Your globe-scampering columnist is just home from a month in craggy, stimulating Scotland. There, every High Street of every town and city boasts (sometimes next door to one another) a kilt-hire shop, a betting shop, a Turkish barber shop and an e-cigarettes emporium.
Vapers (this is the name given to people who use e-cigs, for they produce not smoke but vapour) are seen at large everywhere in Scotland. Scotland’s public vapers made quite an impression on me, for reasons I will explain in a moment. And so my ears have pricked up since finding, upon my return, that Australian public conversation is alive with the discussion of e-cigarettes.
They are almost universally banned in Australia and controversial, expletive-prone federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has just (this time watching his language) reaffirmed his opposition to them. In recent days Fairfax Media has assisted debate on the matter with Michael Koziol’s reasoned piece, still available online, Fog of war: is vaping good for smokers or only for Big Tobacco? Doctors and apothecaries are divided on whether or not e-cigs are a boon for people who might otherwise be smoking orthodox, satanic, death-dealing cigarettes.
Back to this vaporous topic in just a moment, but first, and while I am reporting on Scotland, mention of one of the many joys of a visit, in Edinburgh, to Scotland’s excellent, new (opened in 2004) parliament building. Loyal readers will know that I am always urging that Australia imitate those civilised nations (and especially Great Britain and the United States) that have a national poet laureate and then often as well poets laureate for individual cities and states. Australia and Canberra (and even unpoetic Queanbeyan) are badly in need of bards. You get a glimpse of just what work a robust, respected poet laureate can do in then Scottish poet laureate Edwin Morgan’s Open The Doors!
It was written for the Scottish parliament’s opening on October 9, 2004 and is recited whenever a new parliament convenes. A ripper read, you can read it all online or perhaps better still online you can see it being performed with passion, in the parliament’s terrific, sunlit chamber, by the Scottish Youth Theatre. Morgan’s Open The Doors! is in part a celebration of the exciting and contemporary new parliament building. Here’s a taste of that. “Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out! We have a building which is more than a building. Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box? Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens, syncopations and surprises.”
But then the poem becomes a feisty, voice-of-the-people, finger-wagging lecture to the MSPs (members of the Scottish parliament) who will serve there. Readers, do, do go online and read the whole stirring lecture, imagining it being aimed at the shifty rabble of party hacks we somehow keep electing to the House of Representatives, to the Senate and to the ACT Legislative Assembly. How it would make them squirm! Here’s a taste of it. “What do the people want of this place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture ... A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want. A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want … Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has not quite ever been broken or forgotten. When you convene you will be reconvening, with a sense of not wholly the power, not yet wholly the power, but a good sense of what was once in the honour of your grasp. Trumpets and robes are fine, but in the present and the future you will need something more. What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you. We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away. We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we have no mandate to be so bold.”
But back to Scotland’s vapers and to how again and again I saw an unremarkable-looking man or woman unconsciously creating wonderful (but of course fleeting) cloud-sized works of art with their vapour. Mere ordinary cigarette smoke makes a disappointingly thin and wispy and very temporary cloud. But in Scotland I saw vapers unwittingly create true clouds, substantial, billowy ones like the ones the great landscape painter John Constable (a cloud enthusiast) used to depict in his big-sky paintings. One vaper I watched in Scotland made, unwittingly, clouds so big and entertaining that one could see shapes in them, rather as Hamlet (in Shakespeare’s play) espies a cloud that reminds him of a camel, then a weasel, then a whale.
In the event of e-cigarettes being made legal here (as they already are in much of the world, including New Zealand) perhaps we might welcome and encourage vaping as an art form. I have never smoked but will be tempted by e-cigarettes, by the artistic opportunity to create my very own cumulonimbus.