SBHD: Commuters on the Brighton to London line are not the most likely of subversives, but the smoking minority are being fired by one burning desire – to be able to light up in peace.
Down on the Brighton to London line life imitates art as commuters re-enact an old Two Ronnies series.
In The Worm that Turned, Barker and Corbett were resistance leaders in a Britain run by women. Forced – along with the rest of the male population – to wear women’s clothes and perform domestic duties, our heroes conspired to undermine the new tyranny, as jackbooted and mini-skirted state police marched the streets striking terror into the hearts of men everywhere.
Since 1993, a brave band of commuters on the Brighton line have congregated daily in the buffet car, where, in open defiance of the tyrannical masters of Network SouthCentral, and heedless of the consequences, they have smoked tobacco. Yes, they have taken cigarettes, cheroots, pipes and cigars from their handbags and pockets, lit up and flagrantly filled the carriage with ascending clouds of blue smoke. Not just once, but hundreds of times.
Like the heroes of The Worm that Turned, they are ordinary middle class citizens – people who would normally be the embodiment of cautious, law-abiding conformity. Victims of oppression, these commuters have risen and snapped their fingers in the faces of their tormentors.
Until the end of 1992, when British Rail imposed a total ban on smoking on trains throughout the South-east, peace reigned on the Brighton line. Commuters travelled up to London in good-natured fashion, having nothing more to contend with than the late trains, filthy carriages, surly staff and stolid non-communication with fellow passengers.
In that golden era, 20 per cent of the train was for smokers, who indulged their soothing habit in an atmosphere of peaceful harmony and fraternal accord. It is said that smokers and non-smokers sat alongside each other for the entire journey, without a drop of blood being spilt.
But then came the ban. And from a deep, rancorous well of grievance the Brighton Maquis emerged. Whether it was their fearsome, massed joviality or formidable physical ability to flourish in a dense fog of their own making, we shall never know. But, for whatever reason, BR buckled.
The ban remained, but its enforcement was token. From time to time, railway staff would materialise and issue half-hearted reminders that smoking was not permitted.
But then came a truly sinister development. Word got out that the Oberkommando der SudMittelpunkt had instructed plainclothes inspectors to conduct undercover surveillance. Their task was to gather evidence against resistance members, who would be hauled before the courts and punished.
Some commuters have al-ready been visited in their homes by the police and cautioned. Prosecutions are pending. Rage is unconfined.
One buffet car freedom fighter, a former RAF pilot, spoke for all when he railed against “prowling and pimply youths in long overcoats sent to spy upon me”.
The atmosphere on the Brighton line is now so tense, and the scent of war so strong, that it is only a matter of time before a pimply youth is found hanging lifelessly from a luggage rack.
It was partly to prevent such drastic retribution that Lord Harris of High Cross offered his services as mediator between oppressed and oppressor. As a pipe smoker, free market economist and chairman of the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking (FOREST), he is ideally suited to his self-imposed task.
First, he convened a meeting of the aggrieved at the Shakespeare Tavern, near Victoria Station, where some 40 or 50 stalwarts stiffened the sinews, summoned up the blood, and disguised fair nature with hard favoured rage – all directed at BR.
In the course of his subsequent investigations Lord Harris discovered that the ban on smoking was imposed without consultation and “with conspiratorial stealth and speed”. Moreover, BR sought to defend its dictatorial fiat by the most tried and tested method of all, namely fiddling the statistics.
Its survey of public opinion – a piece of work so muddled it could only have come from the clowns that run our railways – shows that only 49 per cent of non-smokers favour a decrease in smoking accommodation. Yet BR’s former chairman, Sir Bob Reid, claimed: “extensive market research… showed overwhelming support for a ban”.
How, asks Harris, would BR set about arguing that 49 per cent provides a majority, let alone a sufficient warrant for imposing a 100 per cent ban on smoking?
It’s a good question. Is it not likely that BR’s insistence that 49 per cent constitutes a majority is not a matter of deception but a sincerely held belief, wholly consistent with the level of intellectual attainment for which its senior management is renowned.
The plain truth is that, in the climate of ugly intolerance that blights modern Britain, smokers are fair game. Though a substantial minority, they have few friends. BR must have thought that its anti-tobacco policy was a form of persecution that would not merely be tolerated but widely supported. Even when the figures proved otherwise, it pressed ahead regardless, trampling over agreed procedures in the process.
Thank heaven, then, for the smoke-filled buffet car, which has become a symbolic repository of freedom. As it rattles homeward bearing its cargo of wildly politically incorrect boozers and smokers, it carries a precious load – the fiercely independent spirit of free-born Britons.
Harris is to be encouraged in his quest to reach a compromise. Failure, he warns, could mean “ugly developments might flare up at any time”.
BR would do well to heed the Confucian dictum “Pimply youths are easily spotted”.