The Smoking Room

by Victoria Madden

I recently found a rather battered, old paperback of P. G. Wodehouse short stories, held together by Sellotape, and as he is everywhere acclaimed as the master of the snappy sentence I thought I couldn’t do better than to read them and imbibe some tips on style.

One of the things I have always liked when reading writers of the early twentieth century is the throwaway snippet of social manners and mores you frequently come across, and in the story I have just finished the hero emerges at one point from the smoking room of the golf club.

Whatever happened to smoking rooms? What a splendid institution that served a useful social purpose – keeping the air fresh and clean and furnishings untainted in the greater part of the building and providing a comfortable space apart for those who wished to indulge.

Perhaps it was something to do with them being generally an all-male preserve, perhaps it was something to do with women taking up smoking, bringing in the idea that there was no need to courteously retreat with the offensive item, but by the second half of the twentieth century smoking was everywhere in the public sphere.

My recollections as a child in the early 1970s are of a world of enclosed spaces that stank. Railway carriages in particular, nearly all separate units in those days, were filthy with the debris of cigarette stubs and old packets and all cafes, and even public loos had overflowing, unemptied ashtrays on the tables. There was some concession to health in cinemas, where non-smokers were on one side of the auditorium and smokers on the other, but of course the smoke drifted over. And the place still stank.

I really think we have gone too far the other way though. The idea that people cannot go into a bar which is known to permit smoking – so non-smokers can stay away if they wish – and be served by a fellow-smoker un-concerned about passive smoking, seems to me ridiculous. All these people huddled round braziers in pub-gardens in winter: is this any way to treat grown men and women?

And what has happened to all those wonderful Fumoir bars in the grand hotels? – intimate places to luxuriate in a fine cigar. Are guests not permitted to use even those for their intended purpose any more, or are they somehow exempt?

Let us have no more of this nonsense of what should be a personal decision being completely taken out of people’s hands, however responsibly they may actually be acting. Bring back the smokng-room to public places, not as some horrid little never-aired cupboard where the despised smoker is grudgingly permitted to skulk, but as the convivial gathering-place for the courteous aficianado it once was.

Vive la difference!