This cultural cachet wasn’t entirely down to a century of unregulated tobacco advertising either but inextricably linked to smoking’s fatal consequences. Dicing with death, even on a scale as pathetically prosaic as a 10-pack of B&H, has a funny way of making you feel alive. It’s dumb, but young people are dumb like that, and nine out of 10 smokers start as teenagers.
I’m sure I’m not alone among the UK’s 14.6 million ex-smokers in quietly pitying those lifelong abstainers who’ll never know the narcotic buzz of such self-mastery. Smoking is dead. Good. But perhaps ’tis better to have smoked and stopped than never to have smoked at all?
Network Rail has just announced the £1.46 billion sale of these premises to a pair of investors. The new owners insist nothing will change but campaign groups such as Guardians of the Arches in Hackney fear that current tenants will soon be replaced by the kind of samey, corporate firms who can afford higher rents.
Back in 2018 and smokers are already a dying breed. In 1962, when the Royal College of Physicians published the first major study on smoking and health, around 70 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women were regular smokers. People puffed away on public transport, doctors lit up on hospital wards and responsible parents helped their little ones prep for adulthood with the gift of chocolate cigarettes. Now only 19 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women still smoke, and at this rate, according to the latest research, there’ll be no smokers left in London by 2042.
Railway arches are special places. Created almost unintentionally when the railways were constructed in the 19th century, they’re now home to a vibrant mix of small businesses — from Phil’s garage in EastEnders to your favourite local micro-brewery.
* It’s testament to the on-screen charisma of Vanity Fair star Olivia Cooke, left, that I’m still watching ITV’s Thackeray adaptation. Nothing less than megawatt star power could induce me to sit through that theme tune.
This is good news of course, so why doesn’t it feel good? Not like that first drag of a post-prandial ciggie under a setting holiday sun feels good, anyway. Smoking kills, makes everything stink and wastes money that could be more sensibly spent on Sherbet Dip Dabs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to mourn its passing.
Because I don’t care what you say, Public Health England, smoking used to be brilliant. For a start, it was a very useful shorthand for telling attractive strangers what sort of person you were.A hot-blooded, James Dean-on-a-motorbike sort, for instance. Or perhaps the Parisian-café-frequenting, Sartre-discussing sort. It’s like Chandler from Friends (the Sartre of Nineties sitcom) once said, when the gang were pressuring him to quit: “The bottom line is smoking is cool and you know it!”
Ever resourceful Londoners could easily have put these urban caves to more nefarious use (see also dark alleyways and public loos), so we owe gratitude to the ingenious entrepreneurs responsible for transforming them into prime hipster real estate.
Cast your mind forward 24 years to an ordinary September afternoon in future London. You’re out for a stroll when a self-driving car veers up onto the kerb and nearly mows you down. You recover just in time to duck, narrowly avoiding decapitation by the low-flying drone that has delivered the package you ordered moments ago from AppleZon, the world’s first quadrillion-dollar