Thomas Sutcliffe: Private pleasure but shared pollution

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The Independent Online

Very bizarrely, the smokers' lobbying group Forest is currently adorning its website with a picture of Nick Naylor, beneath which runs the legend "Voice and Friend of the Smoker". Bizarrely, because Naylor is a fictional character - the cheerfully unscrupulous lobbyist in Jason Reitman's film Thank You For Smoking. And though the satire is a little too heavily filtered to satisfy anyone looking for a real rasp of moral contempt, the point is that Nick is a rogue - a "yuppie Mephistopheles", as one of his press profiles puts it, who has sold his soul to the cigarette companies.

Confronted with a teenager dying of lung cancer, Nick goes on the offensive. It's in the cigarette company's interest to keep him alive and smoking, he points out. They don't make any profit from the ones that die young. If this is what Forest are reduced to in the search for a media-friendly face, then they must be at a last stand.

Except, of course, that they've got David Hockney as well - something of a loose cannon when deployed on the Today programme (he sounded like a demented street person on his last outing), but perhaps more effective as a celebrity soundbite. In a postcard mailshot to peers about to debate the report stage of the Health Bill, Hockney varied between plaintive questioning ("Why do you have to ban smoking everywhere? That's my question") and outlaw defiance: "You will never stop smoking. It's too pleasurable". His colleague in the defence of freedom, Anthony Worrall Thompson, opted to stress the importance of choice - a tactic summed up by Nick Naylor's even more feral colleague in the film with the line, "It's not about cigarettes. It's about liberty". Graphic images on the postcards contributed further to the tone of febrile self-pity which now colours most pro-smoking material. One showed a prison cell with the legend "Smoking Room?"

Forest describes its website as "a haven for smokers and non-smokers who believe in freedom of choice". I like to think I fall into the latter category: the only problem being that I support choice for non-smokers too - and in a number of places there's only one lot of air to inhale. The rhetoric of the pro-smoking lobbies argues that it's only fair that we all be allowed to do our own thing, and dodges the hard fact that one thing effectively rules out the other. If you choose to smoke in a restaurant, I can't choose to breath unsmoky air, and vice versa. When two freedoms collide head-on like this we generally resort to democracy, not the same thing as liberty at all, but probably the least worst alternative. According to a recent BMRB poll, at least 70 per cent of people support a smoking ban in public places. This kind of "freedom of choice" doesn't appear to be what Forest have in mind when they hymn its virtues, though.

Emerging from a screening of Thank You For Smoking last week, I walked across Soho Square in London. Despite having been as packed as a seagull colony at lunchtime, the grass was pretty free of litter - except for cigarette butts, which studded the grass like daisies (if you're a smoker, the world is your ashtray). It may be that I was hypersensitive after the movie, but it struck me that that sight was as good an image for the liberty of the smoker as any fantasy about beleaguered free spirits. The pleasure is private, but the pollution is shared. The scandal isn't that something is finally being done about it, but that it took so long.

The Lady's not for disappearing

Caroline Blakiston's portrayal of Mrs Thatcher as a whisky-soaked loner in a forthcoming television drama Coup! has caused mutters of distress from loyalists. I wonder if they feel happier about her strange and continuing apotheosis into a Fairy Godmother of the Far Right. A recent television drama about General Pinochet included a memorable dream sequence in which the General was lofted out of captivity by an angelic Mrs Thatcher, and there was also something decidedly numinous about her appearance in The Line of Beauty. Her strangest current embodiment, though, is in the National Theatre's play Market Boy, in which she appears with giant Union Jack wings and, later, waving huge lobster claws instead of arms. Somehow I doubt that Mr Major or Mr Blair will have such an potent symbolic life in 20 years' time. In the collective unconscious, it seems, she's still in power.

* I see that the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is encouraging people to nominate their least favourite buildings, streets or spaces to highlight the psychological costs of incompetent design. I can't think of a building, but I do have a set of steps I'd like to hold up for public opprobrium. They are the exterior ones that lead down to Tate Britain's side entrance - visually innocuous, but absolutely infuriating in use.

The problem is that the length of the tread is out of harmony with a human footstep, so that the rhythms clash, forcing you to limp. The only way of redeeming it, short of replacing it, would be to label it as an artwork - an installation that interrogates our complacent assumption that entering an art gallery should be a pleasant experience. You could call it Architect Descending a Staircase, Awkwardly.

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