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Frank Davis

Banging on about the Smoking Ban

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Two Restaurants in Japan
I went to Japan a few years ago. I arrived at my hotel at about half past ten at night, hungry and thirsty. There was nothing in the hotel to eat, and precious little to drink. So after stashing my bags in my tiny room, I decided to head off out onto the streets, which were still busy, to see if I could find somewhere to get a bite to eat and drink.
I'd walked about a quarter of a mile before I suddenly realised that I'd forgotten to bring the Japanese phrase book that was buried in one of my bags. But I decided to continue anyway, along streets lit with blazing shop signs and glittering neon lights. And eventually, in a narrow street, I came across a tiny little restaurant, its front plastered with indecipherable Japanese hieroglyphs. I peered through the little windows, and inside I could see people sat at tables. It was the only restaurant I'd encountered on my walk, so I decided that it would have to do. And I went in.
Inside there were ten or so small tables, with three or four people sat eating around each one, and a long counter with more people sat on stools along it. It looked completely chock full. A little smiling waiter came scurrying up to me and said something incomprehensible in Japanese. I pointed hopefully at my mouth. He smiled and nodded, and held up a hand, and released one, two, and three fingers. I guessed he was asking me how many of us there were. So I pointed to myself, and raised a single finger. He nodded and bowed, and signalled me to follow him, and led me to the far end of the counter, where miraculously there was just one single stool free.
I sat down and gazed around me. The Japanese man sat inches beside me paid no attention to me at all, but continued to intently read the newspaper on the formica counter underneath his plate, cigarette in one hand, spooning rice into his mouth with the other. In front of me a long glass case was filled with all sorts of little kebabs of pastry and fish and meat and peppers. On the far side, a chef toiled over an open grill, out of which rose an broad column of smoke that climbed vertically and vanished into a hole in the ceiling above. On the walls there were a few nondescript posters. There was a loud din of conversation, interspersed with calls from the chef and the waiters, and the clatter of dishes and cutlery. The air was filled with tobacco smoke. There were bright lights over the counter, but it was darker around the tables. Craning my head around, I realised that everybody in there was Japanese. There were businessmen in dark grey suits. There were women talking animatedly to each other. Some were young, and some were old. Nobody paid the slightest attention to me.
After a while, the waiter returned, and flipped open a little notepad, and held a pen against it, and looked at me quizzically. It was time to order something. And so I dug into my memory for the only Japanese word that I could recollect, and said,
He smiled and jotted on his pad, and then gestured enquiringly towards the kebabs. And so I walked along the counter, pointing into the glass case to make a series of random selections. I would have liked to have had some bread or rice with the kebabs, but there was none behind the counter to point to, so I had to do without.
The birru arrived shortly after, a welcome glass of beer foaming in the glass, along with the bottle from which it was poured. And then, not long after, a stream of little hot kebabs, each one a delightful new surprise since I hadn't a clue what any of them were. I peered around to see how people were eating their food. Some were using chopsticks, some were using forks, some were using porcelain spoons. I used the spoon.
So began my first night in Japan. And night after night thereafter I returned to the same little restaurant, to be greeted with smiles of recognition. It was always full, but I always got a seat at the counter. And I even learned how to order rice. By the time I left Japan a few days later I'd become a respected and valued regular. One evening I even got chatting in broken Japlish to a couple of girls sat beside me at the counter. We communicated in signs and words, and little slips of paper on which they wrote perfect English which they could not speak. Every time we understood each other, we'd all laugh and clap gleefully, as if we had won the lottery. And the chef reached over the counter and handed us all little chocolate lollies.
I loved the little place. It was always humming and busy and happy and welcoming. It was full of all sorts of real people, of all ages, coming and going.
One night, as part of the business I'd come to Japan  to attend to, I was invited to a dinner at one of the big American hotels up the road. I arrived on foot, and found myself in a huge courtyard flanked by monumental concrete columns. Uniformed flunkeys stood here and there in the dim light. Eventually I found my way to the restaurant, which was filled with gleaming empty tables on an immaculate parquet floor. Framed Japanese prints hung on the subdued walls. There was no smoking permitted. It was slightly chilly. And the empty room was silent. Eventually, when the guests had arrived, a murmur of conversation began to fill the air. I ordered a beer, and was given a small tumbler of it, not much bigger than a thimble. The food, when it finally arrived on elaborate dishes, was almost cold. Behind us, as we ate, surly uniformed flunkeys stood in menacing attendance, watching us closely, as if one of us might let off a bomb at any moment. I spent most of the evening dying for a cigarette and a beer.
Afterwards, having settled up my portion of the gargantuan bill, I left in the company of an American woman. I was glad to get out of the place. As soon as we'd got outside the hotel complex, and were standing on the street, we both independently and spontaneously pulled out cigarettes and lit them, and then wandered slowly down the road together, with her talking about South Carolina or somewhere and her life there. It was the only genuine conversation I had the entire evening.
In retrospect, with the passage of time, the two restaurants came to symbolise for me two polar opposite cultures. One was downmarket, careworn, egalitarian, cheap, smoky, welcoming, and bustling with life. The other was upmarket, polished, hierarchical, expensive, non-smoking, unwelcoming, and lifeless. One was a place for men who wanted to the rule the world, and the other was a place for people who just wanted to live in it. I loved one of them, and I hated the other.
And if I should find myself in Puerto Rico one night, and there's a big modern hotel on one side of the road, and a little cantina on the other side with a dog curled up in its doorway, you'll know which one to find me inside.

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Eating out after 35

Being kind of an old soul to begin with, while in my twenties I used to attempt to sit alone and enjoy a beer in a bar or at a meal at the counter of a diner.

I used to find the experience unpleasant. I seemed to gain unwanted attention. People would look at me, or even ask, pretty much, "Why are you alone?" or "What are you doing here?" For some reason, it just seems odd to people to see a young guy sitting by himself at a counter.

Now that I'm past 35, and I've gained a paunch and my hair has thinned, this has disappeared, and the experience I was seeking in the first place now actually happens. The waitresses and the owner make chit-chat with me. Old men ask me about things in the newspaper. Before I'm even seated, sometimes someone behind the counter is already leaning, waiting for me to sit and shoot-the-shit for a moment.

Unfortunately, I've had these pleasant experiences now in a world of smoking bans. The communal act of smoking has been taken out of the experience. How much pretense for conversation is created by "Got a smoke?" or "can I have a light?" or "Pass the ash tray"? Instead we have a new thing to commune over. A lot of chit-chat is made over complaining about the government.

Re: Eating out after 35

That's true. When I was a young man, I didn't sit alone in bars. Not unless I was waiting for some girl to show up, leastways.

Wonderful anecdote, nicely written.

It's the way of the world everywhere. Real people want nothing other than to live real lives, lives with which they feel comfortable and satisfied even if others might look down on them.

No one can dictate what others will enjoy.

I'm sure we all know people who say "you must try this, you'll love it". What they mean is that they love it and cannot comprehend that anyone else might have different tastes. All too often they also want to force their tastes on others because they believe theirs are somehow better or superior and it is only a matter of time before the ignorant hordes will agree.

When out of town for work I rarely ate at the hotel restaurant - such sterile places. Instead I would take some paperwork with me and find a small, family-run establishment; perhaps a curry house or Italian restaurant or a pub with a good atmosphere and solid home-cooked food. No one would question my choice to take a table in the corner and do my work while I ate. The smiles were genuine because I was a customer putting money voluntarily in their till and they knew they had to earn it. Although I would not join in conversations or sing-alongs, the fact that others were having a good time all around me was elating and turned what would have been a lonely slog into an enjoyable evening.

I sometimes wonder whether the anti-pleasure pressure groups have any idea of the damage they do to real people and their desire to live real lives.

Although I would not join in conversations or sing-alongs, the fact that others were having a good time all around me was elating and turned what would have been a lonely slog into an enjoyable evening.

I've done that too. But I sometimes wonder whether I' freeloading a bit, and that while their presence is a pleasure to me, my presence might be a bit of a downer for them.

I've sometimes seen serious business meetings conducted in pubs, with clipboards and files and notebook computers. Nice for them. Not so nice for pub-goers to have their pubs turned into offices, maybe. Much like it's not so nice for pub-goers to find their pubs turned into creches with kids running around in them, as is depressingly common these days.

I think the lesson to be learnt from this is that there is room in this world for conflicting interests. Some people favour a scruffy, informal atmosphere, some enjoy one that's sterile and buttoned-up, while others prefer a happy medium. Each camp is free to celebrate its own virtues, but each should respect the right of the others to exist.

What's better or worse can and should be determined by individuals. The result might be a large number of smoke-free restaurants and a paucity of smoky cafés. If that's way things pan out, then so be it. This disparity simply reflects the differing interests of the people. No authority has decreed that things we be so; they have simply evolved that way in response to the invisible hand of public demand.

Similarly, in a society that allows freedom of religious expression, we might end up with a majority of atheists and a smattering of believers. The atheists could, by all means, point to the fact that most people agree that atheism is right, and as a nation we might choose to take pride in our lack of belief and make decisions from an atheist perspective. However, this doesn't mean that religion should be outlawed. We accept inequality of religious conviction and get on with life, safe in the knowledge that we are free to believe or disavow as we see fit.

It is only when the resentful take power that things begin to change. If you are animated by resentment, you will perceive many things as an affront to yourself and those you claim to represent. You will consider these things to be responsible for every imaginable dissatisfaction in life and will try to eradicate them from the face of the earth. There can be no compromise, and certainly no democratic choice.

For many complex reasons, I think we live in a society that uses resentment as its organising principle. We should be wary of any government that describes things in terms of 'justice', and seeks to put right the wrongs that result from people being left to their own devices. There lurks a resentment of the people who control things and who enjoy life in ways denied to the resentful. Once resentment takes over, it singles out groups of people - smokers among them - who are seen as collectively guilty of sins against society. Until they and their kind have been usurped and humiliated, the resentful will never rest easy.

Is it really just resentment that drives it all? Some while ago I wrote comparing the smoking ban to the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in England in 1548. Overnight, a completely new church service was introduced over the whole of England, no ifs or buts. Were the reformers driven by resentment? Maybe they were, but I can't see it. It seems more that when reformers of any sort get going, they have to clean up everywhere, no exceptions allowed. That's just how ferocious zeal always seems to go, once it's got its bee firmly in its bonnet. Exceptions and allowances are intolerable to purists.

It's a bit like roads. About a mile from where I live there runs the Roman road that's known as the Fosse Way, which travels in almost an exact straight line. One has the sense about this road that there was very little negotiation with the locals about where it should go, and the Roman engineers who laid it out paid little attention to anything but the topography of the land.

Contrast that with the little meandering Devon lane on which I live, which has all sorts of twists and turns. This is a road that has clearly been negotiated over many centuries, performing detours around duck ponds and houses and private lands. You can almost sense the arguments that were conducted over every twist and turn.

The smoking ban is much more like a Roman road than a country lane. It's the product of unrestrained state power of the sort the Romans enjoyed.

Those MPs for whom banning smoking is a target to meet, an obstacle to overcome, might not be fully motivated by resentment, but I would maintain that those politicians who commonly advocate the regulation of human affairs are resentful souls. They despise those who act on their own whim and appear to enjoy life in a carefree manner. They yearn to crush these people's spirits and exert power over their lives.

And what about the anti-smoking lobby? Surely, that is full of people who truly hate smokers. You cannot tell me their hearts are not filled with the poison of resentment. I think they are like the puritans, as defined by H.L. Mencken, subject to 'the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy'. If they ever succeed in wiping out smoking, they'll turn their attentions to something else.

I certainly agree about the antismokers hating smokers. A lot of them really are pretty twisted. There's a thread on Taking Liberties about one of them, Jaci Stephen. She's clearly something of a psychological basket case. That said, I also think that there are quite a few people who genuinely believe that smoking is a terrible curse on humanity, and that they're doing the right thing in trying to extirpate it.

I also think that a lot of people on the Left hate and resent people who are richer or more successful than they are. But again, I don't think that's universally true.

You might like this, Tayles. I came across it via Hell's Kitchen and Bella Gerens.


...Socialism’s causes in the West, however, remain ever with us, the product of the convergence of two extraordinary achievements: liberal free enterprise and political democracy. The former creates wealth that has transformed all human possibility, but it also gives rise to particularly deep envy. The latter allows ambition a route to power by an appeal to the democratic state to seize and redistribute wealth in the name of social equality...

Interesting. It sums up the state of 'gulag denial' that exists among the Western intelligentsia, and explains why the impulse towards socialist ideas proves impossible to kill off.

The belief that the state should nationalise people's lives and engineer outcomes that are satisfying to those who feel powerless within a free society is an enduring one that no amount of historical evidence can neutralise. Though tens of millions have died in the pursuit of 'justice' and equality, there are still many people who persist in believing it is a fundamentally noble and achieveable aim; that every example of its failure is simply a betrayal of the revolution, rather than proof that the idea is inherently flawed and evil.

Early in the essay the point is made that those who dream of an egalitarian utopia appear to believe that the default condition of man is one of wealth, knowledge and peace, and it is only the instincts of a self-serving elite that deny these things to all people equally. That is, of course, a total misapprehension. The basic condition of man is poverty, ignorance and barbarism. Do no work and poverty will soon come knocking. Reject the accumulated wisdom of others and you will remain ignorant. Abandon self-restraint and chaos will prevail.

It is no coincidence that this mindset serves the interests of the envious and the egotistical. It tells us that we are all perfectly formed, with no need to respect the widsom of the ages or satisfy the arbitrary standards of others in exchange for the reward and recognition we think we deserve. When people wonder why our society is so disrespectful and self-absorbed they shouldn't pin the blame on the free market - which, after all, demands that people satisfy the wants and needs of others, no matter how greedy or self-serving they may be. Instead, they should look to the sense of conceited, resentful entitlement fostered by socialist ideas.

This a telling and affecting tale of two modern realities. Really liked it a lot.

Regarding that little cantina in Puerto Rico with the perro in the doorway. Before Mexico got really dangerous with the gang warfare, American's used to flock in great numbers to the border cantina's on the weekend to relive the good old days of real, true personal freedom and unvarnished human interaction. This was because that irritating goody-two-shoes kid in the classroom, who always annoyed everyone to no end, suddenly started running the show in their own country.

Let's just hope the cantina owner in Puerto Rico tears up the memo he'll get from America's state department advising him that he'll get more customers if he posts NO FUMAR signs all over the place and shoo's the dog away from the entrance.


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