“You can’t smoke that in here.”
“I’m not smoking. I’m vaping.”
“Yes, but you cannot do it in here.”
“Why not? Everyone knows the difference between smoking and vaping these days.”
“OK. You can’t vape in here.”
“I can. I was doing it right then.”
I was only bothering to be so bold because I could sense the woman – an usher in a theatre – didn’t really care about me vaping, and possibly found this whole policing business very tiresome. Also, it was pouring outside.
“But you’re not allowed to.”
“But I’m not bothering anyone, there’s nobody near me.”
“That’s not the point. It’s not permitted.”
“And what is the point?” I was pushing my luck. She was getting the bit between her teeth. But I was warming a tad myself…
“The point is: you are not allowed to vape here!”
“But why not?”
“You’re just not.”
“You’re enforcing the rule. Surely you can give me a reason?”
“No. It’s just the rules.”
“So, you would say, ‘Step right this way, Missus Goldstein, right into the gas chamber, and bring your kids, it’s just the rules’…”
The conversation, though brief, had given me enough time to work up a head of steam, fuelled by those righteous rant-mantras which flow through all our minds when we are confronted by the blithe stupidity of vaping bans. ‘Oh yes, great idea, prevent someone from doing something which is enjoyable, troubling nobody in the universe and likely to lower one’s chances of dying young, which would have inflicted enormous sorrow on innocent loved ones and cost the NHS a packet [blah bah]’… The blood was up, sabres were drawn...
“If you don’t stop I will have to ask you to leave.”
“Ask me? If you ask, I will say no.”
She raised her eyebrows. I continued; “Don’t you mean tell me?”
On reflection, we had reached the stomping off point, at least for most rules maniacs. By rights, she would turn tail making some sort of harrumphing noise, possibly with her nose on the air, and return shortly and triumphantly with the big guns, meaning manager or security.
I might be ejected for the rest of the evening and thus miss the second half of the play but, frankly, hallelujah! It was a school production; adolescent over-actors enjoying themselves enormously at the expense of The Merchant of Venice.
Before the arrival of the big guns, I would have to choose between the continuance of my utterly pointless stance – a habit which the wisdom of years ought to have killed stone dead, I know – or slinking off while I could, as befits a man who is all mouth and no trousers.
However, the stomping off point passed. It turned out this was one confident lady, happy to go the distance on her lonesome.
“Vaping is always banned in public buildings,” she declared, in a voice that suggested her anger – indeed her interest – had now burst and she was finding this little chinwag about as interesting as the atrocious play taking place on stage. “You must know that?”
“Yes, but I think it’s wrong. That doesn’t make me a wild crazy anarchist. I’m just sticking up for common sense.”
Now she looked like boredom might soon make her weep. “My brother has one of those things [indicating my e-cigarette], I know they’re good. But they’re banned in public buildings.”
“It’s not against the law. Every proprietor and employer decides for themselves. Why don’t you suggest to your employer that vaping is permitted, at least in a vaping area?”
“It’s Council policy.”
“Council policy?! Who, in the entire history of humanity, has ever actually cared a shirt button about Council policies? Apart from the tin pots who concoct them and the minions who enforce them?”
“Oh, just stop would you?”
“Talking or vaping? And don’t say ‘both’.”
And off she stomped but with a sarcastic half-smile. Mark you, I didn’t take another puff. She had won.
Yet I didn’t feel entirely dejected as I usually do when I take these demeaning, futile stances (never in front of my children but sometimes in front of my long-suffering, embarrassed wife). It was a minute or two before it dawned on me why: It was that suggestion that she ought to take this up with her boss. I was right and she was wrong, obviously, but we both knew that. She might actually mention the idea to her boss, just in passing, no big deal, even just to say that some stubborn vaping bigmouth had suggested this… But even so, this could be a fine thing if we consider the big picture.
Like most ex-smokers, I am far too long in the tooth to care about radically changing the world. The idealistic zeal of youth merits only a stifled smirk or a patronising smile. Yet, it occurred to me, in the theatre during the second half of the play, that we vapers could win a quiet revolution just by protesting – carefully, concisely, articulately and politely - every single time we are told to stop puffing.
As it stands, we have lost the war for puffing in public spaces. They had wilful and mindless authority on their side. We were merely armed with truth and common sense.
However, we really can counter-attack, like children nagging at every opportunity until the parent caves in. We can even campaign actively by puffing when we know we are going to be stopped. We can load up our polite protest – gently mockery is inevitable so the tone must be ever so friendly to carry it off – knowing we are going to lose this battle, but hopefully win the war.
The poor soul burdened with enforcing the ban is made to feel like a jobsworth, which is what stupid rules always reduce people to. As I accidentally discovered, that is the key: Always be sure to convey to the person ticking you off that they are behaving like a jobsworth.
Nothing will change quickly, but an endless flow of gentle insults into managers offices across the land could eventually shift the blockheaded will to ban vaping. One by one, assertive thoughtful managers might cave in to common sense. And it only takes a few to start a stampede… Our polite, persistent nagging could one day make it deeply unfashionable to ban vaping.
After all, even by the Olympian standards of pointless bullying to which all municipal authorities aspire, this one is just too brick-brained to last, surely?...