After six months, London still adjusting to new smoking ban
It was a polite question that belied an order: 'Excuse me gents, could you move behind the white line for me please?'
We couldn't say no. But we couldn't say yes. Where was the white line? So many people were imbibing and smoking outside the Dog and Duck in Soho's Frith Street this damp, cold Friday evening that the line was obscured by feet. We shuffled back two centimetres.
'I hate this job,' the barman confided. 'Half the time I'm out here talking about this white line.'
We laughed. The barman didn't.
Still, with many pubs banning drinks outside since the smoking ban - due to complaints by neighbours about noise from smokers huddled outside - at least you could drink outside, even if Westminster council had divided the slim pavement into 'smoking' and 'pedestrian right of way'.
In the six months since the UK-wide smoking ban wafted through London, just six people have been fined; '100 per cent success,' shouted London's Evening Standard.
But is everybody happy? No. There is an increasing sense that the ban on smoking, somewhat perversely, has made smoking more important. What aimed to help take smoke out of the lives and lungs of Londoners seems to have put it at the top of everybody's minds. Simply put, smokers and non-smokers choose pubs and bars as much for their smoking facilities as their food or beer or vibe - after all, for many people, one is going to have to accompany the other outside for some 'fresh air'.
Evening Standard writer Laura Craik, apparently a non-smoker and pro ban, laments how gossip is cut short as smokers head outside. One of the major complaints by non-smokers is that half your party seems permanently outside.
Craik also notes a new social conundrum: do you brave the cold with the smoker, or stay indoors alone? If you both pop out, you may lose your drink - if allowed out with your drink, you risk your seat or worse, your bag or coat, stolen by the new army of thieves preying on unattended valuables.
The 'no smoking' sign is now as common in a London pub as a sign saying: 'Mind your bags - thieves work this area'.
Other unintended downsides involve pollution - of the noise, litter and carbon variety. Many pubs, especially those in residential areas, have banned drinks outside after nightfall because of noise. Neighbours, it seems, are more important for the licence. Another new sign now common in London pubs reads: 'Please, smoke quietly.'
Litter has become a problem, too. Butts dot the street, blocking drains and gutters, and wall-mounted ashtrays and stands often ignored.
Then there's the waste of energy. Many pubs invested in outside patio heaters and wall-mounted halogen lights for al fresco diners. So popular has heating the outside air become that the EU parliament hopes to ban the sale of such heaters.
Not all changes are bad. Text messaging is up, claim mobile phone operators, largely due to lonely smokers outside texting friends, or 'smexting' - smoking and texting. Lone women, especially, seem prone to texting while outside - largely to deter unwanted male attention or 'smirting', smoking and flirting.
The sociologist Kate Fox in her book Watching the English once pointed out that the area by the bar in a London pub was a free-chat zone, where no stigma existed about talking to strangers. Perhaps Fox needs a second edition, because the 'free-chat zone' has largely transferred outside. Anyone outside smoking is now free to talk to anyone else, although usually only if they are smoking.
Of course, there are many more benefits to the ban - 165,000 have quit smoking in the UK this year.
And, of course, people's clothes no longer reek of smoke. Which reminds us, the dry cleaning shops are suffering from fewer people deep-cleansing the smoke from clothes.