Thursday 27 October 2016

Finian might want his ciggies indoors, but smoking areas are romance's ground zero

John Daly

Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30

'Smoking areas offer a next stage, away from the dancefloor.' Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
'Smoking areas offer a next stage, away from the dancefloor.' Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

It's enough to get one back on the smokes. In a country with hospital trolley and housing crises prancing like the horsemen in our own home-made apocalypse, this week's hoo-hah over fags did at least bring a bit of light relief to the corridors of Leinster House.

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In a move that must have prompted others to fire up an unfiltered roll-up, Junior Health Minister Finian McGrath attempted to make a case for addicted smokers, who he said were "soft targets" and needed "more understanding" from non-smokers.

With his head on the block, he threw in an arm and a leg as well by further petitioning for designated areas in pubs and restaurants where the dark arts of dragging and puffing might be enjoyed. Sound man, Finian. There then followed a media firestorm. Who'd have thought?

We found ourselves musing on Ireland before the ban - that pre-2004 era when "Have you got a light?" was an acceptable intro on any first date, as the dangers of nicotine were forgotten in the first full flush of lust, I mean romance.

Well it's been 12 years since those days when we came home from a night at the local smelling like a pack of stale Woodbines. And for the record, the cigarette's role in our quest for love hasn't entirely been stubbed out.

A young friend in his early 20s, a man who knows such things, tells me the average pub smoking area is the ultimate venue to seal the passion pact. "It's quieter, she's away from the group, the vibe is easier," he explains, adding that, like Bill Clinton, he never inhales, but has no truck with cigars.

No longer a forgotten corner open to the elements, the modern puffing paradise has now fashioned itself into a Wildean sanctuary of languid sofas, low lighting and John Mayer tunes on the speakers. Offering loved-up strangers a next stage interlude away from the throb and tickle of the Coppers dancefloor, the smoking space comes with a few flirtation rules.

"Always carry a lighter, and always ask her if her friends are OK, because one of them will invariably be having a meltdown over a boyfriend. Boom! You're talking, she's smiling - and it's only half way to the other side," this multi-capped pub player adds.

Smoking is bad for you, as even its most committed addicts will attest. And while those above a certain age usually quit for economic, social or health reasons, the dubious pleasure of a puff remains a beacon of 'cool' for the young.

In a line stretching from Lady Gaga and Lily Allen onwards to Leo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender and Keith Richards, the cigarette as a sexy appendage continues to rebuff all attempts to snuff it out.

Even the horrific images on the packet of tar-blackened lungs and tumours like turnips fail to put off devotees. Hollywood has a lot to do with it, going right back to the Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s, when stars such as Clark Gable, John Wayne, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford fumed as if their lives depended on it. And their careers did require it, being contractually bound by big tobacco firms to always have a coffin nail dangling between their fingers. Some were paid more than $100,000 to promote their addiction - a tidy sum in the post-war years, and one that surely guaranteed a comfortable journey to that early grave.

Some stars made cigarettes sexy like nothing else, with Bogie and Bacall ranking top of this nicotine playlist. In their 1944 drama 'To Have Or Have Not', her entrance is a question, as she purrs huskily: "Anybody got a match?" He obliges by tossing a matchbox, which she plucks mid-air with the feline grace of a leopard.

Two years later, they co-starred again, in 'The Big Sleep', where the opening sequence saw the pair posed in silhouette - he lights hers, then his own - as the titles roll. The camera pans down to an ashtray, where two cigarettes smoulder side by side. Back in the 1940s, this was as close to sex as cinema got - and for those with vivid imaginations, it was all they needed.

Much as some might like it, however, we can't turn back the clock. Junior Minister McGrath will have to endure his continued addiction in lonesome exile away from the gaiety of the lounge and snug. Turn back time on the smoking ban? It's a damp match that will never ignite, sir. And besides, consider where such a notion might lead.

Repeal of women's voting rights, smaller hurleys for the Kilkenny seniors, a prohibition on government Mercs? God knows where it would end.

Irish Independent

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