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A SMOKING GLUM January 28, 2010

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

 Suppering with a friend not seen since she moved abroad over a decade ago found me in Shepherds Bush last week with four other acquaintances not seen for even longer, and an evening of bawdy gossip and cheerful reminiscing. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the evening was that everyone at the table was unselfconsciously smoking and had I brought a cigar with me, I’d have joined them. Just like the old days in fact, before social smoking confirmed pariah status on anyone who inhaled. We’d all put on a few pounds since we’d met, but there we all were in our early sixties in pretty good health and indeed looking it, and whilst I have also lost friends to cancer and have a couple more currently battling it – smokers both – I am not a nicotine nazi when it comes to what others inhale.

As I swayed uncertainly back to Goldhawk Road tube station I got to thinking that if the anti-smoking lobby had their way, and that nominally includes a government primarily concerned with the cost of smoking-related diseases, then how would the social landscape look? Would there be a black market in Silk Cut? Would drug dealers turn to Chinese-made Camel Lights to keep them in tinted-windowed Range Rovers? And would hardened nicotinies furtively puff away behind the blacked out windows of tobacco shebeens?

Well since New Zeeland is about to impose such a ban on its citizenry, we shall soon undoubtedly see, but what we already know is that the pub and club trade has suffered enormously since the ban on smoking in public places came into being. This has had a clear effect on drink sales and helped augured the supermarkets’ cheap booze promotions which in turn fuelled so much anti-social behaviour. It also means fewer people socialising in pubs – a bad thing in my view – which in turn accelerated if not directly caused the closure of many of them and ergo, reduced the tax revenues on booze.

And this is where it gets interesting. Irrespective of that specific loss to the exchequer, according to the Tobacco Manufacturers Assoc. if tobacco sales were banned outright, the exchequer would’ve lost £10billion in tax revenues last year. And yet according to the NHS, the annual cost of treating smoking related ailments is £2.7b. Do the math and you realise that if smoking were banned outright the economy would suffer tremendously, and never mind the cost of providing benefits to all those unemployed tobacco industry and NHS staff. Get the picture?


When I started blogging early last year I determined not to make it too personal but  having since scanned a few other people’s digital efforts, such social rectitude might seem unduly high minded. So without wishing to drag my reader too deeply into my personal hell, and a’propos the wider benefits of gaspers, I should say that with one exception during this past thirty years every one of my girlfriends, or ‘partners’ as those of us of a certain age must now describe them, has been a smoker. I used to observe that the way most women held and smoked their ciggies was part of their allure, but since some of my female friends have succumbed to cancer in recent years and I began encouraging at least my last two ex-, erm, partners to cut down on their habit, it’s become prudent not to articulate such views.

By a similar token in recent months I’ve found myself defending my inability to hold down a relationship for more than three years, usually to women who for some absurd reason had ‘taken a shine’ to me (I do love the quaint sophistry of that phrase). Hardly considering myself an emotional cripple or commitment-phobe – although of course I may be both – I’ve put it down to self-preservation under private duress that led my then partners to cut things off at the pass, or maybe I’m just a lousy lover and a selfish old sod. But I think the truth of it is that having lived on my own for so long I have become, to quote Richard Ford, “so absorbed with how exact segments of time are consumed (yet) can begin to feel a pleasure with life that is hopelessly tinged with longing”.


But longing for what, my friendly female interrogators might (and do) ask? Well fairly obviously there’s the next vocational goal, the next rendezvous with (possibly smoking) friends, the next trip on a balmy summer’s day in the Lancia (now that really is a longshot), the next gobsmacking show at Tate Modern and on and on it goes, this litany of small pleasures. But the easy and hopefully unfettered shared intimacy which is of course a major virtue of a relationship is pretty much possible with friends of long standing who you’re not sharing a bed with, and it’s these relationships which I realise I cherished more than those that left the rails after some barely articulated loss of trust, lust or whatever it is that love actually is.

Heavy going is not what I intended when I began this latest scribble, but having seen a trio of films up in town which sorely questioned whether loving partnerships can ever be permanent (The Road, A Serious Man, It’s Complicated), and had my battered old Yamaha stolen and vandalised outside my temporary digs, I am momentarily feeling a tad dubious about the innate goodness of the human condition. So much so, I rather feel like remedial Marlboro Light.

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Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

That journalists are second only to estate agents in the untrustworthiness dept. is evidenced by my pre-Xmas claims that I would take advantage the festive hiatus to pen a quickfire stream of blogs, whereas in fact I only managed three of the blighters. And now that normal service has been resumed, I’m trying to catch up – a process hampered by events, dear boy, events… including of course the extreme weather you’re heartily sick of. However this morning’s planned tirade on the cultural importance of the motorcycle was thrown off-kilter during my hungover breakfast by some half-heard R4 pundit reflecting on the impact of eBooks on the reading public, much as I myself had done in a blog ten days ago.

Not that I wished to reprise this so soon afterwards, but it brought home the rapid pace of cultural change which, coincidentally, was also the unspoken theme of a brace of BBC2 retrospectives I’d just watched on the Noughties. The two major conclusions drawn from these well judged documentaries, at least by me, was that western society’s cultural values were increasingly dumbed down by the proliferation of communications technologies, this in itself fueled by a nation’s economic imperatives driven by demands for instant gratification regardless of whether it is earnt or merited, demands that could in fact be met by the availability of cheap credit.

THE VICIOUS VIRTUOUS CIRCLE    In particular I was impressed by the Guardian’s Economics Editor (and Paul Foot lookalike) Larry Elliott, who noted that by running down our manufacturing base we and America had allowed China to build up theirs. The consequence of this enabled Western consumers to buy increasing quantities of cheap Chinese exports, thus allowing our interest rates to plummet so that we could borrow more which then pushed up the value of our houses so that we could borrow more money to buy more cheap Chinese exports!

Raising this subject with a friend this afternoon he averred that in due course this could backfire on China whose mushrooming affluence would put them where Britain and America were 10-15 years ago, i.e. looking around for cheap manufacturing elsewhere as its citizens would no longer accept dirty, boring factory jobs so that in the third world country we’d then become opportunities for an industrial revival would soon emerge. It’s a nice and not unfamiliar argument, but although we thankfully wouldn’t be around to witness it I rather doubt this scenario, not least because as a nation we’d have long lost the skills to staff and manage large-scale manufacturing, but also the speed and scale of technological development makes it impossible to predict what the industrial landscape will look like in ten, let alone thirty years’ time.

WHEELS FALLING OFF    Which brings me back to where I’d intended to start, namely motorcycles. We once had a thriving motorcycle industry which, as we now all know, was ultimately hobbled by greed, under-investment and a myopic inability to note what was happening in the far east, or at least to take it seriously. However just as it had when post-WW2 workers sought cheap transport to get to their factories and shipyards, and their sons were motivated to become ton-up boys by iconic images of Marlon Brando, the motorcycle remained an essential if unexceptional presence in  British culture. And although the British bike industry was in its death throes by the 1970s, I was lucky enough to launch a couple of magazines during a golden decade of motorcycling fuelled by a bewildering choice of efficient and exciting Japanese machinery that was affordable to all.

But as motorcycles became faster and more complex, and therefore more dangerous and expensive, they increasingly became toys for the affluent and also the subject of public and political opprobrium in a risk-averse world. As we exit the Noughties the omnipresent motorcycle we’ve taken for granted for sixty odd years looks set to disappear, replaced by a few bespoke machines owned but rarely ridden by rich old  collectors. And why is this? Well worldwide sales of the primarily Japanese-built bikes have plummeted this past couple of years with the consequence that the ‘Big Four’ marques are cutting back their ranges, sharing production and if some darker rumours are correct, in some cases planning to give up motorcycle production altogether. Even America’s Harley-Davidson, whose costly but technically antediluvian machines until 2008 enjoyed booming sales to wannabe outlaw bikers in the media and banking, have slashed staff and closed factories.

But this isn’t all due to the ongoing recession because in Western countries bereft of their own indigenous manufacturers, trade associations and user interest groups are riven by factionalism and too weak to turn the tide of onerous legislation – particularly with regard to the obstacles aspiring bikers now face in getting a licence to ride… even assuming they can afford the vast sums required to insure and buy the bikes that tempt them. Which of course increasingly they can’t, and why would they want to when a Nintendo Wii costs under £200? After all, politicians know there are few votes and even fewer jobs in what has long been merely a dangerous recreational pursuit with anti-social overtones. Even the despatch riding trade which provided employment for a few thousand die-hards in our larger cities and steady sales of bikes and spares for their importers is, thanks to the digital highway, dying on its wheels.

So along with paperback books, CDs, newspapers and all the other trappings of society my generation took for granted, it looks like the mass-produced motorcycle will have disappeared by the time we enter the next decade. But as fresh new and undemanding gee-gaws emerge to obsess us, will we as a society regret it? Probably not, but I will personally.

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