Unless its a case of not being able to see the waiter or the barman for a dense blanket of smoke, smoking in pubs and cafes doesn't really bother me*. I was a smoker once myself and still have a lingering affection for the untipped coffin-nails. What really gets my goat, and what I think really should be banned in public places, and that immediately, is LOUD MUSIC.
Why is it that virtually everywhere you go you're aurally assaulted by the asinine gibberings of some radio DJ, or mindless techno-music loud enough to wake the dead and all their relatives? I can understand a little soothing background music - but the galling thing is you are not given the choice.
What I'd really like to hear when I walk into a restaurant or cafe is not 'smoking or non-smoking?' but 'ear-drum crushing din or non-ear-drum crushing din sir?' The waiter or waitress might be as nice as pie, but just try and ask them to turn the music down a little and their faces turn into frozen pudding. 'Well... I'll see what I can do sir', and seemingly all they can stretch to is a token fractional turn of the volume knob because the din hardly alters a decibel.
Of course some places are worse than others, and some of the chain cafes are the worst offenders. I was sitting in one of my locals last week quietly enjoying a morning read of the paper, marvelling at the unusual peace and tranquillity when, sure enough, the manager appears and pumps up the volume. There were just two or three of us sitting there having a coffee and a snack, and suddenly we're in Discoland. Suddenly were expected to cast away our broadsheets, leap onto the tables Travolta style and break into a searing rendition of Greased Lightning.
What is going on? Could it be that they're trying to turn our brains to mush so we'll forget just how many hard-earned euros we're forking out for a coffee and a pastry? Or is it that at Business School the managers of these places had the mantra: No Noise No Profit drummed into their heads? The idea being that if you create a 'lively' enough atmosphere you'll attract more customers. This might work in the immediate short term, but it'd be interesting to watch the average chain cafe and count how many people sit around for more than twenty minutes having one more coffee or one more slice of carrot cake for the road.
It isn't just cafes, its everywhere. I was having my hair cut in a salon the other day and the music was so loud I was afraid the hairdresser would pick up the beat with the scissors and I'd wind up with an eyeball hanging out or one of my ears in a dustpan. What can we do? We simply have to be more assertive and insist as firmly and politely as possible that we can't conduct a conversation with our aged aunt while the soundtrack of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is making her teeth rattle. Whatever happened to that old retail commandment: The Customer Is Always Right? The Customer IS always right, even when he's deaf.
*Written before the smoking ban in the UK and Ireland.
John McKeown © 2008