Monday
Jul172017

Stubbed out: Scotland's answer to everything

Top story on BBC Scotland today?

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has said it intends to make Scotland's prisons smoke free by next year.

The date was announced at the launch of a major report into prison workers' exposure to second-hand smoke.

It showed high levels of second-hand smoke in parts of some prisons.

See Target date in 2018 for smoke-free Scottish prisons (BBC News)

There's a significant difference between "high levels of second-hand smoke" and illness and disease but that seems to have been overlooked.

Instead the mere presence of "second-hand smoke" is cited as enough to justify a comprehensive smoking ban, indoors and out.

Forest's response read:

"The risks of secondhand smoke have been greatly exaggerated. Allowing inmates to smoke in their cells poses no significant risk to prison officers.

"On the other hand, banning smoking in prisons risks inflaming a tense and sometimes violent environment.

"Tobacco is an important currency in prison. The removal of one of the few privileges inmates are allowed could also fuel the use of illicit substances."

In addition to BBC News we were quoted by the Daily Mail, Scotsman, Scottish Sun, Herald, Evening Times and iNews. Late afternoon I also did interviews for Reporting Scotland (BBC1) and Newsdrive (BBC Radio Scotland).

Needless to say we seemed to fighting a lone battle until I noticed this quote by Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, in the Evening Times:

"A sensible and considered approach to smoking in prisons would leave prisoners with a choice - at least to smoke outside."

He called for "proper support" while people give up, "not just smoking cessation aids, but increased vigilance for signs of distress that could easily turn into self harm or worse".

He added: "Prisons also need to ensure that tobacco does not become another illicit substance which is traded in prisons, leaving prisoners at increased risk of getting into debt and subject to violence and intimidation. The prison service will need the time and space to manage a difficult operational transition."

By coincidence the Daily Mail today reported that:

Prisoners have already started rioting ahead of a total smoking ban across many UK jails, it was revealed today.

Tobacco will gradually be outlawed in English jails from August 31 - but inmates have revealed that some started trouble as soon as the ban was announced.

See Prisoners are RIOTING over a Government ban on smoking in jails being rolled out across the country (Daily Mail).

This follows a report in May that warned, A smoking ban in UK prisons could lead to months or even years of rioting (Metro).

For an insider view however I recommend this article by former inmate Alex Cavendish:

Prison smoking ban will worsen the crisis behind bars (Politics.co.uk).

Essential reading.

PS. Holyrood, 'Scotland's award-winning current affairs magazine', chose not to include a single comment by anyone opposed to the ban.

Fancy that!

Update: The Daily Record also has the story - Inmates furious as bosses reveal date for smoke-free Scots prisons.

Monday
Jul172017

Paul Bartlett's "caring obsession" with smoking

Some of you may recall Paul Bartlett.

Paul is the former councillor who in 2011 attempted to ban smoking in the centre of a small Buckinghamshire town called Sony Stratford.

A protest was organised and over 100 people took part. See Follow your head (and your heart) to Stony Stratford and The day the people spoke.

Rod Liddle interviewed Bartlett for the Sunday Times and their exchange included this little nugget:

Liddle: "Do you realise there's not a single person in Stony Stratford who's in favour of your plan? We've trawled the streets. We've walked up and down. We haven't found a single person who doesn't think that it's a fatuous idea.

Bartlett: "Well, that's not the feedback that I'm getting. Obviously there are people who are very passionate about it and want to continue contaminating the environment and killing themselves through cancer ...

Liddle: "That's none of your business, is it, whether they kill themselves, really?"

Bartlett: "It is because I'm a councillor and I care about my local people."

A few days later Bartlett's motions to ban smoking were rejected by his fellow councillors (see Stony Stratford - spread the word) and his "local people" later voted him off the council altogether.

Apart from a comment on Forest's old website in 2012 (Why is Forest supporting death and illness, asks Paul Bartlett) I'd heard no more of him until today when I found myself going head-to-head with him on BBC Three Counties radio.

The item was promoted by plans to introduce a voluntary ban on smoking in all Hertsmere Borough Council parks.

Bartlett is not involved in the initiative but he supports it, as you can imagine.

I took two things out of our discussion (which began politely enough!).

One, he admitted he had a "caring obsession" about smoking.

Two, he also stated, "I am not going to propose ever again what I proposed in Stony Stratford. I realised that was the wrong approach ..."

Unfortunately it takes just one person with an obsession to light a fire. Bartlett may not have succeeded in Stony Stratford but tobacco control campaigners have learned from it, hence the focus on play areas (not high streets) and, now, parks.

Click here to listen to the 23-minute discussion in full.

Finally, here's another exchange from the Rod Liddle interview in 2011:

Bartlett: "If you're walking in the street in Stony Stratford or anywhere else you have to walk through someone's smoke. You have to walk through their spit which they leave on the pavement through their cigarette butt, you need to get your clothes burnt and if you have a young child there's every chance that that child could get burnt and that's very, very important."

Liddle: "How many people in the last five years have been burnt in Stony Stratford as a consequence of walking past someone with a cigarette?"

Bartlett: "Well, I don't know the figure but I certainly know that ..."

Liddle: "None, probably, isn't it?"

Bartlett's obsession with people being burnt by cigarettes cropped up again this morning.

According to the former councillor people smoking in parks is putting not only kids at risk but also clothes and tables.

Part of me wishes there were more people like Paul Bartlett because his extreme reaction to smoking, his "caring obsession", is the antithesis of most people's attitude to smoking.

Unfortunately tobacco control is driven not by mavericks like Bartlett but by professional campaigners who have the same goal and the cynical, battle-hardened nous to achieve it.

Sunday
Jul162017

Heathen sent

"Hell comes in many forms," I wrote yesterday, "and playing cricket is one of them."

Dick Puddlecote, an avid cricket fan, was unimpressed. "Heathen!" he commented.

In fairness, I played for my school second XI but we were so bad (all out for 14 on one occasion) that it rather put me off. At least it guaranteed I got to bat, however low I was in the batting order.

As for fielding, even now I can recall the fear of standing on the boundary hoping the ball wouldn't be hit in my direction. The idea of having to catch something that was rock hard and arriving like a meteor from space was the stuff of nightmares. It still is.

The only time I ever caught someone out was when I was standing at extra cover, the batsman mistimed his stroke and the ball lobbed gently towards me.

It took a while to reach me (I didn't even have to move) and during those precious seconds I did what I always did. I extended my arms, raised my hands to cover my face, and shut my eyes.

Surprisingly, rather than bouncing off my hands as it did normally, it stuck. Having caught the ball however I ended up flat on my back with my teammates wondering why I had made a meal of such a simple catch.

It didn't help that I went to school in St Andrews and most of the schools in Fife played cricket on the same fields that were used for rugby during the winter.

One outfield was so bumpy it was impossible to field the ball because it arrived like a Barnes Wallis bouncing bomb. There was no knowing how high (or low) it might deviate off the grass so the best you could do was put your body in the way and hope it didn't catch you in the mouth.

After a while, as both the bruises and the defeats accumulated, "taking one for the team" became less and less attractive.

I can't remember ever making double figures as a batsman so I reinvented myself as a bowler - a slow bowler, not a spin bowler.

Ironically the absence of any sort of threat (physical or mental) meant I picked up quite a few wickets because at that age most schoolboy batsmen haven't the sense to keep the ball down.

My bowling was easy to hit but it encouraged batsmen to take liberties (no pun intended) that led them to get out.

It was the fielding however that bored (or terrified) the hell out of me and encouraged me to quit.

As an adult I played one game for my village team. It wasn't a success and I retired thereafter to the other side of the boundary rope where there was a welcoming bar.

Watching cricket is a completely different matter but even there my interest waned eventually.

As a teenager in the early Seventies I'd watch Test cricket on television for hours. Randall and Boycott were my favourite players. They were complete opposites but I loved them both.

Nip out to make a cup of tea and Randall would most likely have got himself out (or taken a miraculous catch) while you were in the kitchen.

No chance of that happening with Boycott. He'd still be there, grinding out the runs.

I loved watching Boycott bat on TV because you could do other things at the same time, and I just wanted England to win. I didn't care how they won.

In the flesh however it was a different matter.

The first Test match I went to was England v. West Indies, Trent Bridge, 1977. Boycott was batting and for several hours nothing much happened apart from the regular loss of wickets at the other end.

Bear in mind too that in those days there were no replays on a big screen. If you weren't paying attention - because you'd been lulled to sleep or were reading your newspaper - all you saw was the batsman retreating to the main pavilion, dragging his bat behind him.

Anyway the tedium was only lifted when the West Indies - and Viv Richards in particular - came into bat.

Suddenly everyone sat up. We put our books and newspapers away and paid full attention. This was more like it. Richards could actually hit the ball!

The same was true of Ian Botham. In the era of Twenty20 it's hard to imagine the impact the likes of Richards and Botham had on cricket but they made batting gloriously entertaining.

To win Test matches you do of course need the likes of Boycott, Michael Atherton and Alastair Cook and that's why Test cricket remains the best and most cerebral form of cricket.

Twenty20 is the equivalent of going straight to dessert - no appetiser, no main course. It's a sugar rush that gets boring very quickly.

It's one of the reasons I've lost interest in cricket. That, and the fact that I am hopeless at the game and couldn't score more than a measly run for my local village team.

My son, in contrast, did show some promise as a cricketer and was selected to play for Huntingdonshire at several age levels.

Unfortunately that put me off cricket too because parental nerves got the better of me. I was rarely nervous watching him play football or rugby. Cricket was a different matter.

They say it's a team game but it's not really. It's mostly about the individual because as a cricketer you're judged on your stats - bowling, batting, fielding.

The worst moments were waiting for him to go into bat for his county, especially if he was on a poor run of form.

You could wait hours and it would feel like days. On one or two occasions I would leave the ground in the hope that it might bring him better luck (and I would be saved the agony of watching every ball).

I'd return a couple of hours later only to find he still hadn't been in to bat.

One summer he couldn't put a foot wrong and scored runs left, right and centre for his club and district.

I arrived late one afternoon when he was playing for his district side to be told by an admiring parent that he was three runs short of his maiden century.

Naturally he was out next ball.

Cricket? You can keep it.

Saturday
Jul152017

The night I gatecrashed The Spectator summer party 

The Spectator summer party was in the news yesterday (or the bits of it I read) because Emily Thornberry was allegedly "turned away" from Thursday night's bash.

Not true.

According to Thornberry's Twitter account it was the person who was accompanying her who didn't have an invitation and it was he, not her, who was refused entry and she naturally felt obliged to leave with him.

I mention this for no other reason than I once gatecrashed the same event and the fact that I was able to do so without being stopped suggests security has been beefed up somewhat.

It must be at least ten years ago because the party took place at The Spectator's old offices at 56 Doughty Street, WC1.

The "handsome" 19th century building in Bloomsbury had been the magazine's home for 30 years.

In my teens and early twenties it was an ambition of mine to work for the magazine so I was curious to see the building from the inside.

When my friend Claire Fox, who had been invited to the party, suggested I tag along I didn't think twice.

I don't normally go to parties uninvited so I felt a bit uncomfortable. When we arrived however the front door was wide open and there was nothing - and nobody - to stop us walking in.

Inside it was fairly chaotic. Hoards of people were pushing and scrummaging to grab themselves a drink. It was hot, there was barely room to breathe and in the confusion I quickly lost sight of Claire.

I recognised one or two members of the Cabinet and the Opposition front bench but there was only one person guests really wanted to see and that was the magazine's editor - Boris Johnson.

Half an hour after our arrival I remember him advancing down the stairs - fashionably late for his own party - and the flurry of excitement it generated.

The crush became so unbearable I struggled out into the garden in the hope of discovering fresh air and someone I might actually know.

Outside however conditions were much the same - hot and crowded. I clung to my single glass of champagne and looked around in search of a friendly face.

Finally I saw someone I recognised - a Conservative MP about whom I had written some rather disparaging comments when he was a student and I was editing a national student magazine.

He had no idea who I was but I greeted him as if he was my best friend.

The details are a bit fuzzy but I must have told him what my job was because we started talking about smoking.

He confessed that although he was a smoker he never lit up in his constituency in case someone saw him or a photograph appeared in the local newspaper.

And then something happened that must qualify for my list of top ten most uncomfortable moments.

We were standing, this MP and I, chatting amiably enough, when a journalist who used to write a monthly column for The Spectator appeared by our side.

The MP and the journalist knew each other. They'd been at Cambridge together and although they didn't appear to be friends they had shared acquaintances.

Even though I was standing right next to them and it was clear I'd been talking to the MP, I was completely ignored.

Half-hearted attempts to chip in to the conversation were blanked and the garden was so crowded it was difficult to move away.

So I stood there like a lemon, trapped.

I don't know how long this went on for - ten minutes, possibly more. But it felt like 60. Eventually I saw an opportunity to escape and melted into the crowd.

On the plus side I also spoke to the extremely engaging Ross Clark, a regular contributor to The Spectator whose books include 'How to Label a Goat: the silly rules and regulations that are strangling Britain'.

Like me Ross lives in Cambridgeshire and he very kindly invited me to play for his cricket team who he cheerfully admitted were "rubbish".

Much as I appreciated the gesture, I declined. Hell comes in many forms and playing cricket is one of them.

Purgatory however is gatecrashing The Spectator summer party and being made to feel invisible.

Time moves on but the scar remains ....

Thursday
Jul132017

From Forest to The Mash Report (with a nod to cheeseburgers)

I'm looking forward to BBC Two's new show The Mash Report which begins a ten-week run next Thursday (July 20). 

The programme is a spin-off from The Daily Mash, the satirical website that was launched in 2007 by two former journalists, Paul Stokes and Neil Rafferty.

I must declare an interest because when he launched The Daily Mash Neil was also working for Forest.

We hired him in January 2005 after he left the Sunday Times and for three years he was our spokesman in Scotland. He also deputised for me when I was away or on holiday.

I mention this because Scotland on Sunday featured a lovely piece by columnist Euan McColm who wrote:

I first met Neil Rafferty when he was a 22-year-old university drop-out, managing a pub in Edinburgh and publishing a tiny, and hilarious, magazine called The Smear.

Unlike most funny men in pubs, Neil was actually funny - properly, cleverly, originally funny - and we quickly became friends.

When he decided to enter journalism, I wasn’t at all surprised that he became a success, reporting on politics for a number of national newspapers.

And, knowing how utterly bored he had become with the whole business, I wasn’t surprised, either, when, a dozen or so years ago, he packed it all in and moved to the country to raise chickens.

After a couple of years of fannying about, trying to grow rocket in the Borders, Neil and another pal – Paul Stokes – cooked up a wheeze. They gambled £500 each on a new website.

You can read the full piece here (Jealous hack tells pal to 'break a leg' on TV).

As it happens those "couple of years fannying about" were also the years Neil represented Forest.

I knew from the start it wasn't his dream occupation. Nevertheless he did a great job for us, appearing regularly on TV and radio and rarely complaining, even when forced to stand outside the ICC in Birmingham handing out flyers in the cold and rain.

That said, I shall never forget the look on his face. You've never seen a man more desperate to return to his home in the Borders.

I remember too attending his wedding in a converted barn in an extremely rural location near Stirling. After the ceremony guests gathered for champagne in the garden of his inlaws' farmhouse next door. This was followed by dinner (and dancing) in a marquee.

Neil's forte was of course writing and looking back at the mountain of email correspondence between us I had forgotten just how much he contributed in the form of press releases and articles.

His time with Forest came to end in 2008 when he decided he needed to devote all his time to The Daily Mash, which was beginning to take off.

Subsequently he and his wife Amy also moved to France.

Oddly enough, and despite the success of his comedy creation, I never thought of Neil as a 'funny man'.

Modest and self-effacing, he had a sense of humour that could best be described as dry. Occasionally this even infused his work for Forest, as this piece for the Edinburgh Evening News (March 2008) demonstrates:

I've never been a huge fan of cheeseburgers. Yes, they're not the healthiest food you can buy and, unless you've just arrived on Planet Earth, you may be aware of an 'obesity epidemic' that is slowly devouring our ancient land. But I don't really care about any of that. The fact is, they're just not my kind of food. I like pies.

That said, I've got no problem with anyone else eating cheeseburgers. If that's what you're into, then crack on. As long as you know what you're doing and you're not bothering anyone else, then what business is it of mine?

I certainly wouldn't go around demanding fast food restaurants be banned from displaying the different types of burgers they have on sale or that the burgers be sold from under the counter. I wouldn't demand those little cardboard burger cartons carry a picture of a swollen heart plucked from a recently deceased burger fan.

I wouldn't demand that burger bars be forced to apply for a special 'burger licence', nor would I demand that an 18 certificate be slapped on all films that depict gratuitous burger eating. In fact, if I did do any of those things in order to try and stop people from eating burgers, you'd probably think I was a nutter.

Similarly, if I called for bottles of Chardonnay or Martini to be sold in brown paper bags - like a hard-core pornographic magazines - and carry a picture of a diseased liver, you'd probably advise me to take some time off, or have a few drinks.

When it comes to smoking tobacco, however, all of the above are either already happening or being seriously considered by our government.

Apparently they want to 'protect the children' - the classic excuse from those who want to take away your freedom. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for protecting children, but not only will none of these measures actually do that, but those who say they will are lying through their teeth.

The reason they support all these measures is because they are part of their rather creepy campaign to 'denormalise' smoking. They want to turn smokers, the vast majority of whom are normal, law-abiding, devastatingly attractive people, into lepers. They want to bully them and shame them into doing as they are told.

It is all rather nasty of course, but Scotland's smokers are getting used to it. It's the rest of you I feel sorry for. They are already trying to 'denormalise' driving a car or going on holiday by plane. They'll soon be trying to 'denormalise' drinking, cheeseburgers and, yes even pies. After that, how long before they denormalise the books and films that you like? How long before they denormalise words and ideas? How long before they denormalise you?

(And, by the way, while they're doing this, rebellious teenagers will be finding new and innovative ways to get their hands on tobacco, and all because the adults keep telling them not to. In case you're wondering, the best way to prevent kids from smoking is to actually enforce the existing age limit, instead of just talking about it. Go on, give it a try.)

So if you want to team-up with the denormalisers, then the very best of luck to you. They seem like a fun crowd. But while you're being re-programmed, the rest of us will be out in the beer garden with a drink, a fag and something with cheese on it, enjoying our abnormal lives and minding our own business.

The Mash Report starts next Thursday, July 20, on BBC Two.

See also Who's on The Mash Report? (Chortle).

Wednesday
Jul122017

Spreading the word

Last night's event in Brussels went pretty well, I think.

A full house enjoyed a free burger, two complimentary bottles of beer and a short talk by Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Resesrch and lead author of The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers.

Venue was Be Burger, a restaurant close to the European Parliament. We booked the enclosed space (with sliding roof) to the rear of the restaurant, plus the covered smoking area, and invited guests to eat, drink and listen to what Neil had to say.

Credit to Neil, by the way. This is the second Forest event he's addressed this year (the first time was in London in February) because he's as keen as we are to spread the word about his research.

An extremely engaging speaker, he has the ability to convey a serious message in non-highbrow terms and with a sense of humour if not mischief.

The format (drink, supper, speaker) was an experiment. It wasn't perfect but it seemed to work. With a little polishing we may have stumbled upon something that could be rolled out elsewhere.

Inevitably there were some notable absentees because Neil's report hasn't been universally welcomed. "Smoking? A pleasure? You can't say that!"

Frankly I don't give a damn. Forest has never disputed the potential health risks but smoking does give pleasure to a substantial number of people and it shouldn't be taboo to say so.

I'll go further. To deny that smoking is enjoyable (even to some who consider it addictive) suggests a wilfully perverse head-in-the-sand mentality.

At a time when billions are being spent developing safer nicotine products you would think that research that also sought answers to the question 'Why aren't more smokers switching to vaping?' would be compulsory reading.

But no. The truth – that an overwhelming majority of confirmed smokers enjoy their habit and don't want to switch to a less harmful nicotine product – is too much for the prohibitionists to acknowledge.

Instead they resort to almost every conceivable tactic to ignore or bury the evidence. (The stories I could tell you!)

Suffice to say I am immensely proud that Forest funded Neil McKeganey's research and I will do everything I can to ensure it reaches a wide audience.

Next stop - New York!

Update: Just arrived in Ireland where I am visiting another outpost of the Forest empire.

The Burning Issues dinner we organised in Dublin last month (guest speaker: Claire Fox) was a huge success and we're hoping to build on it later in the year.

Details in due course. Watch this space.

Tuesday
Jul112017

Tonight in Brussels: burger, a beer and a smoke

Currently en route to Brussels.

This evening Forest EU is hosting 'Why do smokers smoke?' featuring a short talk by Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research and lead author of The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers.

For years we've been told that launching Forest in Brussels would be an extremely hard sell and it would be very difficult to attract people to the type of events we organise in London.

It's early days but the launch party on May 31 (World No Tobacco Day) didn't go too badly – 150 registered guests with over a hundred attending on the night.

Tonight's event was planned with the modest ambition of attracting 20 or so people to an upmarket burger restaurant close to the European Parliament.

Be Burger has an annexe (with a part retractable roof) that can be used for private events. Beyond that it also has a comfortable smoking area. Perfect!

This time last week 100 people had registered and we had to close the link to the booking site because the capacity of the annexe - with all guests seated - is 54!

I'm not sure whether it was the prospect of Neil's talk or the promise of a 'burger and a beer' – possibly both – that generated so much interest, but I'm delighted.

Leaving aside the fact that we're determined to promote The Pleasure of Smoking report as widely as possible (you wouldn't believe the shanigans that have gone on behind the scenes – one day I may tell the full story), it's great to know there's a market for Forest events in Brussels, albeit on a relatively small scale.

Update: From today's Politico Pro Health Care newsletter:

Sin city: And for those who want to end the day letting their vices take over, the smokers’ rights campaign group Forest EU will host Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research, at the Be Burger restaurant tonight to discuss why smokers smoke. His presentation will be accompanied by a complementary burger and beer for those who have registered, and smoking will be allowed on the terrace.

PS. Vaping allowed too.

Sunday
Jul092017

Happy 80th birthday, David Hockney!

Happy 80th birthday, David Hockney!

Extraordinary, I know, that such a confirmed and unapologetic smoker should reach such a ripe old age, but there we are.

I won't bore readers with yet another account of the time you travelled to Brighton to speak at a Forest event at the 2005 Labour party conference and joined us for dinner afterwards.

Nor will I recount the time you made a surprise appearance at a small private dinner hosted by Forest in the City of London.

Or the time you attended the Forest Annual Awards at the Groucho Club to collect your 'Smokers' Rights Champion of the Year' award.

Or your appearance at a Forest event to mark the first anniversary of the smoking ban.

Or the afternoon you turned up at the House of Commons and addressed guests at a Forest event that marked the fourth anniversary of the ban.

I have written about these occasions many times because they are seared in my memory. That day in Brighton was the best of my working life, bar none, and I shall never forget it, especially the fun and the laughter.

Your defence of smoking, and smokers, has been an inspiration and a comfort.

But what I really admire is your sangfroid, your open-mindedness, your refusal to judge people and your palpable tolerance of the many quirks and eccentricities of human nature.

If only politicians and public health campaigners shared your outlook on life, what a happier and less divisive world it would be.

So congratulations on your birthday. I hope you enjoy many more – and thanks.

Previous posts:
Hockney: Brighton breezy (May 2007)
Life is messy, says Hockney (December 2008)
Up yours, Hockney tells Brown (September 2009)
David Hockney lights up the House of Commons (June 2011)
David Hockney: "Why shouldn’t I smoke?" (February 2017)

Above: David Hockney pictured in front of a portrait of Pablo Picasso. Below: Susie Dean goes in search of Britain's greatest living artist at the House of Commons, June 2011.