David Randall: I'm not skiving – I'm working, but with a fag

The many benefits of the cigarette break

Sunday 12 December 2010 01:00

These words are being written not at a desk, on a laptop or tablet, but while bent over a notebook on the pavement outside the Independent on Sunday's offices.

It is -3C, an abrasive wind rustles the paper and stings the cheeks, a wailing police car sirens by, and every so often a red double-decker London bus makes the whole area throb as its engine idles vibratingly at the traffic lights. But I am safe out here – safe from colleagues' interruptions, the telephone, and, most of all, from meetings. I am on a smoking break, perhaps the most misunderstood term in the history of occupational productivity.

The past week or so and its arctic weather has sorely tested the nation's smokers. To an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, we have added hypothermia, exposure, and the chance of being found, when the snows fade, frozen and preserved outside the building in permanent mid-drag. Why on earth – in this climate and when, increasingly, employers are toying with the idea of docking wages from smokers – do we do it?

First and foremost, because of our addiction. Dress it up how we might, rationalise it, defend it, and clothe it in the thin garb of self-justification though we may, we go outside primarily because we want a fag. But – those whose time spent discussing The X Factor, tweeting, eBaying, Facebooking, or YouTubing is not being similarly registered and made into An Issue should note – there are other things we do outside besides lighting up, inhaling, and stubbing out.

First, we talk. Ideas are hatched, problems solved, theses unpicked, and gossip exchanged. We confide and commune, and get to know each other. There are shyster companies charging organisations exorbitant prices for "bonding weekends" which do not achieve a fraction of the camaraderie forged on the pavements of commercial Britain. As a result, tip-offs are received, channels opened, and paths smoothed. Here, indeed, is a fully functioning network of the naughty; a masonry of the outcasts which works to the advantage of all.

Second, we work. Never do I leave my desk to take the escalator to the real world without first grabbing my notes and the second-thoughts-strewn manuscript of my story in progress. Never does inspiration fail to arrive when I am free of the beck and call of the office – and the shouted quiz questions, shrieks of laughter, and noisy leg-pulling that accompanies the happy production of this newspaper. High Street Kensington is not everyone's idea of sanctuary, but it is mine.

Third, we think. The lighting of a cigarette is not essential to this process, but it is the pretext that takes us away from the doing and into the realm of reflecting – an all-too-sparsely populated one in these pressurised, staff-cutting times. Some jog to think, we smoke to think; the important element is not the jog or the puff, but the thought. Finer minds than mine find it so. Occasionally, in the better-read sort of newspapers, reports surface of Simon Cowell being spotted taking a fag break, drawing, no doubt, on a brand far more expensive than mine. Perhaps, on one nicotine-infused reverie, he dreamt up The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, or one of his other many successes. Who knows, if Tony Blair smoked, and had taken a reflective stroll with a B&H round the gardens of No 10, he might have better weighed the pros and cons of joining George Bush's Iraq invasion, flicked his fag-end in the shrubbery, gone back inside, rung the White House, and said: "George, I've been thinking. It's no. I can't justify it." And the beauty is, you don't even really need a cigarette to do it. Smokers and non-smokers, you just need to recognise the value of taking that little break.

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