Yesterday I got back from one of my tobacco buying road trips to Belgium. I guess there is no point in trying to avoid the fact that the whole exercise is proof positive of what a craven addict I am. Guilty as charged. Only a hopeless addict would drive for 28 hours and 900 miles to buy their drug of choice.
The maths of my trip are both eye opening and compelling. In my humble opinion, the maths shine a pretty unforgiving light on the ongoing idiocy of our government. I’ll start with the costs. £70 fuel, £50 for the tunnel and £25 on caffeine. Change out of £150. Then I spent £700 on 200 packs of fine Virginian tobacco.
Grand total - £850.
The same fine Virginian tobacco retails at £18.50 a pack in Tesco. 200 packs would weigh in at an eye watering £3700.
So my 28 hour odyssey saved me just shy of £3000.
Belgium is a fair hike from Dumfries. A 28 hour hike to be precise. But it isn't much of a hike for anyone living in the South East of England. For them the round trip could be completed in five or six hours and Tesco charge the same for fine Virginian tobacco in London as they do up here. I haven’t paid a penny of either tax nor duty for my chronic 50 a day addiction for about eight years now and I haven’t broken any laws. Free trade in the EU and all that. I guess the Belgium Treasury must have gained to the tune of £400 or so from my cross border raid. How much have the governments of Belgium, Spain and the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg had off me over the years? Must be getting on for £4000. And how much has HM Treasury in London had?
Pretty smart. There are 15 million people living and breathing in the South East of England and the stats suggest that 3 million of them smoke. How many chose to take the same option as I choose to take? It must be an absolute shed load. And how much money do the Belgians take laughingly all the way to the bank?
Enough to make you want to smash up your office, right George?
But hey. It’s not all about the money, right? Our heroic and determined leaders care so much about our well being that they are willing to fore go all of that lovely tax to make sure that we all stay fit and healthy and well.
Because by hammering smokers they make sure that we are driven from our addictions by the sheer weight of the cost.
So this is why Belgium is absolutely swamped with smokers whilst the United Kingdom is fast becoming a smoke free zone. Well it is, isn’t it? It has to be. Surely!
What percentage of the adult population of Belgium are smokers?
What percentage of the adult population of the UK are smokers.
So much for that then.
The real picture will no doubt be a whole lot worse. I guess the 20% UK figure is based on the smokers who are being ripped blind by buying fags from Tesco. What of the ones like me who appear nowhere on the ledger books of HM Treasury? And of course I am one of the lucky ones who has a car to make the drive to Belgium. Many who are not so lucky buy their fags from some bloke down the pub for £4 a pack. These tend to come into the country care of the Russian Mafia and have about 200 times as much lead in them as regular, legally manufactured fags.
So we drive smokers away from a relatively safe licensed product to East European toxic moonshine which will probably send them down the same road as Alexander Litvinenko.
Whichever way you dress it up, the whole thing is utter idiocy. But of course political correctness will win the day just like it always wins the day.
There is nothing quite like a long night drive to allow the mind to wander. I always download a talking book to kill the miles. This time it was John Le Carre’s Cold war classic, ‘The Russia House’. Michael Jayston is the reader who gives a pitch perfect tone to the great man’s crafted melancholy. As the moonlit miles of the A1 slipped away into the night I was filled with the emotion that always fills me when I slide into the world according to Le Carre – what would I give to be able to write like that!
Dream on Frankland
I hit the M25 at a time of night when the traffic was heavy rather than hellish. The hugeness of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge filled the night and the view from the top was something to behold. Usually the southern end of the bridge means a ten minute queue to the toll booths, but not this time. They don’t do toll booths any more. Toll booths need living breathing human beings and living breathing human beings tend to want a wage packet at the end of the week. Well there is no more of that nonsense at the Dartford Crossing. Instead great big signs let you know that you need to look up ‘Dart Charge’ online and pay up by midnight the next day.
The joys of the modern world. Kind of sad.
Sleep snatched on service station car park. A quiet 3 am train through the tunnel. Empty French roads under a star filled sky.
Tobacco bought and stowed away. Back to Calais as the world lit itself up with glowing winter brilliance.
By now the roads were busy with rumbling trucks from all corners of the EU. And as the signs to Calais counted down there were clusters of Africans by the roadside watching the traffic with blank expressions. Their faces were half hidden under their hooded tops. I was cold enough grabbing a couple of hours kip in my car with the engine idling. How cold must those lads have been having shivered away the long cold January night in their makeshift shanty towns. So these were the Farage people in the goose pimpled flesh. Thousands of miles from their tropical homes and frozen to the marrow.
We’re all supposed to hate them, right?
Sorry Nigel, can’t oblige you on that one. From where I was sitting on the inside lane on the wrong side of the road the whole thing just looked plain bloody tragic.
The Terminal. The border. And things were different this time. Well of course they were because just a few days ago three maniacs went on a Parisian killing spree. The French were making sure that all travelers realised that the Elysee Palace was taking the terrorist threat seriously.
So there were a bunch of young soldiers armed to the teeth watching the queue to the immigration barrier. What were their orders? What were they waiting for? They had enough firepower to turn every car in the queue into a colander. Like the Africans outside the razor wire, the soldiers looked frozen to the bone.
Beyond the barrier there are more new guys, in overalls this time. They each wielded some kind of handheld contraption which they ran over the door handle and the steering wheel. Hard eyes and a voice like Inspector Clouseau.
“We test for the explosive. Merci.”
And for the umpteenth time, I think that if I was a terrorist I would avoid any transport terminus like the very plague. Hang on a sec. For the last seven years that is exactly what they HAVE done. Not that the Governments of the West seem to care. When in doubt, send a bunch of soldiers to the nearest bus station and tell them to make sure they are ‘armed for bear’.
Sometimes the British customs guys pull me up and give me a hard time for the amount of tobacco I have on board. I show them a few of my books and explain that most writers smoke like chimneys. It has always been enough so far. But this time their minds are clearly elsewhere. 50 gram packs of fine Virginian tobacco are not any kind of clear and present danger. All resources are now deployed against the dual threats of crazy Jihadi guys with long beards and freezing cold African guys with chattering teeth and hooded tops.
Is it all sad, tragic or idiotic? Or maybe a mix of all three? And all the while the words of Le Carre roll into my ears and take me three decades back to the threats of times gone by. The button pressed. The ICBM’s easing up and out of their subterranean lairs. And a lousy four minutes to get your affairs into order. And then the end of everything.
I’ll take mad guys with long beards and African guys in hooded tops any day of the week.
Back on the home soil of Fortress Britain and 400 miles to drive. More warnings to settle my ‘Dart Charge’, this time for the use of the tunnel. And once again the M25 is surprisingly kind. The flags of St George that adorn Nigel’s Essex heartlands hang limp.
200 miles of the A1. I used to be up and down this road all the time thirty five years ago. Magdalene College to Anfield to watch Dalglish, Souness and Rush in the days when they strode Europe like giants. The same road, but at the same time a very different road.
The vast fields either side still promise a coming summer of wheat and barley. But other things have changed utterly. Old pubs which fed and watered travelers for hundreds of years are now boarded and closed. It is the same story for the Little Chefs and the family run garages. Once fine hostelries have been tackily re-branded to advertise the cheap and the cheerful.
Thirty five years of progress and the place is starting to look like the countries of the Eastern Bloc once upon a time used to look. Faded and peeling and gaudy.
Sad and borderline tragic.
It kind of made me wonder why the cold African lads in the hooded tops were so desperate to break and enter their way into such a fading British dream. Maybe you'd be better looking elsewhere lads. This place ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.