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Entries by Simon Clark (2254)

Tuesday
Jan152019

Forest at 40

Founded in 1979, Forest is 40 years old this year.

To put that in context, in 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Iran became an Islamic Republic and former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe went on trial charged with attempted murder.

The Sony Walkman was launched, the first issue of Viz was published in Newcastle upon Tyne, the first J D Wetherspoon pub was opened in the London Borough of Haringey, Sid Vicious died and the price of milk shot up to 15 pence a pint.

Almost 40 per cent of the adult population smoked and the government advised men to drink no more than 56 units of alcohol a week.

Oh, and the turnout in Britain for the first direct election to the European Parliament was 32 per cent.

Next month we’ll announce the date of a special 40th anniversary dinner.

Each week I shall also be dipping into the Forest archives. It’s been a long journey so watch this space!

Logo: Dan Donovan

Monday
Jan142019

Fool for you

Forest supporter Joe Jackson has a new album out this week.

Fool is the 20th studio album of his career.

It comes out exactly 40 years after the release of his first album, Look Sharp, in January 1979.

Starting next month Joe will be touring America and Europe playing songs from five of those 20 albums, “each representing a decade”:

Look Sharp (1979), Night And Day (1982), Laughter And Lust (1991), Rain (2008) and Fool (2019).

UK dates include London, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester. The London Palladium show sold out well before Christmas which is pretty impressive.

For the full list click here.

See also: Joe Jackson looks back on four decades of doing it his way with anniversary tour, new album (Billboard).

Older readers may recall that in 2003 Joe wrote and recorded a song protesting against the New York smoking ban.

Proceeds from the single were donated to two smokers' rights groups, Forces (US) and Forest (UK).

You can listen to it here.

Above: ‘Fabulously Absolute’ from the new album Fool. Below: 'The Uptown Train' from Rain.

Sunday
Jan132019

Filth and frivolity - Saturday afternoon at the London Palladium

This is slightly convoluted but bear with me.

This time last year we were due to see ‘Dick Whittington’ starring Julian Clary at the London Palladium.

The production got great reviews but we couldn’t go because there was a mix up over dates and instead of going to the Palladium as planned we had to take our daughter to Gatwick to catch a flight to America.

Instead we gave our tickets to my godson, a budding actor and writer.

This year, in what I can only describe as a remarkable coincidence, my godson played the title role in ‘Dick Whittington’ alongside former EastEnders actor Todd Carty in Middlesbrough.

Meanwhile, back in London, we finally made it to the Palladium where we saw ‘Snow White’ starring ... Julian Clary.

I won’t tell you how much I paid for the tickets (it was a small fortune) but coming out of the theatre yesterday afternoon we didn’t begrudge a penny. Stellar cast, fantastic staging, enormous fun.

Not convinced? I don’t blame you. I’m generally not a huge fan of pantomime either but suspend disbelief for one moment and read what one American critic thought of the show:

Each year, we schlep to super malls and force crying children to pose with creeper Santas. We trudge to local productions of ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ that are as stiff as Dickens’ cadaver.

And here in New York, a family of five will spend as much as $800 to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, an annual event featuring the Rockettes that’s more of a checklist item than a jolly time.

But Britain has been doing Christmas right for centuries - with booze, laughs and riotous irreverence. They perform pantomimes.

I recently saw my first, ‘Snow White’ at the London Palladium, and was pleasantly shocked. The family show was raunchy, star-studded, filthy, extravagant, naughty, dazzling, double-entendre-stuffed, heartwarming. Did I love it? Oh, yes I did!

The panto was jam-packed, but when I left in that mob of humanity I was overjoyed at what I’d just seen. Returning to work two days later, blocks away from Rockefeller Center, I encountered a different crowd, brutishly shoving each other to be closest to the Christmas tree from ‘Home Alone 2’. I decided then and there that I prefer my conifers with a smutty comedian’s head in them.

See This British holiday tradition kicks America’s Yuletide ass (New York Post).

As for my godson, following his appearance in ‘Dick Whittington’ at the Middlesbrough Theatre, he has returned to London to work on a musical for which he has co-written the book and lyrics.

Inspired by the Cereal Killer Café and the Shoreditch riots of 2015, ‘The Cereal Cafe’ has a short workshop run at The Other Palace in London next month. For details click here.

Then again, if you’re more interested in filth and innuendo, there’s always ...

Sunday
Jan132019

Our window cleaner drives a Bentley

Our window cleaner drives a Bentley.

Not an old Bentley. A new one, the type driven by Premier League footballers.

He doesn’t use it for work, obviously. For work he drives a small white van and charges £10 per house.

The subject came up because he saw the car outside my house and said, “My son has a car like that.”

Then he told me about the Bentley.

I was surprised but not as much as I might have been. Previously he’d told me about the Mercs, Audis and BMWs he’d owned.

Anyway, it got me thinking and a recent blog post by LBC broadcaster Iain Dale, who wrote about all the cars he has ever owned, inspired me to do the same.

Unlike Iain I’m no petrolhead but here in chronological order are the cars I've owned since passing my test (in my instructor's Ford Escort) in 1977:

Triumph Vitesse, 1981
I'm not certain I actually owned this car. It was bought by my father in 1968 to replace the previous family car, a Triumph Herald. The Vitesse was the sportier version of the Herald with a 2.0 litre engine and twin headlights. When we moved to Scotland in 1969 my father was given a company car - a Rover 2000 - and the Vitesse was passed on to my mother. Twelve years later, after I had left university and moved to London, she gave it to me. Superficially it looked in good condition. Inside it was immaculate with a beautiful wooden dashboard and leather seats, but underneath it was rusting badly and there was every chance it would soon fall apart, which is effectively what happened when I drove a client to a golf club in Essex for a photo shoot. (He was terrified!) The cost of repairing the fractured wheel struts was far more than the car was worth (or what I could afford) so I was advised to take it to a scrap yard and see what I could get for it. They gave me £25.

Ford Capri GT, 1981
Living in London there was no real need for a car but I wasn't done yet. A few months after the Vitesse fiasco I answered an ad in the Evening Standard and found myself on a grim estate in Croydon checking out a Ford Capri GT, 'Britain's very own Mustang', with three or four previous owners. Asking price: £440. It was dark but we went for a quick spin, the owner in the driving seat (literally and figuratively) because I wasn’t insured to drive it. I had never bought a car before and not knowing what to do I agreed, without haggling or inspecting it properly, to pay the full price. A couple of days later I went back to pick it up. In the cold light of day I saw that instead of being a rather cool shade of bronze the car was actually bright orange. As soon as I drove off I wound down the window. As I did so the glass fell into the door cavity. I had to stop the car, lift the pane out of the door (there was a little bit sticking out), realign it and hope it didn't happen again. (It did, frequently, until I got it fixed.) Driving round Marble Arch on my way home the gear lever came off in my hand and I could see the tarmac through a hole where the gear lever had been. I kept the car for six months before selling it for £300. I was so relieved.

Austin Metro, 1984-86
For the next two years I was happy enough without a car but as I entered my mid twenties I wanted the option of escaping London at weekends and the best way to do that was to have a car. My mother now had a Metro which I drove whenever I visited my parents. I just needed something small, cheap and reliable so I bought a light blue Metro ‘S’ for £600 from a used car dealer in Cricklewood. I had a Sony radio/cassette fitted and speakers installed on the rear parcel shelf. Sadly, like all British Leyland vehicles, rust and corrosion were underlying problems (literally). Returning from a National Trust event in Stourhead in Wiltshire the petrol tank split in two and a full tank of fuel poured on to the road while the car ground to a halt. The AA got us home but not until six in the morning.

Ford Fiesta XR2, 1986-91
In the early Eighties a friend had a first generation XR2. He went on to own a string of prestigious executive cars, including an enormous Lexus, but nothing, he said, gave him as much pleasure as his Fiesta. I knew what he meant. In December 1986 I bought a secondhand mercury grey XR2 Mk II. It wasn’t the best car I've ever had but it was probably the most fun. A ‘hot hatch’ for 'boy racers', it was, relatively speaking, a big step up from the Metro. Low driving position, bigger engine and far better acceleration, it could give the Golf GTI a run for its money and was great on country roads. One of my favourite memories is driving it in North Wales but it was pretty good on motorways too. I left London once at 6.00am and arrived in Glasgow at 11.00. That would have beaten the train, I think. Sadly it was stolen from outside my house in Camberwell when I was away on holiday and I never got it back.

Ford Fiesta XR2i, 1991-94
I replaced the stolen vehicle with a bright red third generation XR2i, a very different car that wasn’t half as fun to drive. Like the previous model however it attracted the attention of local thieves who robbed me of my spare wheel and, in a second incident, smashed the rear window in an attempt to steal the entire car. (Camberwell was a great place to live at that time!) They failed not because of the crook lock on the steering wheel (they had that off in seconds) but because they couldn’t start the engine, a regular problem with that car. Thankfully it behaved itself on our wedding day when we led a small convoy from Glasgow to Skye.

Rover 216 GTI, 1994-2001
The imminent arrival of our first child meant we needed a slightly larger, more reliable car with easier access to the rear seats so I bought a three-year-old Rover 216 GTI. One of the second generation Rover 200 series, it had a Honda engine, twin exhausts, a large rear spoiler and 15 inch (!) wheels. In a weird way it felt like my first ‘grown up’ car. This was partly because my father, now retired, had the Honda Concerto, which was effectively the same vehicle. The Rover eventually succumbed to two things – five years being all shook up on the Edinburgh cobbles and that old British failing, rust and corrosion – but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Ford Focus, 2001-05
I bought a first generation Focus in haste because the Rover needed replacing before we went on holiday to France and I only had two weeks to sort it out. Voted top car of the last 25 years by readers of Auto Express in 2013, it was a perfectly good car but I found it rather anonymous. My biggest regret however was not buying one with a CD player. When everyone was buying CDs my car still had a cassette player.

Audi A4, 2005-08
I average 25,000 miles a year. The thought of a diesel horrified me but financially it eventually made sense. So the second generation 1.9 TDI SE was not only my first ‘compact executive saloon’, it was also my first car with a diesel engine. Initially I hated it. In particular there was a vibration in the accelerator pedal I had never experienced in a petrol car. For several weeks I felt I’d made a terrible mistake and thought briefly about returning it. I got used to it, to be fair, and it never let me down, but I found it rather bland, inside and out. A good car, but dull.

Mercedes C-Class, 2008-13
Another diesel. Some motoring journalists were a bit sniffy about it but I loved almost everything about this third generation C-Class. Diesel engines were becoming increasingly refined and unwelcome clatter was mostly a thing of the past. The 220d Sport was also my first automatic. I had dismissed the idea of an automatic for years on the grounds that no 'proper' driver would drive one, but I was persuaded that if I bought a manual I would be in a very small minority of Mercedes' drivers and it would be harder to sell. I didn't regret it. The foot-operated parking brake was a bit weird but that car clocked up over 100,000 miles, including a trip to Zurich, and the rest of the family have still not forgiven me for selling it.

BMW 3-Series, 2013-18
The 320d M Sport was my third diesel and much as I loved my Merc the fifth generation 3-Series was a better car, which is why I kept it for five years and 128,000 miles. During that time I did my best to improve the reputation of BMW drivers but I can’t deny the fact that many are complete arseholes. The cars though are hard to beat and although many are designed for the autobahn, the 3-Series is equally at home on twisty country roads. A joy to drive and after enduring a number of punctures with the Mercedes it was good to have the insurance of run-flat tyres. Here it is, outside my house shortly before I sold it. Missing you already ...

Friday
Jan112019

Politics and propaganda

A quick recap:

Public Health England (PHE) has released a new film showing the devastating harms from smoking and how these can be avoided by switching to an e-cigarette or using another type of quit aid. The film has been released as part of PHE’s Health Harms campaign, which encourages smokers to make a quit attempt this January by demonstrating the personal and irrefutable harm to health from every single cigarette [my emphasis].

The film features smoking expert Dr Lion Shahab and Dr Rosemary Leonard carrying out an experiment to visually demonstrate the high levels of cancer-causing chemicals and tar inhaled by an average smoker over a month, compared to not smoking or using an e-cigarette. The results of the experiment visually illustrate the stark contrast between the impacts of smoking and vaping. Research estimates that while not risk-free, vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking.

I wrote about the film a couple of weeks ago. I didn't dispute the fact that, on current evidence, vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking, if indeed it's harmful at all. I repeated the point several times.

I did however criticise the nature of the film (see 'The price of appeasing PHE’s anti-smoking propaganda)' which reminded me of another anti-smoking campaign that Forest took to the Advertising Standards Authority.

(The ASA upheld our complaint THREE times before the ASA Council overruled their own executive.)

This week, under the headline 'PHE releases new film to encourage freedom of choice', the New Nicotine Alliance posted a staunch defence of both the film and PHE:

It is true to say that the film is intended to shock by illustrating the difference between what comes out of a cigarette with what is emitted from an e-cigarette. Lurid headlines from irresponsible media outlets who promote irrational fear about vaping are having a real-world effect of scaring smokers away from alternatives and, consequentially, corrupting free choice. They need to be countered robustly. If a consumer is denied true facts about a product, they are not able to make an educated decision.

It is also important to note that there is nothing coercive about this film. It does not order smokers to quit, it merely presents information in a stark and accessible way in order that smokers might see that their misperceptions about e-cigarettes have come from dubious sources.

The film also only seeks to guide viewers, not to direct them. It is correct that the lung is a marvel of evolution and can filter out much of the tar that is sent its way, but PHE has left the smoker to make the decision as to whether to take that risk or not.

The NNA talk about ‘lurid headlines ... corrupting free choice’ but they are quite happy for PHE to use a lurid film to scare smokers so they quit or switch to vaping.

They insist that consumers should be allowed to make an ‘educated decision’ yet endorse a film that goes far beyond education.

'Nothing in the film is inaccurate' they argue. Really? Are you seriously telling me you can fill a bell jar with cotton wool and say it's an accurate representation of a smoker's lungs?

To quote from my earlier post:

Examining the cigarette bell jar at the end of the experiment, Dr Leonard finds ‘the cotton wool in the tobacco bell jar is brown, the inside of the bell jar is brown and the tube leading to the air pump is thick with tar’.

In the video she comments:

"I mean, it's just so revolting. Look at this, that's just inside the jar. Here, a lump of tar. So that's what's going on inside your lungs. There's loads of it and this is only after one month."

She's right, what we see is revolting but does it really indicate the state of a smoker's lungs after one month of heavy smoking?

If a smoker's lungs were in that state after just one month, imagine what they might be like after twelve months, or five or ten years.

In reality the lungs of regular smokers are frequently given to lung transplant patients. How is that possible if this experiment is representative of the state of smokers' lungs?

According to the New Nicotine Alliance:

The NNA exists to promote wide availability of alternative products, rather than coercion. We believe – many of us through personal experience - that forcing smokers to quit with a stick is nowhere near as effective as tempting them with a carrot. Harm reduction is grounded in such a philosophy. Availability of accurate information goes hand in hand with availability of the products; it is no use having a wide range of devices on the market if smokers have been conned into avoiding them.

I agree with that. In my view though PHE's film crosses the line that separates education from propaganda.

There is enough information about the health risks of smoking without resorting to crude visual 'experiments' that bear little reality to real life.

Of course it's maddening that many people, smokers included, are misinformed about the risks of vaping, but two wrongs don't make a right.

The internet is awash with complaints from vaping advocates about the 'ethics of anti-vaping activists exaggerating the risks of safer alternatives to smoking' (to quote Clive Bates) but what about the ethics of those who exaggerate the effects of smoking to 'encourage' smokers to switch to e-cigarettes?

Public Health England are masters of propaganda – on smoking, eating and drinking. How sad that a vaping advocacy group should not only endorse such tactics but credit PHE with encouraging 'freedom of choice'.

Cue hollow laughter ...

See 'PHE releases new film to encourage freedom of choice' (New Nicotine Alliance).

Tuesday
Jan082019

From prisoners to patients

I was on Reporting Scotland (BBC Scotland) last week discussing the prison smoking ban.

The same day, following the announcement of a smoking ban in La Moye prison, Jersey, I was interviewed for another evening news programme, on ITV News Channel TV.

"No-one has the right to smoke in jail," I said, "but smoking is one of the few pleasures many prisoners have.

"At the very least inmates should be allowed to light up outside, in an exercise yard or designated smoking area."

The prison rulebook was in the news again this week following a report about the contents of an 87-page manual published by HM Prison and Probation Service.

The Sun broke the story on Monday but Richard Littlejohn summed things up nicely in today’s Daily Mail. Headlined These crazy prison rules on alcohol and sex get my goat, Fletcher, it began:

Prisoners will soon be able to drink alcohol and have sex in their cells without facing disciplinary charges, under new guidelines from the Ministry of Justice.

They will also escape punishment for assaulting other inmates and absconding, provided they can come up with a reasonable excuse.

Last night we learned jails are to get photo booths so that prisoners can have snaps taken with their families.

This latest gimmick comes on top of painting walls pink, installing telephones in cells and allowing inmates to stroke pet goats.

To assess the impact, we cross to Slade Prison, where Norman Stanley Fletcher is relaxing on his bunk ...

To be honest, I don't feel strongly either way about allowing prisoners to drink alcohol, have sex or paint their walls pink.

Prison shouldn't be too comfortable. On the other hand, being sent to jail is a big punishment for most people and sometimes, in order to reduce the tensions and boredom that can lead to violence and self harm, governors have to find innovative solutions.

These more liberal rules do however make the smoking ban look even more punitive. If inmates are allowed alcohol, photo booths and cell phones (no pun intended), it seems ridiculous to stop them smoking anywhere on site.

To paraphrase David Hockney, "prisons aren't health clubs" and no-one should be forced to quit smoking, not even prisoners.

Meanwhile I was on BBC Wiltshire this morning talking about hospital smoking bans. I was up against a local man, an ex-smoker of three years, who naturally loved the idea.

Thanks to Public Health England, most hospitals in England are now 'smoke free' in the sense that they have a policy of banning smoking anywhere on site, including car parks.

In practice a lot of people ignore these 'voluntary' bans but what I find so unpleasant is the pettiness that lies behind policies that are intended to force patients to either quit smoking or light up off site, while staff who turn a blind eye or are minded to help are threatened with disciplinary action.

It’s come to something when hospital patients are treated little better than prison inmates.

Welcome to ‘our’ NHS, 2019.

Sunday
Jan062019

Government to target smokers and ‘problem’ drinkers 

A ten-year plan to help the NHS meet key targets is being launched tomorrow.

It includes proposals to tackle smoking, obesity and ‘problem’ drinking.

According to the MailOnline:

Heavy drinkers, smokers and fat people are to be targeted by a wave of adverts demanding they overhaul their lifestyles, the Health Secretary today revealed.

They face being hit by Facebook adverts telling them to cut down on their bad habits and get fit.

While patients in hospital for illnesses linked to heavy drinking could be given a 'stern' talking to by doctors which could last up to 40 minutes.

Conscious, perhaps, that elements of the NHS Long-Term Plan sounds like yet another nanny state initiative, Health Secretary Matthew Hancock has been quick to pre-empt that line of attack.

He has ordered health bosses to put an end to the 'nanny-state' nagging of the whole population to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.

Instead he wants them to focus on the core group of people who place the biggest burden on Britain's over-stretched NHS. 

Speaking on Sky News this morning he told presenter Sophy Ridge:

‘What I don't like in these areas is punishing the masses for the problems that only a minority have ...

He ruled out introducing a minimum pricing for alcohol to tackle problem drinking - saying he does not want to 'punish' most people to drink in moderation.

He said that it is 'perfectly healthy' for most people to enjoy a 'nice pint' and only those who drink to dangerous levels should be targeted. 

That’s all well and good, but who defines a ‘problem drinker’ or ‘dangerous levels’? The government, of course!

According to the NHS website:

The current UK guidelines advise limiting alcohol intake to 14 units a week for women and men. This is equivalent to drinking no more than 6 pints of average-strength beer (4% ABV) or 7 medium-sized glasses of wine (175ml, 12% ABV) a week.

Those guidelines have already been amended once (it used to be 21 units a week for men) so who’s to say they won’t be lowered again, creating more ‘heavy’ drinkers.

Meanwhile, following a pre-announcement announcement, it was reported yesterday that:

Problem drinkers and smokers who end up in hospital will be helped by dedicated new services as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.

As far as smokers are concerned:

Every smoker admitted to hospital will be offered NHS support to quit.

That’s right, every smoker. No matter if you’re in hospital for a non smoking-related illness or procedure - a hip replacement, for example - you will still be targeted for smoking cessation ‘advice’.

But wait. You don’t even have to be a patient to be singled out:

Partners of pregnant women will also be encouraged to kick the habit to give new mums the best chance of not smoking again.

Invited to comment, I issued the following statement on behalf of Forest:

“It’s stressful enough being in hospital without the additional pressure of being hounded to stop smoking.

“Pressing smokers to quit, especially if they’re in hospital for a non smoking-related reason, is an invasion of privacy and tantamount to bullying.

“No-one should be lectured about their lifestyle while they’re at their most vulnerable.”

I was quoted by the BBC, Daily Mail and Independent, and last night I was on LBC. I was due to appear on Five Live as well but that got postponed. I may be on tonight instead.

The BBC headline read, ‘Hospital patients who smoke or drink to be helped to quit’, while the Mail declared, ‘NHS goes to war on cigarettes and alcohol’.

As you can see, the tone of those headlines is very different. What is clear however is that while the government may draw a line between ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ levels of drinking, anyone who smokes is to be treated the same.

When the Health Secretary says he wants health bosses ‘to focus on the core group of people who place the biggest burden on Britain's over-stretched NHS’, he clearly includes all smokers in that core group.

Like most politicians he ignores the fact that many smokers live long and healthy lives and are NOT a burden on the NHS.

He also ignores the inconvenient truth that smokers make a huge net contribution to the government - and therefore the NHS - through the exorbitant taxes they pay on tobacco.

Punitive taxation, smoking bans, denormalisation. Haven’t smokers been punished enough without being targeted for further discrimination, irrespective of whether they have a smoking-related illness?

I laughed when I read that he doesn’t want to 'punish' moderate drinkers because he wouldn’t be human - or a Tory politician - if he didn’t have an eye on the thousands of middle-class, moderate drinkers in his constituency, and nationwide.

Smokers, in contrast, represent less than a fifth of the electorate and are mostly working class from lower income households. For a Conservative government, the risks of upsetting confirmed smokers are minimal.

That said, I wouldn’t be too worried by this latest plan. Governments like to be seen to be proactive and grand announcements like this are par for the course.

In reality most hospital staff are either too busy dealing with more immediate problems or, like most people, they’re not inclined to nag other people to change their ways.

A comment posted on the Friends of Forest Facebook page last night read:

I was a patient for 10 days at a Portsmouth hospital and nobody approached me about giving up. Out of all the nurses, doctors, consultants, surgeons and specialists treating me only one of them mentioned smoking. Even now with regular check ups I'm never judged by the consultants because I smoke, only by the same pesky nurse.

I wonder if these health fanatics are living in cloud cookoo land believing their ideas are being used or it's all designed to frighten us. I smoke, I was treated for cancer without prejudice, so from my experience I would say don't worry too much about discrimination. I was but I was proved wrong.

I suspect this is the norm in most hospitals and GP surgeries where smoking, drinking and obesity have not yet been politicised to the extent they are in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff.

Disease prevention is a worthy aim but this is not like typhoid, cholera and other public health epidemics that could affect the mass of the population.

Smoking, drinking and obesity are private health issues and while I agree that people should take more responsibility for their own health, governments must accept that in a free society people have the right to make choices that may be detrimental to their health without being unfairly targeted or punished.

We’re not automatons and the freedom to smoke, drink more than the recommended units, eat more than is good for us and shun exercise are all part of the rich and diverse society in which we live.

If the NHS can’t handle that then politicians should be honest and abandon the pretence that the NHS treats everyone equally regardless of race, creed, colour or lifestyle.

Friday
Jan042019

It was 20 years ago today

I don’t normally do work anniversaries but I’ll make this an exception.

Twenty years ago today I started working at Forest.

Prior to Christmas (1998) I had spent a week being ‘inducted’ by my predecessor Marjorie Nicholson - who was so well-organised it was quite intimidating - but my first day as director was Monday January 4, 1999.

I was living in Edinburgh, sharing an office with Brian Monteith, Forest’s spokesman in Scotland, when Marjorie announced she was leaving. She had been at Forest for ten years, I think, five as director.

Brian knew I wanted to return to London - I had already been offered another job that I was mulling over - and it was he who suggested I apply for the position.

I was interviewed by Marjorie and Lord Harris of High Cross (Forest’s chairman) at Audley House, 13 Palace Street, a short walk from Buckingham Palace and Victoria station.

The small ground floor office occupied a corner position with large sash windows on two sides. Built in 1905, the building had been refurbished to a good standard.

Marjorie and her three full-time staff had moved there in 1998. It was a big improvement, so I was told, on their previous rather shabby office, also in Victoria.

I don’t remember anything about the interview but I do remember being invited to stay for lunch.

‘Lunch’ was a selection of sandwiches that had been laid out on a coffee table that was dominated by an enormous metal ashtray.

Directly above the table, on the ceiling, was a large air filtration unit, one of four in the office.

Marjorie (cigarette) and Ralph Harris (pipe) were both smokers and each time they exhaled the smoke would rise and then magically disappear into the unit above.

I had never seen anything like it. It convinced me that technology was the solution to the issue of smoking in the workplace.

Marjorie thought so too because her new job was with an air filtration company!

When I was offered the Forest job a few days later I accepted without hesitation. Privately, though, I did have one or two misgivings.

After six years in Edinburgh I was keen to move back to England but after 15 years as a self-employed journalist I was concerned that being tied to an office, and having to commute (because we couldn’t afford to buy a house in London), might be a bit of a culture shock.

(In 1969, at the same age, my father had gone in the opposite direction, giving up a daily commute of three hours for one of just 30 minutes. He never regretted it.)

On the other hand I was almost 40 and had never managed even a small team of people. If I rejected the opportunity it might not come again.

Another issue was money.

Having been offered a salary that was a small increase on what I was previously earning, I discovered that the budget had changed and I would have to take a pay cut before I had even started!

To put this in context, we still had to sell our house in Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, so initially I would have to rent a room in London and commute each week from Edinburgh. In addition my wife would have to give up her job in Scotland and find a new one down south.

I wanted the job so we compromised. I accepted a smaller salary while Forest agreed to pay my travel and accommodation for a maximum of six months, and on Sunday January 3, 1999, I travelled to London from Edinburgh and moved in to a room on the top floor of a house in Notting Hill.

The owner and only other occupant was the sister of a former Labour MP who was a member of the House of Lords. She contacted me after I placed a classified ad in the Spectator but, typically, I can’t remember either of their names. (He died, I think, a few years ago.)

‘Notting Hill’ (the movie) was released while I was staying there and I watched it twice at the local cinema. It was a weird experience because some of the locations were right on our doorstep.

I enjoyed living there but I spent very little time in the house because on weekdays I would leave early, catch a Circle line train to Victoria, have breakfast (toast and coffee) in a local cafe, and be in the office by eight.

In the evenings I generally worked late (because there was nothing else to do), or I’d meet friends for a drink, or eat alone in a pub or pizzeria.

Every Friday after work I'd catch a train to Edinburgh, spend the weekend at home (my children were four and two at the time) and return to London on the overnight sleeper, leaving Waverley station at 11.00pm on Sunday, arriving at Kings Cross at 7.00 the following morning.

And that was pretty much my life for five months. We accepted an offer for our house in February but didn’t move out until May.

In March 1999 I took a week off work to look for a new house. I explored villages in Kent and Essex before stumbling on some new housing developments in Cambridgeshire. (A new house seemed the best option because it avoided the risk of getting caught in a chain.)

The train service from Huntingdon to London seemed relatively quick and reliable (the round trip to Victoria was three hours door-to-door via Kings Cross) so we bought a house in a nearby village and have lived there ever since.

Did I think, when I began, that I would still be working for Forest 20 years later? Of course not.

So what happened? Events, dear boy, events. (But that’s another story involving the smoking ban, plain packaging, David Hockney and much much more.)

I have no regrets though. I recognise that I’m lucky to have a job I still enjoy, despite the obvious frustrations and failures, and is still a challenge.

I’m grateful too for having met and worked with some wonderful people. It would be unfair to name some ahead of others but I must mention Lord Harris, chairman of Forest from 1987 to 2006, when he died aged 82.

What a fabulous sounding board he was. Ralph endured some terrible tragedies in his life but he was the most positive, jovial, inspiring and supportive person you could wish to meet.

I must also pay tribute to everyone I’ve worked with, some of whom dedicated years of their lives to Forest and didn’t do it simply to pay the mortgage (as Nicky Campbell playfully suggested to me on Five Live last year).

This week on Twitter an SNP councillor, responding to my appearance on Reporting Scotland on Wednesday, argued that we are simply lobbyists for the tobacco industry. It may look like that to an outsider but he couldn’t be more wrong.

Having been freelance for 15 years before I joined Forest I would never have taken a job where I was effectively working for a third party.

I did that when I worked for a PR company after I left university and I hated it.

The freedom to make my own decisions on behalf of Forest, and no-one else, is priceless.

Forest supports adults who choose to smoke not because it benefits the tobacco companies but because we believe in freedom of choice and personal responsibility.

In these cynical times it’s hard, I know, to credit people with some integrity but in my experience the overwhelming majority of people who have worked for Forest have done so because they genuinely believed in the cause.

That said, I’m very happy to acknowledge the support we’ve had from the tobacco companies and, 20 years on, I'm proud to be part of the global tobacco 'family'.

Above: With Antony Worrall Thompson at his restaurant in Notting Hill in, I think, 2001.

Below: From March 2010, a little contretemps with Deborah Arnott, CEO of Action on Smoking and Health