Philip Hensher: These mean-spirited and neurotic zealots

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The Independent Online

By now, the anti-smoking lobby have basically won the argument. One after another, the least likely places - Ireland! New York! - have fallen to the forces of virtue, the proponents of getting hammered in atmospheres of Alpine purity, and legions of prigs everywhere. Ten years ago, it would have seemed frankly incredible that a complete ban on smoking in pubs could be imposed. Now, following last night's vote, such a ban is certain to take effect in all our pubs, and even in private member's clubs too.

It seems incredible that the obvious solution can't be entertained. Of course, if you don't smoke, you don't want to sit in a smoky atmosphere. But in all sorts of places, it is perfectly practicable to designate separate areas, so that no one is forced to sit in a smoking room.

We've already gone down this route with regard to transport, of course. A majority of train travellers, when asked, will have said that they prefer not to travel in a smoking carriage. For some unknown reason, the train companies interpreted this as meaning that most people think that nobody, anywhere on the train they might be travelling on, should be allowed to smoke; an idea only an extreme zealot, surely, would hold.

And now for the pubs. If you are sitting in a well-ventilated non-smoking area, why on earth would you care if people somewhere else entirely are smoking? Really, what difference does it make to you?

The motives of the anti-smoking lobby are fairly clear. They really want to stop anybody smoking, at any time, anywhere. With the failure of their direct tactics, they've taken to another, more ingenious route, and have started envisaging the possibility, however remote, of someone being damaged by secondary smoke. The likelihood of bar staff, serving drinks in a smoke-free atmosphere and occasionally venturing into the smoking room to collect glasses becoming victims of passive smoking seems to me unlikely in the extreme; but the argument has proved successful.

Don't think it will stop there, however. A week or two back, anti-smoking campaigners succeeded in requiring people to stop smoking in their homes if they were about to invite health workers in. Why stop there? Why not the same requirement for the man reading the gas meter, or your cleaner?

It won't be long, I'm sure, before people start arguing that there is "a small but real risk" that you could inhale smoke from people standing at bus- stops, waiting for the cashpoint, or simply walking down the street.

And, certainly, shortly after that, the argument that passive smoking doesn't just affect the health of non-smokers; I'm sure we can expect the submission that even smokers could find their health affected by the additional burden of passive smoking, and a complete ban on anyone smoking, anywhere, seriously proposed.

If only people could maintain a sense of proportion, and a certain respect for other people's innocent pleasures. Few people now smoke if they know it is disagreeable to anyone in the immediate vicinity, but with these restrictions, there is no doubt that smokers will start to insist on their right to do so wherever it is permitted. I would just like to ask, too, whether medical research has established how many years it takes off your life to spend your time in a state of mean-spirited, nagging, neurotic little-Hitlerism.

Why can't art critics take a joke?

For some reason, Tate Modern's lovable and charming show of the work of the German artist Martin Kippenberger has been received on all sides with po-faced seriousness. I don't know why no one thought to point out how funny a lot of it is. Anyone who affixes the sobersided abstract expressionist label Untitled to a painting of a sweet little Yorkshire terrier, right, is out to make you laugh.

The clue, perhaps, is in the catalogue, which analyses, in excruciating po-mo detail, the notion of "the joke" without actually acknowledging that a lot of Kippenberger amounts to a good joke, not deconstructions of jokes. It repeatedly says that Kippenberger, a tremendous drunk, was the source of endless scabrous anecdotes, yet it doesn't occur to the writers to tell us any.

Kippenberger reminds us that even the best art can be extremely funny. For some reason, the immense volume of explanation which arises to describe new art these days hasn't found a way to cope with this. It's hard to have much respect for a critical style which can only cope with its subject's most conspicuous feature by ignoring it altogether.

* Mr Berlusconi is set on continuing his mission to amuse the entire Western world with his latest pronunciation. At the weekend, he announced to a party rally that "I am the Jesus Christ of politics."

To wild cheers, he went on to explain that "I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone."

This was news to those who had assumed that, like most politicians, he would lay down his friends for the sake of his life. Personally, I don't understand why this is more offensive to the devout than the opposition MP who responsed that "according to my information, God and the rest of Jesus' family did not take this very well."

Anyway, as everybody knows, Jesus must have been Italian himself. The evidence? Well, first, he lived at home until he was 30. Secondly, he thought his mother was a virgin.