, he tells me, is indescribable. "Non-smokers don't know what they are missing," he says affably. It is the first thing he thinks of on waking, drawing on a Camel Light while still in his pyjamas. If he's lucky, he might have some Turkish cigarettes, which he says are "delicious". It's also the last thing he does at night when tucked up in bed reading. "I'm a person who thinks that without it, I would probably be on something else. Prozac, or whatever they're on now. I think they might be better off smoking."

Based in Los Angeles since the Seventies, for the sunshine and the city's freedoms, Hockney is back in England painting his home county of Yorkshire en plein air, which he describes as his current turn-on. But what has infuriated him since his return from the famously anti-smoking state of California is that England, a place he believes enjoys a live-and-let-live attitude, is fast catching up with it.

Last week, the Government decided to propose a ban on smoking in public places, exempting private clubs and pubs that do not serve food.

Hockney is horrified. "The Government is opposed to smoking because a small group has pecked and pecked. Most people are indifferent in England. Twenty-five per cent of people smoke and they are told they can't be social with each other, which is politically outrageous. People can work it out themselves perfectly well. If you want a smoke-free restaurant, you can go to them. If you want a smoke-free pub, there are smoke-free pubs. But why should they all be like that? Why? You tell me. You can't make smoking illegal, so let's be reasonable."

The celebrated portraitist attended the Labour Party conference in September to promote his views. Before he went, he squared up to Julie Morgan, a Labour MP, on Radio 4's Today programme. After she said smoking in pubs could damage the health of bar staff, he told her: "You're too bossy, chum. You are dreary."

Born in a horrendously smoky Bradford in 1937, Hockney started on cigarettes when he was 10. Some of their effects on health were already known: they were referred to as "coffin nails". His father fiercely opposed the habit. But by the time Hockney was 18, and at the city's art school, he was buying five Woodbines a day. He has never looked back and now puffs his way through about 25 cigarettes a day.

"It's good for stress, frankly, anybody will tell you that," he says. Hockney has managed to reach 68 without a smoker's cough, and doesn't even know what one is. "Every day I have a good laugh. Somebody told me that it clears out the lungs. I can laugh at all kinds. You have to keep laughing at most things, otherwise you'd be crying."

Believing himself to be in perfectly good health, he attributes his heart problems 12 years ago to anger he hadn't dealt with. Nor does he concede that his fumes are affecting the health of anyone else. "I don't believe the stuff about second-hand smoke. Somebody my age would never believe that. I don't think they can prove anything. People might not like the smell, but I don't think it will kill them."

Neither are smokers a burden on the National Health Service, he claims, because they pay for it with the tax they pay on tobacco. The real possibility of an early, painful death - lung cancer is a notoriously nasty way to go - doesn't bother the artist.

"What is a good way to die? Nobody need die a terrible death if you're comfortable. There are drugs. You're going to die anyway. Everybody gets their lifetime. I have to be philosophical about it. You weigh things up in your life and you'll take risks. I'm always taking risks and I don't want them taken away from me. It might kill me, but I won't mind. Something will. It won't be earlier for me, just at the normal time. A little bit of what you fancy always does you good, or it used to until they built fear into everything. I don't want to be contaminated by people who base everything on fear of death. I base everything on equality and love of life. This is England with a long tradition of liberty, which seems to be eroding."

There is a "mean spirit" in his country of birth, he says, which was one of the reasons why he moved to southern California, the inspiration for his iconic blue skies, swimming pools and brown bodies. "The pleasures of living there are all private. You move about in a private space, in a car. So I go from one private space to another private space and it also has a climate that allows you to be always outside."

He firmly believes smokers take their time to ponder over matters, much like Einstein with his pipe, who, he points out, lived to a ripe old age. He remembers one of his walks in Holland Park, which he does whenever he is in London, when he stopped to light up. As he puffed away, he watched a peacock, and then noticed a rabbit and a magpie. Three women then jogged by, tutting and waving their finger at the smoker, clearly not recognising the man who is arguably the country's favourite artist. "They thought they were healthier than me and I don't. I think they were self-obsessed. Obsessed with their body. I wasn't."

He is quick to rattle off a list of other famous smokers whose lives were not cut short by the dreaded weed, including Manny Shinwell, the Labour parliamentarian and cigar smoker who, when he was 100, walked to the House of Lords. Then there's Churchill and Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader whose death prompted him to write to The New York Times after the paper published his obituary. "Two days later, there was a letter from probably the 35-year-old health commissar from Berkeley, California, saying Mr Deng was a very bad example to the young because he always had a Panda cigarette in his mouth. I wrote back, pointing out he was 96 when he died [in fact he was 92]. How old do you have to be? And if that was the criterion they were looking at, Adolf Hitler would be a good example to the young because he didn't smoke."

Above all, Hockney believes his habit helps with his work. When he's painting he doesn't smoke, but he will often light up if he puts down his brush. "It seems to have a calming effect on me. But I don't think we are all the same," he says. "I'm probably high most of the time, on nothing. I can get excited by subtle things people wouldn't, such as looking at raindrops in a puddle. Some people might see a terrible day; I see a delight, the way the drop hits the water."

The life and times of a born dissenter

Born 1937, Bradford, the fourth of five children. His family were, in his words, "radical working class": his mother was a strict Methodist and a vegetarian; his father an anti-war campaigner "constantly writing to Stalin". Hockney won a scholarship to Bradford Grammar School, then attended Bradford College of Art, graduating in 1957 with distinction. As a registered conscientious objector, he then spent two years working in hospitals in lieu of National Service.

Early success Hockney studied at the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1962. There he met RB Kitaj and became instrumental in founding the British Pop Art movement. His early works - including collages incorporating openly homosexual texts, such as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass - were an instant hit. He had his first solo show, at the Kassim Gallery, London, a year after graduating. Notable works include A Bigger Splash (1967) and Mr and Mrs Ozzie Clarke and Percy (1971).

Continual experimentation Hockney, who settled in LA in the Seventies, has worked with computer drawing programs, Polaroid photo montages, coloured pulp and prints using a fax machine. He has created stage sets including Ubu Roi for the Royal Court and The Rake's Progress for Glyndebourne.