It was a mellow moment. The clouds of the day had cleared and, as darkness descended, a few thousand of us were relaxing as the familiar strains of "Moondance" drifted over the parkland of Blickling Hall. On stage, those with binoculars could see a tubby little chap in a pork-pie hat, standing motionless and scowling as he sang. What, in almost any other performer, would have seemed contempt towards his audience was here cheerfully accepted. Van Morrison, we knew, has always been a man whose warmth and charm is in his music, but nowhere else.
With their picnic baskets, fold-up chairs and glasses of white wine, the people at Blickling were more an air show type of audience, with a few groups that would have looked at home at an end-of-season point-to-point, than a rock-and-roll crowd, and that was just fine by me. Who needs noise and sweat and tumult at this time of the year, at this time of life? I puffed at a small cigar, content that the music was at just the right volume, that there was there room in the park for members of the audience to sway lazily in their own space or to dance about in a sedate, gentle way.
At this moment, I was struck rather hard on the right shoulder. I turned, half-expecting to see someone mid-pogo or rushing the stage. In fact, it was a middle-aged woman and she seemed rather angry with me. "Would you mind keeping your smoke to yourself?" she hissed, before scurrying back to her place some 10 yards from where I was standing.
Like most men, I automatically assume that I am in the wrong when under attack from a woman, so now I experienced a stab of guilt. My assailant would have spent over £30 to see Van the Man and here I was poisoning her with the fumes of my Henri Winterman half corona. I moved to the right but now was blocking the view of a man the size of Martin Amis. Retreating from another assault, I moved back to where I had been, now and then taking nervous puffs at my cigar, exhaling furtively.
As the concert continued, it occurred to me that something rather bizarre had happened. It is of course bad form to smoke a cigar at an open-air rock concert where the socially acceptable thing is to light up a joint, but we were outside and dispersed enough from one another for it to be impossible for anyone else to smell my cigar, let alone suffer any passive harm from it.
Clearly it was not the effect of my smoking that had enraged this Mme Furiosa of Blickling Hall so much as the mere fact of it. I was shamelessly and openly smoking a cigar. It was her duty to point out to me that my behaviour was disgusting and anti-social.
Under normal circumstances (litter, dogs crapping on pavements, leering remarks made to women by men) I rather support proactive citizenship, but on this occasion, I concluded, it was the anti-smoker, not me, who was being unreasonable. In fact, although I would not have dreamt of saying this to her face, it seemed to me that she was being a sanctimonious, interfering, self-important busybody.
We all have moments when our fellow men provoke feelings of distaste or disapproval - they have drunk too much, their personal stereos are too loud, they are showing too much of their revolting flesh in the summer sun. Until recently, though, we have accepted that such things are part of living in a mixed, and mixed-up, society.
But for some reason smoking tobacco, even outside in a way that can affect no one else, has become established as behaviour which society and the massed ranks of the concerned will refuse to accept as a matter of private decision. We live in a censorious age, when the Government has decided that even playing music in public is potentially anti-social, and smokers must be saved from themselves.
The lurid, bullying warnings that appear on packets of cigarettes and tobacco may soon, we learn, be enhanced by disgusting pictures of diseased lungs and dying cancer victims. Wild claims that, by allowing smoking in films, Hollywood is causing "unnecessary addiction and death" can be solemnly and uncritically reported in The Lancet. One hundred MPs have recently voted for a complete ban on smoking in pubs or restaurants.
Most of this prescriptive activism is self-defeating. Watching television footage of another, rather larger open-air concert this weekend, I noticed that Robbie Williams's main prop for a crooning routine was a cigarette. Was he spreading death and addiction among his fans?
Maybe he was, but it is the mark of a mature society that, having offered warnings as to the effects of alcohol, over-eating, promiscuity, smoking or whatever, it then allows its citizens to make up their own minds without being bullied into conformity by legislation or by society's self-appointed head prefects.Reuse content