Wednesday 20 November 2019

Instinct to self-destruct is alive and well

It doesn't pay to be so self-righteous and smugly dismissive of our former selves

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I RECENTLY saw a picture of Jack Charlton during his days as a player with Leeds United. He was at the club's training ground, wearing his full kit, the epitome of the professional sportsman at work, except for one thing. He was clearly, even ostentatiously, smoking a cigarette.

Ten years after Ireland introduced the "smoking ban", such images seem so strange they are like the ancient etchings of some long-vanished civilisation – what manner of men were these?

Then I remembered that I used to think nothing of playing five-a-side football and then relaxing afterwards with a few pints of beer and as many cigarettes as I could smoke. Which at one point was about 40 a day.

I have no idea how I did that. It's as if I possessed an entirely different constitution to the one that I have today, a different way of being in the world in every sense. I look back now on that incessant smoking with the same level of bafflement that I bring to that picture of Big Jack enjoying a cigarette as part of his high-performance regime. I can't relate to it in any meaningful way.

This is how it works, both for the individual and for the culture in general. We would be utterly astonished now to walk into a cinema and to find half the audience smoking. And yet, when we were smoking, we found it just as impossible to imagine that we could function without it.

The difference is that we now assume that we have got it absolutely right, that we have evolved in some essential way, that we are never going back to that madness.

And to a large extent, this is true. By every sensible measurement, smoking is a curse, and personally I celebrate my freedom from its evil grip. And yet there is some part of me which is not sensible, which finds it hard to celebrate unconditionally this smoking ban in general.

Partly it's that sense of official self-righteousness, this feeling that we have cracked it now, that we were blind but now we can see.

I think of the fabled image of the rugby player Willie Duggan, like Big Jack a top-class sportsman who was also a smoker, taking a drag of a cigarette as he walked out to play for Ireland against France in the Parc des Princes.

Oh how we laugh now, at such a primitive vision.

And yet we are hearing much about the damage that the rugby players of today may be doing to one another, due to the fact that they are stronger and faster than they were in Willie Duggan's day.

Back then they seemed to be dangerously unfit; today they seem to be dangerously over-fit. In 40 years' time people may be appalled that rugby was once played without helmets and suits of armour.

As human beings we are endlessly resourceful in finding ways to destroy ourselves, and that instinct has not gone away just because we can't smoke on the train any more –perhaps we could see this basic design flaw more clearly if we weren't so smugly dismissive of our old selves, and how little we knew.

In this spirit of self-regard we are equally dismissive of the fact that the smoking ban may have saved many lives but it has also ruined many other lives, most notably that of the poor ould fellas whose interests we have tried to represent in these pages. And we've done that, not just because it is right but because their interests are unrepresented anywhere else.

Ireland has decided, all things considered, that in the glorious quest for a smoke-free environment, these people do not count. They are expendable.

As for the people who are employed in the pub trade, there are some whose general health has improved greatly due to the fact that they are no longer exposed to cigarette smoke in the workplace. But there are others for whom this is not an issue because with the ruination of the Irish pub by the smoking ban, they have no workplace any more. Again, in our urge towards self-congratulation, this apparently does not count.

And we have pursued this most comprehensive of anti-smoking policies with a disturbing zeal. Paddy is never at his best when he is consumed by zeal, especially when it is directed towards some ideal of purity.

We can't just endure austerity, we must endure more austerity than anyone else. Likewise we can't just ban smoking in certain public areas, we must ban it more than anyone has ever banned it before.

Undoubtedly there is some deeply unresolved religious impulse at work here, a kind of a Matt Talbot vibe in this pattern of disgraceful indulgence followed by a regime of self-mortification.

There is no other way to explain the weird obedience of Paddy in these situations. Our acceptance of the draconian smoking measures displayed a kind of masochism that was later to be seen in our sheepish surrender to the Troika.

I think too of the late Peter O'Toole, a man who knew a thing or two about the eternal verities, about man's deep yearning for what used to be known as "places of low resort".

Heaven to him was "moving from one smoke-filled room to another". By the time he checked out, there was a law against it.

Sunday Independent

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