Chris Jagger: Smokers, pubs and rock 'n' roll

The worst scenario is a table next to the stage with smokers who blow the smoke in your direction


"Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette

Puff puff puff

Until you smoke yourself to death,

Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate

That you just hate to make him wait,

But you just got to have another... cigarette." - Merle Travis

As a musician playing in pubs, I have some experience of soaking up the atmosphere, especially when singing. Then you are gulping air in large quantities and still gasping for breath. You might think that smoking and music are wedded together - just look at every black-and-white photo of the laid-back jazz horn player with the curling smoke adding to the decadence, or Eric Clapton, fag in the guitar headstock, playing the blues. Not a problem on a big stage, but with the low ceilings and sealed windows of the average boozer, there is little escape from the fug.

Walk into a pub in the morning and you smell the smoke from the night before. It's in the seats, the carpet, the ceiling, the fabric of the building. After 30 minutes you don't notice so much, but as the evening progresses so the smoke thickens. I notice the direction it comes from; diehard drinkers often smoke roll-ups which aren't so bad, not so much saltpetre, while others sport long things that are supposed to be elegant. At least Capstan Full Strength has disappeared.

The worst scenario is that a table next to the stage fills up with dedicated smokers who only remove their ciggies to blow the smoke in your direction. You look in vain for a draught. I have even propped open the door to the adjacent "ladies" to create some air flow. In a wine bar once, I moved to the door and jammed it open with my foot while still playing.

At least more people are now aware of the problem, but some smokers are quite oblivious to the haze they create around them. Smokers will congregate at the bar and successfully maintain their territory as home turf to keep others away.

It doesn't take a lot of smokers to put others off - they either suffer in silence or leave. When I reach home, I change my clothes for they, too, will smell of the ubiquitous smoke. Leave your guitar in its case for a week untouched and, when you open it, you will smell where it has been - and that's made of wood!

"Poor chap", I hear some say, why go into such places? But then the pub is the one meeting place we have for drinking, eating and socialising, so why make it the domain of a minority? The choice is either smoking or no smoking. We have tried one but not the other.

On a recent trip to Kilkenny in Ireland, where they hold a great "roots" festival, I played with Charlie Hart in a couple of pubs and the atmosphere was so much more "up", and then I realised why; there was no smoke.

People moved quietly past the stage instead to a small shebeen out the back, complete with old couches and chairs and warmed by "patio heaters", devices that fry your head while your bum freezes. These semi-outdoor smoking parties reminded me of sitting in the yard when I was a kid drinking cider. I guess people in Ireland had given up complaining about the smoking rule, they just disappeared for a while like Captain Oates.

For musicians and bar staff alike, the difficulty is you cannot escape. You are effectively held prisoner in one spot and are not free to move around as are others, so you must sing and suffer in silence. Air conditioning would help, but in many places the sum total of that is the door opening and closing. The worst offenders are the smokers who leave their fags unattended in the ash tray.

Bill Wyman, the original Rolling Stones bass player, always smoked a ciggie half behind his back, cupped in his hand, some ancient habit probably picked up during National Service. People who smoke a lot don't have much of a sense of smell so they don't know how if affects others.

Of course it affects children a great deal and that's another consideration, for we have in our society chosen to exclude them from pubs and seem to prefer that adolescents drink in bus shelters instead.

I think that as many people will be attracted to smoke-free pubs as those who may not wish to sit and drink without smoking. There will be a new clientele. My mother would not have sat anywhere smoky, and if you go back still further men actually moved into another room to smoke.

It's a shame that the debate has divided opinion so. It would be better if we all got along without the need for legislation, and given that many pubs are only just staying in business, they are wary of any change forced upon them that might alienate customers. It might reduce their cleaning bill for the carpet, though, as well as the lungs.

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