Smokers need freedom, not permission

Considerate and calm, smokers want nothing more than to be left alone

I was unsurprised when the high-minded administrators of Exeter College decided to play mother this week, and propose a smoking ban for the alleged good of their students. And I was disappointed at the slightly damp rejoinders offered by the college’s tobacco-loving students.

Smoking was described by opponents of the ban as “symptomatic of the working class”, another one of those crass but fashionable statements which assume everybody in an economic group thinks and acts the same. But whether these arguments hold up to scrutiny or not is beside the point. Individual smokers have their own motivations, which shouldn’t require justification to the authorities of their university.

I didn’t start smoking because I grew up without much money, but because I like tobacco. I like the rush of nicotine to the blood. I like the peace of sitting in the quad, undisturbed, without the need for a social excuse. I like the opportunity to retreat from the boredom of an office, or a library, or an argument in the kitchen. And I like smokers. It’s a young person’s hobby, and a particular type of young person at that. Cigarettes might not be good for you, but they’re definitely good to you. Smoking is the proclivity of someone who, exceptionally at this University, isn’t planning to settle down in a Surrey semi-detached with a wife and two kids. It’s the pastime of someone who doesn’t actually believe they’re so brilliant that they should live forever.

If there’s one thing that really puts us off quitting, it’s the insufferable piety of the smoke-free. I’m sure all smokers reading this have heard it: “smoking kills, you know!” Yes, of course we know, it says it on the front of the packet. These encounters aren’t even the worst. It’s the melodramatic coughers, and splutterers who really grate on me. Their spiteful idea, that we should be stripped of our ciggies because they don’t like the smell, was also the motivation of Exeter’s proposed ban. The exact phrasing was “inconsiderate behaviour”. But smokers are, in my experience, considerate. We have moved out of restaurants, bars, and pubs, and onto the street. Even on the outdoor verandas of gastropubs and eateries, we exhale in the opposite direction from those people choosing to eat in our domain. And smokers, seeing a child or an elderly person coming their way, turn their cigarettes away to spare discomfort

But this is not enough for the deans of Exeter College and Oxford University at large, who continue to believe that we need them to enforce good politesse. They are mistaken. All we need is for them to leave us alone.

Cherwell, October 2017

‘Energetic and farcical, if a little undisciplined’ – Paul Foot review

It feels as though the word “bizarre” was invented to describe ‘Tis a pity she’s a piglet’

Paul Foot walked out onto the stage of Oxford’s Old Fire Station somewhat like an alien landing from outer space. “Greetings!” he barked, dressed with a shiny shoulder-padded jacket, silver dress shoes, and a necklace of conkers.

This particular extra-terrestrial did not come in peace though, beginning his show, ‘Tis a pity she’s a piglet, with some confrontational lines on the nervous disposition of the audience.

Although it was a Saturday night, the room, according to Foot, had the atmosphere of a Tuesday evening. This was unorthodox ice-breaking from an unorthodox comic, and established the rather on-edge mood of the evening.

After some preliminary explorations in the ‘observational’ – school days, marriage, etc – Foot took us into his world, the realm of the ridiculous. Beginning with a discus- sion of ‘literal surrealism’, a genre which he claims to have invented, the comic began to rattle off a series of bizarre vignettes, which he described as “possible but unlikely.”

After imparting to us the story of a businessman who sat on a chocolate bar, Foot came up against the first and most determined heckler of the night, who remarked rather loudly: “I don’t get it.” Foot countered by repeating the joke once more – directly at the dissenter’s reddening face – adding a slightly meta elaboration about the soiled businessman’s disillusion with his career.

This elicited hearty laughs from most of the room, but I suspect the slain heckler was putting on a bit so that the kook would let him alone. Such moments, when Foot ad-libbed and engaged with his sceptical audience, were preferable to his more mechanical instances of farce. Foot was, after all, showing us his ‘routine’, and so the most outlandish moments were hard to believe. They were spoiled by a lingering sense of rehearsal.

One segment of the show centred on Foot asking members of the audience to abuse his best friend, a teddy bear. This was derailed slightly by two women who seemed to have adopted the notion that they were the comic’s sidekicks. ‘Fiona’, who was asked to punch the teddy bear in the face, launched into a bizarre spectacle in which she pretended to be deprived of hands.

Of course, we didn’t pay to see her. Foot had some trouble handling what he termed their ‘postmodern approach’ to audience participation, but managed to steer the show away from their obstruction in the end.

In this instance of ‘crowd work’, Foot demonstrated his skill as an experienced performer, if not his ability to write a disciplined show.

The title, ‘Tis a pity she’s a piglet, and the allusion to Ford, remains unexplained. The stronger parts of the performance involved Foot playing off his audience, and with this in mind it seems a saving grace that the gig was performed at the Old Fire Station on George Street.

This proved a far more intimate setting than the Playhouse, Oxford’s larger venue of choice for ‘TV’ comedians, where I speculate Foot’s style would have proved a little impractical.

The show concluded with an extended riff on the long since concluded Oscar Pistorius trial. This felt indicative of Foot’s abrupt leaps from one gag to the next throughout the performance, which were a mark of his boundless energy, but also his lack of self-discipline.

Cherwell, October 2017