John Walsh: Tales of the City

Swing through the trees? We'd much rather swing past the pub. Via the tobacconist
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The Independent Online

I see that a new leisure pursuit is gripping middle-class thrill-seekers. You're not going to believe what it is and where they're doing it so I'll just come right out with it. The pursuit is swinging on ropes from tree to tree and it's the hot new craze in Switzerland.

It's true. The Swiss, the most sensible, polite and punctilious race in western Europe, are throwing themselves with gusto into their daredevil new hobby. Thousands show up every week at adventure parks in the Alpine mountains, with a deranged look in their eyes. Inspired by years of exposure to the exploits of Tarzan and more recently Spiderman, bourgeois Swiss chaps are queueing to stand on platforms in the tree-tops, seize a trailing rope and launch themselves into the air, 100 feet above ground. They only swing to the next tree-platform along, but I expect someone's working on the super-deluxe model swing, in which you swing to another trailing rope and sail through the air on that too, looking very much like a blue-arsed gibbon.

But Switzerland? Cheese with marble holes, fondue parties, Lake Geneva, army knives, wartime neutrality, William Tell, horology - what are these correct and cautious people doing hurling themselves into thin air in the interests of fun? I'm trying to imagine the young Swiss achiever, let us call him Bernie, fresh from running the food and beverages department at the local Movenpick, pitching up at the local seilpark in his Hugo Boss suit and steel-framed eyewear, seizing the rope and flying through the arboreal canyons - well actually I can imagine him doing it; I just can't imagine him going "Aaaarrrggghhhhhhh.".

I'm sure swinging-on-a-rope will take here. We'd probably customise the activity, so it didn't involve jungle conflict. Too many colonial memories. British enthusiasts would embrace the Douglas Fairbanks version - that's where you swing across a ballroom with a sabre clamped between your teeth, snatch a swooning heiress away from the clutches of a halitotic seducer in black tights, and engage the blighter in flashy swordplay before leaping into a moat and summoning a horse.

But why do it? "People have changed the way they spend their leisure time," said an adventure-park manager in Bern. "They want new challenges, to become more active and do something to get their hearts beating faster."

There, I'm afraid, the British part company with the delightful Swiss. Because we have not changed the way we spend our leisure time. We are still keen on the high-energy, extracurricular activity called Finding your Way to the Pig & Whistle, and the repetitive but rewarding exercise of saying: "Pint of Special and a half of Grolsch, please, doll," before drinking the refreshing fluid in a brisk and circulation-boosting manner. This is what leisure time was invented for. If we have an impulse to run, we run up debts. If we are seized with a desire to make our hearts beat faster, we do not nip round to a mocked-up jungle park to dangle from a trailing liana. If we want to make our hearts beat faster, we smoke.

King-sized gripe

Not that we'll be doing so much longer. Yesterday was the last day of the consultative process about whether smoking in public places should be banned. The Government has taken soundings from over 1,200 publicans and bar owners; the next step will be legislation. But it's nice to see a rearguard fight-back beginning to stir. I felt a surge of pride on reading the Forest advertisements in this newspaper, arguing that a total ban on gaspers in enclosed places is "excessive, disproportionate and illiberal," and runs counter to our national "spirit of tolerance and personal responsibility." Stirring words, and they may fall on receptive ears. The Government is right to offer a loophole that allows smoking in no-food pubs; it should also insist on two other amendments, that every pub must have a no-smoking section, and that nobody should be allowed to smoke at the bar.

With a little adjusting, we may end up with a state of affairs that suits everyone (including publicans who offer completely non-smoke bars), rather than echo events in Ireland, where revolt was silenced and negative voices stilled, a total ban on smoking was introduced by an automaton-like Minister of Health, and the population sat there and took it, like children consigned to the Naughty Corner. People still smoke there, of course - outside bars, sullenly, in the cold night air. "Come and join us," they'll say to a newcomer. "Welcome to the Micheal Martin Conversazione Society." We do not want to end up like this.

Heavy lifting

There's been much swooning and gasping over the decision by two magazines to offer readers cosmetic surgery operations as a marketing tactic. Top Santé magazine offers a facelift, but tactfully calls it an "extreme makeover." (I suppose actually changing your face is a bit more radical than having anti-wrinkle cream rubbed under your eyes.) Zoo magazine, with scant regard for the sensitivity of human relationships, yells "Win a boob job for your girlfriend." The plastic surgeons union, Baaps (no, really - the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons) complained it was irresponsible to coerce women into unnecessary surgery that could freak them out for years. And there is something a little gross about offering a free D-cup operation as casually as Bunty once gave away tortoiseshell combs. But I fear they cannot halt the future - a Brave New World future, in which everyone will be similarly pneumatic, hardbodied, tautened, ripped and tanned. Commercial surgery will go beyond the merely cosmetic, of course. In time, you'll be offered a free liver transplant in case yours is packing up. And as more work is done on penile dysfunction, I suppose the day must come when Nuts magazine is published with the above-the-title offer: "Free Willy..."