Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trollied Tuesday II: the perfect pissed up pet

This is the perfect sort of animal companion – the pen-tailed tree shrew. Forget your pub dogs, this is the sort of pet you want to accompany you on a trip to the boozer. According to the BBC it could 'pound for pound drink the average human under the table'. Frankly, I can think of no better way for man and beast to bond.

The shrew enjoys fermented nectar from the bertam palm, apparently. I'm not sure that if you were keeping one as pet you would want to give it palm wine, at least not if you want it share to share your drinks, but I am sure its sweet tooth would probably suit a daiquiri or a honey ale.

I've said it before, but drinking contests with animals are an under-rated pastime – lions clearly are lightweights in comparison with this rodent.

Of course, there are other animals that appreciate a drink. Dogs love beer; I could tell you this from personal experience, but it's been scientifically proven and everything. However, by the far the best advert for giving animals alcohol is the great Irish steeplechaser Arkle. He was the best jump horse of all time and enjoyed a bottle of Guinness twice a day.


Trollied Tuesday: the further Belgification of Britain

I should follow the logical implications of my comparison of Britain to Belgium and turn my thoughts to beer. Though I am not a narrow nationalist and cannot, in all conscience, claim that British beer is quite as good as Belgian beer this is still an eminently worthwhile topic.

However, just like our Low Countries cousins, you can tell a lot about the British from a close study of the beer. There is the distressing uniformity of much of the mass produced crap that people will insist on buying and the effects of globalisation (be it the sale of your Carlsbergs or US Budweisers or the easy availability of Czech and Belgian beers), of course; but there is also a glorious variety across the regions of the UK.

As ever, Northern Ireland is a special case – Guinness is king, but they do produce a lot of Bass (to the Burton recipe) there. But across Great Britain itself you will notice that Scottish beers are not like English beers – no 80/- south of the border, for instance; and it's easy to spot the difference between a distinctively Scottish brew - say Traquair or Harviestoun - and a southern English beer like Harveys of Lewis, or Adnams or St Peter's. (Why is Suffolk so good at beer making, incidentally?). And, of course, the north of England's own classics (say Landlord or Black Sheep) and Welsh beers (Brains is the only one that springs to mind. Surely there's some good stuff out there?) are markedly different in their own right.

Anyway, I'm not going to list every beer I like. The point is that for all this variety, these British beers are recognisably from the same stock. A good example is India Pale Ale - a legacy of our shared imperial history (the beer was extra hoppy to help it survive the journey to India) and the development of industrial techniques which made it possible to produce such a beer. My favourite is a Scots version – by Deuchars – but you'll find fine versions for Marstons, Meantime and others. It might be down to shared brewing techniques and ingredients as much as history and culture, but in beer terms Britain is still one nation. E pluribus unum, if you like, or one nation under the table.



The Guardian is running a Clerihew contest. What fun. Here are a few topical ones. As ever, feel free to pitch in yourselves.

Gordon Brown's
Perpetual frown.
Alienates voters
And makes Tories of floaters.

George W Bush
Pulls when it says push.
He made a similar error
When trying to end terror.

Giles Coren
Is obnoxious and borin'.
His over-written reviews
Induce a strong desire to snooze.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Has a brand new floozy
His Napoleon complex
Attracts the fairer sex.

Amy Winehouse
Married a louse
It would be no great surprise
If this speeded her demise.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Britain potentially more tiresome than Belgium

Scotland will never be free until the last minister of the Kirk is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post - Tom Nairn

If you have even a passing acquaintance with UK politics, you'll have noticed that things are going pretty swimmingly for the Scottish National Party at the moment. For all the howls of anguish from the party's opponents, I don't think this is going to lead inevitably to Scottish independence. Nor do I say this just say this because Simon Jenkins says that it will, though that fact alone should give even the most tartan-bedecked, Braveheart-gawking, shortbreid-speak gabbling nationalist cause for alarm.

It's more that there are so many potential problems ahead that, regardless of the rights or wrongs of Scottish independence, what worries me is that we're now looking at decades of Quebec-style tedium: narrowly defeated plebiscites on independence, followed by acts of nationalistic pettiness which stoke up the mutual ill-feeling to the extent that another vote needs to be held which is narrowly etc etc.

Not only is the natural human propensity for vindictive and mean-spirited behaviour, especially when nationalist sentiment (the best way, bar religion, of channeling all that is mean and base in humanity) is involved, coming to the fore; consider how much worse the combined efforts of lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians will make things.

All this is grounds to fear that the UK is now facing is a messy and protracted divorce battle which, worst of all, might see us staying together "for the sake of the kids", leaving everyone miserable, resentful and dissatisfied.

It's pretty clear what those who want the divorce are going to do: whine, complain and make life intolerable for the other party. Whether it's English nationalists complaining that the Scots are getting too much of "their" money and that there are too many Jocks in the Cabinet, or their Scottish counterparts demanding more of "their" money and whinging at great length that someone on TV said English when they should have said British; we already know how this is going to be played out.

Thing is, there's no reason why pro-Union types shouldn't make things equally difficult and tedious for the separatists. There will inevitably be wrangles about the national reserves and debt, but the SNP also appears to be operating on the assumption that Scotland is going to get nearly all the UK's oil (90% is the usual figure given) and automatic EU membership.

However, it's certainly possible the rump UK would fight hard to get more of the oil fields (this is an indication of the potential for dispute). As for the EU membership: Spain wouldn't recognise Kosovo's independence lest it give the Basques and Catalans ideas; I can't see why Madrid would want to set a 'break up an EU state, win automatic membership of the EU yourself' precedent, nor that the rest of the UK would automatically do all it could to help the Scots out on this one.

I can only see one way to avoid this and that is to offer the Scots the following deal.

In this divorce Scotland gets custody of Northern Ireland.

The advantages are clear for the Northern Irish - nationalists get out of the UK, and unionists remain united with their Scottish brethren* – it would be a better historical fit than continued union with England and Wales after all.

As for the Scots, apart from the assurance of knowing that in this scenario the new Kingdom of England and Wales would happily expedite the process of independence, they get something to keep Rangers and Celtic fans occupied and the certainty of knowing that if they're willing to take on all this responsibility then they really are serious about standing on their own two feet as a mature democracy; if they baulk at taking on this cauldron of nationalistic sentiment, then they'll realise in their heart of hearts that independence isn't really for them.

There's even a precedent for this sort of state - one that predates Scotland itself – so let's see if there's an appetite for the restoration of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.

If we could just resolve the equally tricky question of who gets to keep Gordon Brown, I reckon everyone could be satisfied.

*The Republic of Ireland gets to stop pretending that it likes or wants to take on its Northern counterparts (remember the Civil War was fought over the oath of allegiance, not partition) and doesn't have to worry about what three quarters of a million resentful unionists would do in a united Ireland. [Footnote updated so I look slightly less innumerate].


Friday, July 25, 2008

Typo of the Week

Now were Eagleton a pompous gobshite like Giles Coren, he'd be well within his rights to fire off an angry rant to whoever edited that. (But then Eagleton isn't a self-satisfied twerp who got his job off the back of who daddy was; and he doesn't need hundreds of words to explain his jokes in the fashion of a pub bore who gets upset when people don't laugh at his quips).

Via a Lib Dem.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Guardian: on the side of the humble blogger

There would be few things worse for a serious blogger writing about serious issues than to have your stuff lifted by the dead tree press without attribution.

The indefatigable Dave Hill expressing the indignity so well in his lament in today's Guardian about the fact that the Hackney Gazette has been filching material from his blog without crediting him for it:

So why does the Hackney Gazette think it's clever to treat Hackney bloggers with contempt? Why does it not follow the example of some large, city newspapers in the US and cultivate friendly links, in print and online, with local blogs and community websites, which can generate readers, stories and information they wouldn't otherwise have? Why not regard bloggers as potential "citizen journalist" allies in the battle to win readers rather than as cost-free sources of material to be plundered at leisure then insulted if they dare to complain?

Couldn't have put it better myself. Nor do his strictures just apply to local newspapers and bloggers. On a national level one would certainly hope that Guardian is above that sort of behaviour and that its political editor, say, would not go round borrowing whole chunks of copy and analysis from first rate blogs like, say, Political Betting, without crediting the source.

As I've noted before, that would be unthinkable. If such a thing were to happen, I trust that Dave, with his excellent contacts at the Guardian, would be the first to protest.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

The horror of realising that some of my neighbours lead horrible lives

It can't be easy being in that feudal journalistic caste of opinon formers and pundits (these things are often hereditary too); you know, the people who are paid to give their opinions on stuff in general. I might have argued in the past that many of them don't seem to offer any particular insight into life or society, but a spate of recent articles have given me a renewed insight into their difficulties.

Namely: how can you write convincingly and with insight into the lives of poor people when you yourself live a comfortable, well-paid life-style. It's not easy, is it?

Here, for instance is Deborah Orr in the Indie attempting to tell us why teenagers are so keen on stabbing each other. The horror was brought home to her by the fact that one such murder took place on her very doorstep – so surely there is something she has to say about it. Indeed there is; she concluded that while she is rich and white, many of the victims are poor and black and it's therefore difficult for her to draw any firm conclusions.

Or here, a few days earlier is Jonathan Myerson in a positive agony that in Southwold all the things that made him buy a second home there are being undermined by the fact so many affluent Londoners are buying second homes there. (Actually, the most interesting thing about the piece is that this masterpiece of metropolitian liberal handwringing appeared in the Daily Mail rather than its natural home, The Guardian.) I'm sure that this peculiar brand of self-flagellating self-satisfaction gives him a far better insight into the plight of the people who get pushed out of their home town as it gets turned into a glorified beach hut for wealthy tosspots – or of those who can't afford one home – let alone two, than anyone else.

The curious thing is that most journalists would be among these poorly paid helots – certainly the majority of reporters, production staff, even many of those who get to do the odd speak your brains piece are generally regarded as expendable drones by their superiors. The idea that hacks are raking it in is something of a myth, mainly generated by the existence of those high-profile individuals who get paid more than their thoughts or persepctives are really worth.

Obviously I am not going to suggest that anyone should get less money for doing what they do – not even the most vacuous or smug twattish of columnists (I'm not thinking of Orr or Myerson here particularly, by the way); there are more than enough vampiric manageralists in the world for one thing. I am suggesting, however, that if newspapers want worthwhile perspectives on things like knife crime, poverty and the like they might do well to broaden the pool of people they draw on to do this.

I was even going to suggest that in the long-run they might make a serious effort to invest in proper, old-school reporting, cut down on the frothy opinion stuff and recruit people from deprived inner city and rural backgrounds, maybe even going beyond the odd token black person. But that's clearly an insane fantasy (just think of all the unpaid work experience carried out by eager, easily malleable middle class Oxbridge graduates they might lose for a start), so I won't even suggest it.


Things for which their should be a specific word

1. The distinctive sound made by a woman walking in flip flops or other cheap summer footwear; the sound between a flap and a quack as the synthetic material comes lose from the sole of the foot, followed by a flap, then a thud with a hint of a squelch as the foot comes down onto the ground.

2. The agony felt at seeing an Englishman wearing sandals in the summer; the realisation that this sight encapsulates the country's post-Imperial malaise; the justifiable desire to stamp firmly on the foot of the offender with one's brogues.

I'm not sure if there are words for these things in other languages, if so, the usual practice is just to appropriate them wholesale for English.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

EDW: Encore des Belges

Further to my earlier comments about Belgian beers and Brel, it's only fair to show the other side of the country. Especially as this funny little fellow is probably the best known Belgian musician of all; so much so in fact that the type of mind that thinks naming five famous Belgians is a difficult and amusing exercise normally comes up with Plastic Bertrand as one of them.

The song itself is, apparently, about a drunken sexual encounter. I imagine that all of those reading this will have no more knowledge of these things than I do, so we'll just have to take him at his word on that. However, I'm pretty confident that anyone who can carry of this combination of pinstripe suit jacket, white scarf, leather trousers and white trainers (nor one can dance, in his own words "comme un grand connard") will surely not be lacking in female company for long.

The best-dressed Belgian of all, however, is a fictional character. But then you probably know that.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: A splendid little country

Does beer bring us together? In general, one would say: of course. But I ask specifically because of the news that once again the Belgians cannot agree on a form of government and may be thinking of going their separate ways.

This would be a worry, primarily because of fear of what would happen to all those Belgian beer vendors one finds around the world (in London, I especially recommend the Dovetail in Clerkenwell); would they be obliged to divide the bars into Flemish and Walloon sections?

In truth, while a surfeit of Belgian beer might lead to a sudden collapse, I'm sure that the Byzantine complexity of Belgium's political system – to say nothing the question of what to do with Brussels (raze it the ground, then plough it over with salt in order to ensure the continual fraternity, co-operation, mutual esteem and liberties of the peoples of Europe, of course) – will ensure that the dissolution of the country is a slow and protracted affair.

Of course, whether or not Belgium survives is a matter for the Belgians alone; but the point about beer is not a wholly trivial one. At least not if you take the view that slow and protracted dissolution is a topic of great interest or that drink captures the soul of a nation. In either case, the beers of Belgium repay close attention. They may be celebrated the world over (even if the best-known one is wife-beater) yet there is no real nation there.

Arguably, only Germany – another collection of statelets, which only became a country thanks to that oaf Bismark in any case– has such a variety of beers. In the case of Belgium, what a dazzling multiplicity of human ingenuity, brilliance, devilment and contradiction (oh and regionalism) there is. Fitting enough for what has been, variously, the heart of the Duchy of Burgundy (a state that never became a nation), the bit of the Netherlands that the Spanish clung on to, a geopolitical headache and the place where other Europeans went to kill each other.

At least one cannot say there is no soul – the Trappist beers are superlative (though I suspect one would perforce live a life of contemplative silence if you were to drink enough of them); so too the Abbey beers (Leffe and Grimbergen, for instance). There is even a counterpart, if you like, in the form of such formidable brews as Mort Subit – fine stuff, even if the name is only a small exaggeration. (On the other hand, the latter's whimsical, literal cousin, Delirium Tremens, takes this does what it says on the bottle approach a bit too far).

However, there are so many other sub-categories – light beers, dark beers, red beers, wheat beers – and, of course the regional styles (Flemish lambics or Walloon saisons, for instance), so many so that it would be dizzying – and rather less fun than drinking the stuff – to keep on with the lists.

In any case, it's tedious to start dividing beers along linguistic and ethnic categories – and equally dull to start uttering pities about how wonderful it is that we can accommodate these differences in one over-arching structure no matter the wishes of those being so accommodated.

Belgian beer should instead be enjoyed as a reminder that life's complexities cannot be fitted into whichever neat little form best suits our inclinations (what is the Dutch for 'vive la différence' anyway?) Instead, I recommend you enjoy a glass of one of the aforementioned beers and enjoy the efforts of the quintessential Belgian genius above – a French-speaking Flemming singing about those sophisticated continental drinking habits to which we should all aspire.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lolist cat

Or Quis separakit.

So many silly puns, none of which really answers the question. What on earth was the Irish News about when it published that picture?

(Via Slugger)

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Scultheen

You remember my search for a suitably tigerish drink? No, well I'm still looking.

Here's one worthy contender: scultheen. It was a favourite of the Irish Hellfire Club and consisted of whiskey, buttermilk and, for a suitably diabolic touch a dash of brimstone.

Milk can be surprising effective with spirits like brandy, whiskey and – especially – spiced rum, so why not this variant? I like to think of it as a far superior version of Bailey's Irish Cream.

The lurid tales surrounding the hellfire clubs are legion, and most of the occult stuff is greatly exaggerated. Still the stories about figures such as Buck Whaley - who was reputed to have met the Devil in St Audoen's church in Dublin and who certainly did travel to Jerusalem for a bet and played handball against the Wailing Wall – are all highly entertaining. It's certainly an advertisement of sorts for the benefits of scultheen. and Whaley's memoirs look like something that would well repay the time spent reading them.

As for the Hellfire Clubs themselves, this is a good brief guide to the facts and fictions surrounding them. Remember that their primary purpose was to satirise the religious and moral views of the day (it was somewhat underminded by the conventionally aristocratic anti-Catholic strand to much of the thinking, but then the Roman church as always been a worthy adversary). Nonetheless, if even aspire to go against the grain a suitable drink is needed to toast your endeavours – so scultheen it is. Truly the Devil's Buttermilk.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Six-word classics

Further to the six-word short story challenge, and in particular Dominic's precis of Crime and Punishment in the comments, here's the follow-through: six-word summaries of the literary classics.

These are my first efforts, I daresay more will occur to me over time and – I hope – to you too. Consider this an open challenge – in the comments or your own blogs – to outdo me.

The Odyssey

Sorry I'm late. I got lost.


I should be King, shouldn't I?

Pride and Prejudice

'I won't. 'He's rich'. 'I will.'

The Brothers Karamazov

Guilt? Leave all that to God.

War and Peace

Napoleon invaded. But life goes on.

The Great Gatsby

I love her. Let's all party.

James Joyce and PG Wodehouse are proving especially tricky to do in this format. More to follow, no doubt.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Adding to the homosexuality of the nations

Never mind the great headlines listed below, here's one to bring a smirk for the ages.

Close Call: Homosexual narrowly averts major flop in 100.

It is, needless to say, an unintentional comedy classic. You see, the American Family Association set up a news feed in which all AP reports including the word 'gay' had the 'offending' word automatically changed to 'homosexual'. Which isn't great if it's a story about the American sprinter Tyson Gay and you get a whole series of headlines which offer heaps of homosexual hilarity, like the other example below.

A flourish of the trilby to Dizzy for bringing it to my attention.

One positive spin off of the smoking ban

Generally the crowds of drinkers hanging around outside pubs are something of a nuisance. But if you are journalist dispatched to Glasgow to gauge public opinion it can be a godsend. There is a particular Glaswegian type of pub I'm thinking of – a windowless bunker – inside which you have no way of knowing what goes on inside, there is no easy means of escape, are often decorated with graffiti in support of the armed wing of the Old Firm and are generally located in the roughest housing schemes. (Some pictures will show you what I mean). Anyway, all of these factors ensure that they exude a powerful sense of hostility towards the word at large, much less any hapless outsider who is foolish enough to wonder inside.

It's possible I'm doing such places an injustice, of course, but entering such places can be a fairly daunting prospect. Nor are they confined to Glasgow – there were a few near the Dundee Courier's offices which no one who worked for the paper ever dared enter. For fun, that is, because I know a few hacks who were ordered to go into such places in Dundee or in Glasgow to gauge public opinion on a burning issue of the day – usually the fitba'. No one to my knowledge was actually attacked in these places but I got the distinct impression there were a few close calls.

But, come the current byelection in Glasgow East, and the picture is very different. As this Scotland on Sunday piece shows, no longer do journalists have to wonder into a place full of people who their paper generally overlooks in a part of town their newspaper generally overlooks and from which there is no easy means of escape. For now, thanks to the wonders of a smoking ban, journalists can gauge the mood inside the Centuar Bar in Easterhouse or Griers Longuebar or any other lions' den a sadistic news editor would take great delight in sending a wimpy hack into. For the people the reporter speaks to are all, oh blessed chance, standing outside in full view of passersby and where the changes of escape are legion. That's why it's a health and safety measure I guess.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

Six words (more or less)

Further to the six-word short story game below, it strikes me that some of my favourite newspaper headlines are six-worders. Coincidence, possibly, but it illustrates nicely why headline writing is such a particular art.

He lied and lied and lied

(The Graun on Jonathan Aitken)

Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes Minister

(The Daily Mail on Steve Norris's five mistresses. It was illustrated with a great picture too, but I can't find the original online. Just to show I'm not making it up, the New York Times remembers it too).

Fog In Channel. Continent Cut Off

(Possibly apocryphal, but an (unintentional?) classic of Little Englander-ism).

There are, of course, great headlines with one more or fewer words (Super Caley Go Balistic, Celtic Are Atrocious or Freddy Starr Ate My Hamster both from the Sun, as it happens) but the point about great headlines telling a story in a few words holds. As my favourite spoof one: 'Archduke Found Alive. World War A Hoax' illustrates.


Six words

As ever, Locker has tagged me with one of those round robin challenges - it this case telling a story in six words (à la Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn".) As ever, I will not be passing it on, rather giving an open invitation to anyone who wishes to have a crack in the comments box.

Here's mine.

Audit tomorrow. Should have picked black.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

EDW: Ali Pasha

Despotic tyrants are not what they used to be. Sartorially, at least, the modern crop seem a small-minded bunch trying to over-compensate for their failings.

Take Robert Mugabe, the despot du jours. A recent profile suggested that his fondness for Savile Row suits is based upon his belief that English tailoring makes one into a gentleman. Now, Mugabe may well have some high-quality tailoring but I think we can all agree that he is not, in fact, a gentleman.

(One might blame Mugabe's rather conflicted attitude towards English matters on his early upbringing at the hands of the Jesuits - more precisely an Irish Jesuit who believed the also imbued the "English gentleman represented the highest stage of human civilisation". That can't be a good combination, can it?).

The thing is, as Mugabe proves, you don't become something you aren't by dressing as that thing. Dressing appropriately, on the other hand, is always a good idea. If you are to be a murderous despot, you may as well dress in a manner which will awe and fascinate in equal measure.

Which is where Ali Pasha, the Albanian brigand who ruled a large swathe of the Balkans in the 19th century, comes in. His brutality and flamboyance fascinated contemporary Europeans in equal measure (he was a duplicitous old so-and-so too, of course, but that's pretty much what one expects of politicians of all stripes and all eras).

It's possible that his enduring fascination depends upon the quality of the travellers he entertained – Byron immortalised him in Childe Harold (writers from Dumas to Patrick O'Brian have also drawn on his career) and also described him "a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, so good a general that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte".

However, I'd like to think that his fascination is the fact that he had a good eye for the impression he was creating. Whether he was entertaining foreigners with perfect courtesy, carrying out brutal public executions he knew the importance of image. It's hard not to be interested in a man who had a harem of 500-plus women (plus a host of catamites).

If you want more, Wikipedia has a decent potted biography. However, you could pretty much guess all of this from the look of him, could you not? And, unlike the Mugabes of this world, you do not get the impression of a man deluding himself that he is a gentleman. He is, however, worth an Elegantly Dressed Wednesday.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: A pint and a fag

It's the first anniversary of the smoking ban; at the very least all those puritanical bores who were unable to enter a pub or restaurant without keeling over from tobacco fumes have stayed away from the pubs because, being puritanical bores they don't much go to pubs.

The trouble is that,with the puritans having had their way and ensuring no one else has the choice of entering, owning or working in premises in which smoking is permitted, lots of other people are staying out of the pub.

Remember, that there are those in this world for whom the height of felicity is a drink, a smoke and good company. Since you can no longer get this outside of the privacy of one's own home (or a beer garden, weather and space permitting) people are staying away from the pub. More than 1,000 pubs shut last year and the Sunday People warned this week that 20,000 pubs are in danger of closing as a result of the ban. I can only urge you all, as I have before, to go down the pub.

This BBC piece on the unintended consequences covers some of this ground. I am particularly struck by the loss of good conversation.

Peter Morris is trustee of a social club in Doncaster with more than 1,000 members. In a letter to the Times last week, he wrote: "I've lost count of the times that an interesting discussion has been curtailed because the smokers disappear to the smoking area. Non-smokers are reduced to 'minding' places at tables until their friends return."

As an occasional smoker of cigars and, as such the sort of person who finds themselves alone save for a row of half-empty glasses, this is the aspect of the whole business the annoys me the most. If I just wanted to drink by myself I could do so in the privacy of the back streets around King's Cross Station.

It would be nice to think that in future July 1 would be the one day of the year where those who regard the smoking ban as a crude, heavy-handed and counterproductive measure would be allowed the freedom to puff away in some designated indoor areas. (I'd take up the fags specially for the day to do so). But then tolerance and indulgence have never been hallmarks of the puritanical mindset.