FORMER scrap dealer and cardboard recycler, one-time butcher and ex-market trader turned occasional model maker Michael White is sitting on a double-decker bus next to peer of the realm Lord Stoddart of Swindon beneath a formidable fug of bluey-grey smoke.
They are chatting away, nodding in agreement, occasionally shaking their heads in annoyance, Michael’s broad Cockney accent easily louder than anyone else’s in the vehicle but failing to drown out that of his companion, a veteran of Parliamentary debate.
On the face of it Michael, who spent several years in the Army and who could well be described as something of a rum character, would appear to have little in common with the respected senior politician who served Swindon for 13 years.
But there is a link between the pair, and it is wafting hazily through the bus as it stands outside Swindon Central Library in the town centre on this drizzly morning in October, 1991. Sixty-a-day man Michael is pulling on a roll-up while other seats are occupied by smokers who are doing their level best to fill the conveyance with tobacco fumes.
I am fairly certain that Lord Stoddart – Swindon’s Labour MP from 1970 to 1983 – would love to join them. But he cannot because he gave up his once customary pipe four years earlier after suffering a heart attack.
However, he is keen to be here to support those who, unlike himself, wish to smoke on public transport but have now been told not so much to stub it out as to not even think about lighting up on the buses in the first place.
Both Thamesdown Transport and Swindon and District Buses have introduced six-month trial smoking bans. Michael, “Stoddy,” and a dozen or so others, ranging from hardline smokers to non-partakers, will present a 2,300 signature petition to bus chiefs calling for the ban to be extinguished.
Before they hand it in, though, their specially-hired vehicle will take them on a jolly around the streets of Swindon enabling them to puff away in transit, defiantly reveling in their vice of choice.
David Stoddart says: “It’s a matter of civil liberties. I find it quite amazing that bus companies in Swindon and other places too, should seek to discriminate against one section of their passengers.”
Michael, 45, calculates that he has smoked more than a million cigarettes over the past 23 years. He later tells me: “It was good of him (Lord Stoddart) to join us. ‘E’s a gentleman – unlike you,” he laughs, jabbing a finger in my direction for some reason, before rollin’ another.
Just over a year later Michael, still fuming at what he views as an outrageous onslaught against those who enjoy a spot of ‘baccy’, goes one better. He is standing outside Swindon Bus Station dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh, although he looks uncannily like Henry VIII.
In his theatric Tudor garb, he cuts an odd though not unimpressive figure.
He unrolls a screed of verse that he intends to read to the bosses of National Express poetically enjoining them not go ahead with the proposed banishment of smoking on their coaches. “Ban ye not this evil weed,” says the Adver. Sir Walter, of course, is credited with bringing the evil weed Michael so relishes back to Merry England during his 16th Century voyages to our future colonies.
Every time I read about a new anti-smoking initiative, like the recent national No Smoking Day (which he once characteristically dismissed as “a load of rubbish”) I think of Michael White.
He is a very likeable bloke in the diamond geezer/barrow boy mode. There isn’t an ounce of hypocrisy about him. He walks it like he talks it. He says exactly what he thinks. Michael White doesn’t like being told what to do. Or, in this case, what he cannot do.
A divorced man and one of eight children, Michael started smoking when he was 13, quickly becoming a 20-a-day guy before progressing at one stage to a lung-bursting 100 – a ton-up triumph which meant that he spent more than eight hours of his waking hours with a cigarette drooping from his mouth.
Eventually reverting to a modest 60, he liked to claim that he was only ever afflicted with one cough during his entire life – and that was caused by inhaling dust.
Roll-ups were his passion and his weed of preference was a subtle, aromatic blend of Clan pipe tobacco and Old Holborn. As a non-smoker I haven’t a clue what this tastes like.
Michael’s ongoing altercations with the stub-it-out brigade began when he was prevented from lighting up on a London-bound coach from Swindon around 1991.
“There were no no-smoking signs. It didn’t say I couldn’t smoke on my bus ticket. I thought ‘bugger this. When I get back I’m going to start a campaign’.’” He launched SOS – Smokers of Swindon, a group that fought for the rights of local smokers against a mounting avalanche of “unreasonable” – Mick’s description – salvos aimed at those with the temerity to ignore Government health warnings and carry on dragging.
“I’m not saying that smoking is healthy,” he conceded. “But people should have the freedom of choice.” His big thing was passive smoking. The risks, he declared, were minimal. That’s what Dr Michael reckoned, anyway. Having been run over by a car in Welcombe Avenue in 1990 and subsequently invalided out of work, he dedicated much of his time to SOS, even producing a campaign newsletter.
Over the next couple of years Michael was the man to go to when a quote was required for stories outlining the latest assault on the dwindling liberties of smokers. There was even talk back in the early Nineties of a smoking ban in pubs which, as everyone knew, could never happen.
And then, all of a sudden, Michael White, founder, leader and driving force of SOS, vanished… as if in a puff of smoke.
The last time I spoke to Michael, early 1993 I’m guessing, he said he was off to take part in a survival course up north. Couldn’t raise him after that. No reply at his flat in Lyndhurst Crescent, Park North. Even the “Smokers Welcome” sign had been taken down.
A year or so later I’m watching regional TV news and there’s an article about this hardy old eccentric who had ‘gone back to his roots’ by living a simple life in a tent in the wilds of Gloucestershire. He is on camera brewing-up over a blazing log fire in the middle of the woods.
Suddenly, I’m sitting up in the sofa, a big grin plastered across my face: the beard; the swaggering Cockney brogue and, of course the tell-tale plume of cigarette smoke.
It’s him alright. Michael had reinvented himself as woodsman Bodger White. Swindon’s smokers’ champion had done a Reggie Perrin.
The man who fought for the right to light up when and where he liked
Michael White launched an SOS from his home in Park North – the campaign group Smokers of Swindon which fought for the rights of local people to light up in the face of what he saw as increasing discrimination.
The town’s former MP Lord Stoddart of Swindon had given up his once customary pipe but was keen to support SOS in its spirited but ultimately unsuccessful bid to thwart a smoking ban on the buses
Bodger is still making his voice heard
Over the years stories have occasionally emerged about Bodger White and his life in our ancient woodlands.
For almost a decade, it is encouraging to learn, he became a “gnarly old thorn” in the side of Stroud council.
He had stubbornly ignored their repeated threats and legal actions to shift him out of forests in Stroud and the Dursley Valley. He had cost the Stroud taxpayer around £20,000. Excellent!
In recent years Bodger – now a bone fide woodsman and an admired rustic – has been living in North Wiltshire as one of the West’s last traditional coppicers and bodgers.
He has dedicated the last 20 years or so to “pursuing ancient woodcrafts, making tent pegs, walking sticks and rustic fencing from tree branches.”
He has been chasing grants to teach others these age old rural skills and woodland management techniques, thus ensuring such countrified essentials do not die out. Good on you Michael, nice one Bodger… blissfully at one with nature and your rollies!