CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING CUSTOMS

As I pay more now for my Saturday newspaper than I earned in one week as a lad in my first job in 1940, it occurred to me I should start recording present day episodes and compare them with similar customs in my youth.

No sooner had I made this resolve than I saw on my daily walk around the neighbourhood two figures sitting hunched up in metal chairs outside an ordinary looking cafe. The day was sharp and frosty, the temperature around freezing. The two smoked cigarettes. There was no intimacy or comfort in the scene.

The glass window frontage of the cafe showed an interior cozy and clearly warm. People were seated at tables enjoying their refreshments and looking relaxed in the pleasant atmosphere.

The two figures outside were prepared to forego what was available to them through the door, a step or so from their chairs so as to be able to to indulge their desire to smoke. All smoking indoors in public places had been made illegal recently.

I reflected on this picture that would not have been seen in my youth. In the 1930’s and 40’s people smoked everywhere; in pubs and restaurants; in cinemas and theatres; in cafes, on buses and trains; people smoked at mealtimes between courses. People even smoked doing healthy things like walking in the countryside. There was nowhere, apart from churches, that smoking was not a part of daily life.

When I started work in 1940 there was a certain kudos in going to London to work. The alternative was to work locally and almost always for less money. But to get to work in London meant travelling by train and that meant paying at least 20% of one’s pay on travelling costs. The disadvantage did not stop there. Train coaches were divided into compartments with separate doors and upholstered bench seats with five places each side facing. The windows could be opened by robust leather straps. Smoking was allowed throughout the train and there was nowhere one could sit or stand that was free of the majority of other passengers smoking cigarettes or pipes and even cigars favoured by some men.

Today we would consider this a tyranny, a reckless granting of freedom for all to smoke in circumstances from which no objector could escape. In winter, the windows of the carriages would normally be shut. Many passengers within the enclosed carriages would be smoking, filling the air with noxious fumes. A non-smoking passenger could only request those sitting nearest to the window if they minded opening it to let in some fresh air. The usual compromise was to open it an inch or two.

The extraordinary fact was that people accepted this state of affairs and the perils and discomfort of sitting next to a chain-smoker in a cinema, a bus, a restaurant. The smokers were in charge.

And today society has made a volte face. The non-smokers have now taken charge and the once ubiquitous smokers have been banished to the fringes of society to indulge their habit. Like lepers of old, the two forlorn figures cannot mingle with the others inside. The lepers because they had a disease, the smokers because they had an addiction.

12 JANUARY 2009