RICHARD ORD: The Benson & Hedges guard of honour – when all you needed was a notebook, pen and fags

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When I started as a reporter in the late-80s, smoking wasn’t just accepted, it was actively encouraged.

Asking for a light was seen as a useful icebreaker in potentially difficult social situations, and sharing out your smokes could break down barriers between reporter and the public … and get you that page one story.

You wouldn’t leave the office without checking for your essentials: notebook, pen and fags.

Hard as it may be to believe, when I first started working as a reporter, every desk had a shiny metal ashtray within arm’s reach. From memory, it was the size of the average family car’s hubcap.

Those reporters who didn’t smoke were eyed with suspicion. They were treated with the same wary misgivings I suspect would be reserved for reporters who didn’t drink. I say ‘suspect’ only because I never met a reporter who didn’t drink.

Obviously, smoking in the office could not be tolerated forever.

Within a short time of my career starting, reporters were banished from smoking in the office.

The move was on health grounds. Not passive smoking, but fears that a discarded cigarette would burn the building down.

The nicotine-stained finger of suspicion was, I recall, levelled at the one pipe smoker who was constantly setting fire to the office bin. It was a minor victory for those who hated inhaling other people’s smoke. But only minor.

Smokers were told if they wanted to smoke, they could do so only in the corridor outside the office.

Which meant the office was smoke-free, but anyone leaving their desk had to walk through half a dozen reporters puffing away on both sides of the corridor. It was a Benson & Hedges guard of honour.

As word got out that smoking might actually be bad for everyone’s health (I suspect it was a story uncovered by a non-smoking journalist) all smokers were banished from the building.

But in a compromise, one which I can only think was reached between an overzealous union official and brow-beaten management, wall-mounted ash trays were screwed onto the outside of the building for the use of journalists. They proved as effective as ashtrays on motorbikes.

These outdoor ashtrays served only to keep the building’s security men in gainful employment ... as fire extinguishers.

The ashtrays, stuffed with glowing fags and wafted by the wind, kept erupting in flames. After consulting their insurance policies (where I suspect wall-mounted ashtrays burning down buildings would not come under ‘Act of God’) the company introduced an official smoking room.

While images of gentlemen in crushed velvet jackets and cravats puffing on Havanas in one hand while cupping a large brandy in the other may spring to mind, the smoking room in our office was not like this.

It was a sparse white room in which you could barely hear yourself think due to the roar of an air conditioning unit which, given the noise, I can only assume must have been bought direct from Boeing.

Thankfully, such smoking offices are now filed under Laughable Anecdotes of Days Gone By.

We journalists have now cleaned up our acts and now report only the dangers of this filthy habit.

Today we content ourselves with the healthy pursuit of writing great stories for our readers, breaking the ice over a pint, rather than a fag.

Heaven forbid it should ever emerge that drinking is bad for you … then us journalists would really be scuppered.