I used to meet up with my friends in pubs mostly. Either I'd call them, or they'd call me. And we'd meet up for a few drinks. And maybe other friends would show up, invited or by chance. And we'd sit and have a few drinks, and smoke cigarettes and eat peanuts and talk about this and that. It doesn't happen much now.
With the smoking ban, the pubs became unwelcoming places for smokers. They became as sterile as dentists' waiting rooms. Smoke-free is friendliness-free. The bar girls still smile winningly, and they're still as pretty as they ever were, but it's not the same as it was any more.
The pubs used to be meeting places for me. I could meet up with friends and not get under their feet in their homes. They were neutral ground in ways that someone's home never quite is. When you go to a dinner party at someone's house, you're always aware of whose place it is, who's cooking and serving up the food. They're the boss round there. In a pub, nobody's the boss. In a pub, everybody's equal. The landlord is the boss, and mostly he's not there, sitting at the table with you.
Of course I could meet up with friends at the newly-unwelcoming pubs. And pretend that it was just like it had always been. And troop outside every half an hour or so for a smoke. And I'd do that. I'd never enjoy it much. But I'd do it. It had become a bit of an uphill struggle to see anyone. But it wasn't impossible.
But that was only the beginning.
Before the ban, it never bothered me too much whether anyone smoked or not. It no more bothered me than if they chose ravioli from a menu when I chose fish. I didn't divide my friends into smokers and non-smokers and antismokers. Some of them smoked. Some of them didn't.
After the ban, however, I began to divide them up this way. The smokers could usually be counted on to object to the ban, sometimes vehemently. The non-smokers were mostly indifferent. Some of them approved of it. I didn't think I knew any real antismokers. None of my friends were ranting antismokers. Not like Dr W, leastways. Some of them just didn't like smoky pubs the way I don't much like crowded, noisy pubs.
These slight divisions of opinion now began to gradually widen. Now that I'd begun to detest antismokers, I simply didn't want to know anyone who was antismoking. We were now on two sides of a war. And you don't fraternise with the enemy. There was only one major casualty of this. I'd known L for about 35 years. We'd been on holiday together. And I now discovered that, for 25 of those years, she'd been working as an antismoking professional. It was a tremendous shock. Like discovering that a very dear old friend was actually an SS general. If it had been anyone else, I wouldn't have blinked before pulling the trigger. Instead I gnawed at the problem for a year, looking for a way round, until I found that there was no way round, and said goodbye.
At first it didn't bother me too much that some of my non-smoking friends approved of the ban. That was simply their preference. Not everybody likes everything. But I then found myself wondering whether, since they approved of the ban, they'd always been in some discomfort when they'd met up with smokers like me in the past. Perhaps they'd also be bothered if we sat outside and I smoked. New doubts appeared. Perhaps they didn't like people drinking either? Or playing the same piece of music on the juke box? What the hell else didn't they like?
So I gradually stopped seeing anyone who'd expressed approval for the ban. If it was already an uphill battle to meet up with anyone at all, it was an even steeper climb to meet up with friends who approved of the ban.
And anyway, if they approved of the ban, it meant something rather significant. It meant that if you asked them, "Do you mind the government telling you how to live your life, or don't you?" they'd say that they didn't mind. They might even have added that this was exactly what they thought governments should do. Lead from the front. Set an example. Something like that.
And I don't think that's the governments job at all. Encourage people to stop smoking all you like. Provide helpful advice until you're blue in the face. But make it into law, and you're out of order. That's too much. And the smoking ban is too much.
So now I had a deepening difference of opinion with anyone who approved of the smoking ban. They might not have been antismokers, but their political ideas of how societies should be run were deeply out of line with mine. They weren't interested in freedom, the freedom of people to make up their own minds how to live their lives. And if they were quite happy to give the nod to a ban on something like smoking, then they'd surely approve of more or less any ban on anything. Light bulbs. Petrol engines. Meat products Anything.
Most of my non-smoking friends were indifferent to the ban. But indifference is also consent. They may not have actively approved of the ban, but their indifference meant that they didn't mind whether or not the government did or didn't reach deep into people's lives with controlling, manipulative, prohibitive laws. Indifference to the ban meant indifference to law, and to the political structure of society. If you asked them whether they preferred democracies or monarchies or dictatorships, they'd reply "Whatever."
But I wasn't indifferent. I thought it mattered. And mattered profoundly. And, as I sat listening to my indifferent friends prattling on about their new cars, or their holidays in Tenerife, I'd feel like interrupting and saying something like: "And when you got back from Tenerife with your duty-free perfume, and stepped out of the plane at Gatwick, were you glad to be returning to tyranny?"
In this manner, divisions have slowly widened. It has become a more and more uphill struggle to meet up with people, because a lot of them I no longer really want to see anyway. I want to meet up with people who agree with me. With people who detest the smoking ban like I do. With people who profoundly object to ever-mounting government intervention in people's lives.
In such manner a society gradually becomes polarised. Because what is happening with me is undoubtedly happening with plenty of other people. In the end there'll be just two sides. On one side there'll be all those people who want the freedom to live their own lives in the way they choose, and on the other side there'll be all those who don't. There won't be any room in the middle for indifference, There won't be a 'don't know' box that people can tick. It'll just be either 'Yes' or 'No'.
And it will be a war. There will be a lot of old friends of mine on the other side. I just hope there will be more of them on my side.