Joan Bakewell: If I feel like having a cigarette, why shouldn't I?

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The Independent Online

I am going to start stockpiling cigarettes. I feel the need to have a small cache hidden around the house. I shall distribute them in out-of-the-way places in different rooms. I don't think it's appropriate to start putting them under the floorboards just yet. But the time may come... By the way, I'm a non-smoker!

I have lived to see the most amazing transformation of social behaviour, from a time when it seemed everyone smoked – teachers, doctors, parents – to the present day when the government's policy is openly described as the "denormalisation" of smoking. It constitutes one of the best examples of how individual behaviour can be shaped according to the precepts of the time by effective government legislation and relentless propaganda. But the latest proposals – to drive sales under the counter, and ban vending machines and packets of 10 – have me wondering whether intrusion into people's private habits isn't going too far. And are we actually heading towards all-out prohibition?

That's when the health police will invade my house and rip up the floorboards. For although I don't smoke, I am alarmed at the ever-closer encroachment of rules telling me what I can and can't do. I even admit that it brings out a certain bolshiness, a wish to subvert the rules and behave badly just to demonstrate an independence of spirit.

Yes, I am sure that is the mentality of the yob and deviant. But I identify with it strongly. Tell me often enough what to do and a seething urge to do the exact opposite comes bubbling to the surface. I speak as someone blessed with the wisdom of years who should know better. But if push comes to shove and smoking is criminalised then it'll be time for the stockpile. Or jail. I am amazed at how difficult it already is to enjoy a relaxing cigarette.

I agreed with John Reid and the promise in the Labour manifesto that pubs that didn't serve food and private clubs would be exempt from an all-out ban and be allowed a private smokers' room. This I believe was a tolerant way to treat people who were indulging a taste that is not actually illegal. But it is no longer so. Legislation rounded up private clubs regardless: members of the Garrick Club and can no longer enjoy a good cigar after their meals; nor can members of working men's clubs have a fag with the beer.

Smoking out of doors is now increasingly forbidden. My local hospital, North London's Royal Free, once provided an outdoor shelter where smokers could go, braving the cold to enjoy the comfort of a gratifying puff. On a recent visit I noticed that it had been demolished.

The BBC, I'm told, is not pleased when clusters of its workforce gather in doorways for an occasional fag. Smoking is banned not only in the country's railway stations but on open-air station platforms where secondary smoking can be no risk at all. I understand public parks will be next. That stockpile may become necessary quite soon.

The fact is that as a non-smoker I do enjoy an occasional cigarette. And there have been circumstances when I relapsed completely. When my father was dying and the distress was very great, I found that smoking really relieved the tension. Likewise, when my marriage ended. The comfort of nicotine became suddenly important.

Lifetime events of major severity call for consolation, however we can get it. Who does not reach for a drink to steady their nerves after an accident? Health hazards are at such moments the last thing that matters. It is not criminal to have such impulses... it is human.

What no one dares mention is the sheer pleasure of smoking. I am quite nostalgic for the paraphernalia: ashtrays; cigarette lighters – from slick American Zippos to those heavy Wedgewood ones that popped up on wedding present lists; cigarette boxes made of inlaid wood or figured brass and given to employees after years of long service (those who hadn't died of lung cancer, that is). Even cigarette holders used to apply sophistication, Audrey Hepburn-style, to socially inept teenagers (me!). And how they smoked in the movies – not just the smoke curling up into the light from the projector, but on the screen. All About Eve is probably the most addicted, with a brittle Bette Davis lighting up at every moment of tension. Great!

No I don't want people to smoke. I approve of the laws that exist to control it. I hope my grandchildren don't even try. But if the state wants to control it out of existence, then I think we can expect food-control (to avoid obesity) to be next. And what about mind-control? In China, if you disagree with the orthodoxy they declare you to be mad and put you in a mental home. Now there's a thought!

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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