Sydney Smith, the Anglican cleric and celebrated wit whose life spanned the 18th and 19th centuries, has often been quoted as saying a friend’s idea of heaven was eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.
If he’d said that today, of course, he would have faced a Twitterstorm from animal rights protesters, who object furiously to the force-feeding of ducks and geese to swell their livers, from which the delicacy is made. Others have argued that the birds queue up eagerly to be force-fed and enjoy nothing more.
I wouldn’t presume to guess God’s views on the matter. But whether or not pate de foie gras is on the menu in heaven, I can take it or leave it.
Dr Richard Creagan, a Democrat politician from Hawaii, wants smoking restricted to those over the age of 100 (file photo)
As for those trumpets, I suspect I’d get sick of the sound of them before very long — never mind eternity — and would soon start yearning for a little peace.
No, a picture of eternal bliss much more to my liking was outlined to me the other day by a great friend, Andrew McKie, a fellow journalist and father of one of my dear goddaughters, Molly. Before I go any further, I should warn readers that many will regard it as a conception of perfect hell. But each to his own.
In Andrew’s vision, which I may have adapted and embellished slightly to fit my own preferences, heaven is a place where it’s permanently just after opening time in the morning at a traditional Victorian pub — no TV, no one-armed bandit, no Muzak.
Tom Utley: ‘Heaven is a place where it’s permanently just after opening time in the morning at a traditional Victorian pub’
A shaft of sunlight slants through a none-too-clean window, illuminating dust particles and wisps of cigarette smoke in the air, which smells faintly of stale beer and tobacco. Behind the bar hang cardboard strips of peanuts and pork scratchings, which nobody has bought for 30 years. Otherwise, no food is on offer.
At this hour, the pub is almost deserted, except for a couple of Irishmen sitting at separate tables, sipping Guinness and studying the form in the Racing Post. Each is infused with the belief that this will be the day he picks that life-changing winner.
We new arrivals walk in alone, order our first pint of the day (draught bitter in my case, not Guinness) and settle down at a table of our own where we light up a fag and start tackling the morning’s crossword — tough enough to challenge us, not so tough as to defeat us. Perfect stillness reigns.
Well, I warned you that the vision of bliss I share with Andrew wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, it probably resonates with only a tiny minority — mostly men of my own generation of sixty-somethings and more, I would guess, who look back fondly to a time when smoking in pubs was tolerated and this brand of heaven was available on Earth.
But of course all that changed abruptly in England on July 1, 2006, when Tony Blair and his nanny-in-chief, the then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, introduced a blanket ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces — thereby casually breaking an election pledge, made only the year before, in which Labour promised that smoking would still be permitted in pubs where no food was served.
Since then, we smokers have been treated as pariahs, the lowest of the contemptible low. We’ve been driven out into the street in all weathers, subjected to a barrage of lurid propaganda about the alleged suffering we inflict on others, and threatened with being denied NHS treatment, though we pay for it far more than our fair share.
Indeed, year after year on Budget day, we’ve been hammered by inflation-busting increases in tobacco duty, to the point where a packet of 20 Marlboro Reds at my local newsagent now costs me £11.05 — and that’s cheap for London — well over 80 per cent of which goes straight into the Treasury’s coffers in duty and VAT.
But at least the killjoys who run Britain have yet to go as far as Dr Richard Creagan of Hawaii.
He is the Democrat politician who has put forward plans to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone below the age of 100!
Under his proposals reported this week, the legal smoking age in Hawaii would rise from 21 to 30 by next year. It would then go up by a decade every year, finally reaching the round ton in 2024. A former smoker himself, he says the aim of his Bill is to combat ‘the deadliest artefact in human history’.
The legal smoking age in Hawaii would rise from 21 to 30 by next year, rising to 100 by 2024
My first reaction was to laugh at the idea of all those nonagenarian Hawaiians, yearning for their 100th birthdays so that they could make a beeline for the tobacconist and sample the illicit pleasure denied to them for so long.
I also remembered my own late grandmother, who took up smoking in her 90s, figuring that old age had deprived her of so many past pleasures that it was worth trying a new one she might enjoy (she found she didn’t much like it, actually).
But the more I thought about it, the more I reckoned Dr Creagan’s proposal — effectively a lifetime ban on smoking for the majority who will never reach 100 — at least had the merit of being more honest than the hypocritical posturing of successive British Chancellors.
Every year, as they tighten the screws more painfully, they pull pious faces and tell us they’re increasing tobacco duty solely to discourage us from smoking for the good of our health. But if that were true, they’d surely follow Dr Creagan’s example and introduce a ban. Either that, or they’d slap a massive surcharge on cigarettes, to price them out of the market for all but the seriously rich.
But, in fact, they’d be horrified if their duty increases had the effect they claim to desire, and forced most of the six million-odd Britons who still smoke to give up. If that happened, the Treasury would be deprived of almost £9 billion a year in duty alone — considerably more than even the most inflated estimates of the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses on the NHS. Add VAT at more than £2 a packet, and the tax loss would be even greater.
Meanwhile, a nation of non-smokers would live longer on average, piling yet more pressure on the overstretched care system. That’s the last thing any Chancellor would want.
So instead Philip Hammond and his predecessors have played a dishonest game. Every year, they pitch their duty increases at a psychologically chosen level which they hope enough addicts like me will be prepared to pay, so as not to hit revenues — and to hell with our health.
Tom Utley: ‘Philip Hammond and his predecessors have played a dishonest game’
Indeed, I can remember swearing I’d give up if the price of a packet ever reached £2. When it passed that point, I reckoned a few extra pence wouldn’t make that much difference, and reset my target for quitting at £3 for 20. Then it was £4, £5 and £6 . . . all the way up to today’s £11-plus, and counting.
Before I end, I must make clear that if I had my time again, I would never have smoked that first cigarette five decades ago, which set me on the path to the pathetic addiction I’ve suffered ever since.
It’s a disgusting habit and there’s not a shadow of doubt that it’s very bad for us indeed (and I don’t just mean for our wallets). Though there will be no diseases in heaven’s imaginary pub, smoking causes plenty here on Earth.
So I strongly advise non-smokers to resist any temptation to take it up. But as for those of us who are hooked already, I just pray our legislators won’t pick up any ideas from Dr Creagan in Hawaii. All I can say is that if they do raise the legal smoking age to 100 any time soon, I’ll be first in the queue for fake ID.