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Published in The London Paper 2007

Flirting in the age of the Smoking Ban

“Hi - do you smoke here often?”

The diminutive Brunette on the pavement outside The Old Crown on New Oxford Street looks at me with suspicion, but her redhead companion in the cropped trousers is more receptive. She giggles. I offer her a token of my affection – a box of Swan Vesta matches worth a whole 50p – as she pulls out a Camel Light.

I strike a match, lean in to cup the flame, and a lingering eye-to-eye glance is exchanged. We begin to chat, several more cigarettes are smoked, and when I have finished coughing up a lung or two – I gave up five years ago, you see - I suggest we should meet for a drink some time. She nods. Bingo: I have just successfully “smirted”  - flirted though the act of smoking.

The government may crack down on the filthy habit, but it can never suppress the city’s sex drive. Since the smoking ban was enforced on July 1, London’s singleton smokers have shown an enterprising approach to  the time-honoured ritual of using fags as a social network and exploiting smoking means of meeting people. They have simply moved the whole thing outside and evolved what could easily be a lonely, somewhat sad activity into whole new kind of furtive, behind-the-bikesheds fun. You want to pull? Start smoking and go out tonight.

As cigarettes have long been vital props in the theatre of love, it was thought that with the impending ban a whole raft of classic entrees  and infallible openers - “have you got a light?, “can you spare a cigarette?” - would go up in a puff of smoke, and the dedicated seducer would have to try twice as hard. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than putting the dampeners on the romantic potential of the humble gasper, its importance has grown.

Cigarettes may not be cool, but few could argue they aren’t sexy. Sharing the paraphernalia of smoking provides an easy way for new lovers to bond. Moreover, the socially-ostracised smokers now enjoy a collective sense of persecution and today smoking feels clandestine and conspiratorial – key elements in the perfect romance.

Trawl across London on a warm day, and you see smirting happening everywhere and at anytime: on the pavements and street corners outside bars, pub and clubs, in office block stairwells, outside restaurants, in the “smokatorium” shelters that progressively-minded licensees are beginning to erect, and just about any location where the randy and the nicotine-addicted happen to congregate. “Smirters”, and are far too busy trying to meet other smirters to worry whether their breath stinks or that they’re heading for an early grave.

Outside The George Pub on Great Portland Street, Amber, an insurance worker, is being smirted hard by John, a plumber. They met here an hour ago when John insisted on lighting Amber’s Marlboro Light. They are sinking beer and G&T and lighting each others cigarettes as the sun sets over Oxford Circus. “We’re just friends,” Amber insists. “At the moment…” adds John, with a certain predatory glint in his eye. 

Smirting turns the necessity of leaving a bar, pub or club to light up into a micro-adventure charges with erotic potential.

“I gave up smoking three weeks ago, but she’s tempted me outside for one,” says Rob, a Kiwi, stubbing out his fag. He is talking about Anna, colleague with whom he is smirting outside the Pitcher & Piano in Dean Street. Anna maintains a dignified silence behind a plume of Silk Cut smoke, but you could cut the atmosphere between them with a knife.

Rob’s preferred smirting chat-up line is near-genius in its simplicity. “I would probably just walk over to a girl and say, “you’re smokin’!” says Rob, who does not look unlike “The Mask” actor Jim Carrey. Jim and Anna are both single, but that may change before the night is through. Even with lines like that.

Since smirting only happens outside, it makes sense that dedicated smirters are often originate in the more outdoorsy sections of London’s drinking community. For some serious smirting action, any bar with a significant Australian, Kiwi and South African clientele will do.

From Candy, an Aussie teacher sat outside the Walkabout on Upper Street, the smoking ban has been nothing but a bonus. “It turning the streets of London into an ashtray,” she says, gesturing to the carpet of fag butts on the pavement, “but it’s also a massive opportunity.” She lists a few of the choicest smirting lines that have been used on her: “Your lipstick goes every well with your cigarette”; “can you move your cigarette please – I can’t see you mouth properly”; “you smoke that well – is there anything else you enjoy sucking?”. Guys, take note.

Yet smirting is also a deeply egalitarian activity – and acceptable way for women to challenge convention and chat up men. “Whenever I see a guy lighting up, I’m over there asking for them for a light,” Candy says. “It’s all about smoker-to-smoker pulling. I have been very successful so far.”

Smirting also forces you to think on your feet. “The fact is you’ve got a three-minute window to sell yourself,” says Bobby, an investment banker enjoying the company of Ayako, a beautiful Japanese student he has met outside The Crown pub in Covent Garden. As he lights another cigarette for Ayako, you can almost see the cogs of his mind whirring anew.

Of course, not every smoker is a smirter, and some smirters don’t even smoke. “Since I was an adolescent I’ve always carried a lighter so I can light cigarettes for girls,” says Jason, a hair stylist, outside the Keston Lodge on Upper Street. “It really works if you want it to. But it you have to use cigarettes to impress women, you’re not really doing very well in life are you?” He may have point. But judging by his attractive girlfriend Rachel - celebrating her birthday here tonight - Jason evidently hasn't done too badly either.

For those in couples meanwhile, “platonic smirting” can be fun too, enabling partners to take the airs and take a break from each other simultaneously. Outside Andrew Edmonds, the romantic bistro off Lexington Street, Pete and Lucy have struck up conversation with Belinda, who has been dining at a table a knight’s move away from theirs.

By some quirk of accommodation-related fate, it transpires Belinda knows Pete’s flatmate and has even visited his flat. In celebration of this strange coincidence, cigarettes are lit and enjoyed by the trio. “It’s always great to meet people you didn’t know you knew,” says Pete. Smirting, in a very real sense, is bringing the world together.

And it may be the fact that London is often a cold, impersonal place that smirting has come into its own as a whole new kind of kinship, providing a welcome challenge to the British sense reserve and a frisson of smoky sexual thrill. None of this, it's safe to say, was envisaged by the Stalinist architects of the smoking ban in Whitehall.

“British people are very reserved to anything that helps them get together it good,” says Brian, a Canadian enjoying a smoke outside the Prague Bar in Shoreditch with his girlfriend Sylvia. “There’s a bit of street life now – people hanging round outside, smoking, and talking to each other.’

“Smoking has become a really social thing,” says Christelle, a glamazon just crying out to be smirted with as she puffs on a Marlboro outside Zigfrid in Hoxton Square. And take it from seasoned smirter Sunil, outside Cuba Libre on Upper street. “I take inspiration from the ban. Smoking is an icebreaker - it’s a brilliant way build up a conversation.”

Indeed, plenty of smirters complain that their only problem is finding suitable locations – London’s nightlife infrastructure isn’t currently set up for full-scale smirting, with few dedicated smoking areas and overzealous security guards barking at punters for who wander outside with drinks.

London’s licensees should look lively – when the birth rate is dropping and smirting is bringing couples together, the future of the human race may depend on it.

© Kevin Braddock, 2007


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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