July 24th, 2010


The Old Gods

I can give an exact date and time for when I began to get involved with the smoking issue: 3:30pm 8 November 2004. That was the day I sat down with my usual pint and my usual cigarette at my usual table inside the River, and opened that day's Independent newspaper. On one of the inside pages there was a small article, which I read with alarm and disbelief.

I won't go into the details. I described it a year or two back in an article on F2C, writing under the name of idlex.

I had no idea back then that the day would mark a turning point in my life. And what a strange and unexpected turn. Up until then life had been heading along a broad highway in one direction, and now it had swerved sharply off the main track into what seemed a dark and narrow and obscure lane, full of potholes. Everything was unfamiliar. Everything was unreal. Where did this road go? Why was I driving down it? Did I want to be here?

Coming up on 6 years on from that day, the alarm and disbelief remain. I'm still alarmed that smoking was going to be has been banned in pubs. And I still can't quite believe it. England started to become an alien country that November day. That day it began to become an England in which tolerance and conviviality and freedom and democracy - more or less everything I'd believed in - began to come under attack. And they still are under deeper and deeper attack. And they are under attack, astonishingly, by English men and women. People who grew up in this country. People who had been shaped by England and English culture and English history, but who nevertheless want to throw it all away.

Ban smoking in pubs? It was unthinkable. And it still is unthinkable. It would be like banning praying in churches. Or music in concert halls. Or gambling in casinos.

But it's nothing new. Lots of people have experienced the same sense of baffled outrage and disbelief throughout human history, as armed riders have come galloping into their sleepy villages, swinging swords and battleaxes, hacking down the defenceless villagers and setting fire to their houses. But after you've run off into the surrounding forest, and lived off acorns and cherries for a few weeks, you begin to gather your wits. And you begin to meet up with other villagers from other villages. You encounter them here and there. They all tell similar stories of murder and rape and arson. And you begin to wonder how to fight these alien invaders.

The invaders I was facing didn't arrive on horseback, or in tanks. They arrived instead with the force of the law to destroy the ancient culture of the English pub. You didn't get a sword thrust or a bullet shot, but instead a fine or a jail sentence (like Nick Hogan's).

And the alien invaders weren't from some foreign land. They were your own people. And they'd set out to destroy their own culture and remake it in a new, healthy, smokefree image. They were the government and the medical establishment. And no, they didn't consult you. They didn't care what you thought. They were out to destroy you and everyone like you. You didn't fit into their antiseptic, risk-free new world. And they had control of the government and the media and the police and the army. They had control of more or less everything.

It's a very low intensity civil war that has begun. It began with an attack on British culture by a set of eugenicists and nature-worshippers and revolutionaries who had somehow or other filtered slowly up through the ranks of society until they were installed everywhere in the highest offices, and could implement their planned transformation of society. It wasn't revolution from below, with the peasants storming the palaces. It was revolution from above. It was as if, instead of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had himself inaugurated the new Soviet State. Neat, eh?

Will they pull it off? Probably not. There have been a number of these sorts of revolutions before, and they didn't survive long. The reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt was bit like this. The Egyptians had been worshipping Amun and Ra and Osiris and millions of other gods, and the new pharaoh swept it all away and instituted the worship of just one god: the sun's disc - the aten -. He was the world's first monotheist. In retrospect the warming rays of sunlight reaching down on life on earth seem strikingly modern. Those rays of light, as they warm the earth and our atmosphere, are a matter of contemporary public controversy. But Akhenaten was about 3000 years ahead of his time. When he died, Egypt soon reverted to its old religion. The famous short-lived pharaoh Tutankhamun was one of Akhenaten's sons, and his original name was Tutankhaten - the "beautiful life of the sun's disc" -. His name was changed when the old gods reclaimed him, and the name of Akhenaten was erased from his temples, and his capital at Akhetaten was abandoned.

Our new Akhenatens are fired by similar idealism. What could be better than a single EU state rather than an untidy gaggle of warring European countries? What could be better than clean, smokefree bars and cafes rather than untidy, smoky, noisy places? How much more rational and ordered it would be! All centrally planned by experts. And all powered by windmills. Surely after a few years of living in this paradise, nobody would want to go back to the old ways. To fish and chips and tomato ketchup, and untidy noisy smoky bars, and people talking all sorts of different languages in different countries? Surely nobody would want that? It would be like going back to the old gods.

But I'll place a bet here now at any odds that, in a few years time, we'll be going back to the old gods, and the old ways. Idealism of any sort has a habit of running into unforgiving reality. The ideal, unified, healthy, smokefree world of our new Akhenatens is not going to seem the least bit "ideal" to an awful lot of people. I personally already know that I'm going to hate every minute of it. How do I know? Because I'm hating every minute of it already.

Akhenaten has established his new religion solely by virtue of being pharaoh. But the people still love the old gods of wine and music and laughter. And driven into the forests and hills, the people are beginning to unite to fight to restore the old ways and the old traditions. They won't have the BBC or the Times or the Royal Society or the Labour Party on their side, but they'll win all the same. Theirs is the power of unchanging inertia.

Some day, we're going to be able to sit in a pub and drink a pint of lager and smoke cigarettes and play pool just like we used to. And it's when we can walk into a pub and do this that we'll know that we've finally won, and that they have finally lost.

For all I know, the future may well be one in which there is a single global state, and in which all the bars and restaurants will be smokefree. But if it is to be like that, it must be because everybody (and I do mean everybody) actually wanted that, and because it actually could be done. Such a world cannot be created by the force of arms or the force of law. It must be allowed to happen in its own time. It can't be accelerated. Akhenaten was 3000 years ahead of his time. But you can't just leap-frog over 30 centuries in one bound. Particularly if your ideas are half-baked lunacy.

I once read of the Soviet Union that, if the Russian people had only waited patiently, they would have got all the reforms they were demanding in 1910 or 1914. But they were inpatient. And so they ended up enduring another 80 years of tsarism. For all I know they still endure it now.