Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Smoking is cool, and pipe smoking is even cooler

The picture below is of me on my honeymoon terrace in Venice, enjoying an early morning infumation.
Yes, friends, I am a pipe smoker.

By what path do things that were once ubiquitous become eccentric?
The odd, fogeyish reputation that pipe-smoking endures is an odd one, because in popular culture, right up until the 60s, the more rigorous and rugged the hero, the more likely it was that he would he would be a pipe smoker.
It can't be anything to do with the disfavour that all tobacco has fallen into for obscure health-related reasons, because cigarettes, however frowned-upon they may be, are not naff in the same way, neither can it be because of commercial pressure from cigarettes themselves, for the two co-existed for decade upon decade, and many people smoked both. (Sherlock Holmes, for one.)

I started pipe smoking seriously about five years ago. It's partly because I am susceptible to a weird kind of peer pressure. I couldn't care less what my actual peers wear/drink/watch/think this week, but if I'm reading an old novel or watching a thirties movie I'm irresistibly drawn to whatever the characters are having.
We went to see an Agatha Christie at our lovely local theatre the other week, and the characters kept ordering a gin fizz, and talking about ordering a gin fizz, and when one of them said he was going to have a whisky, another one said something like: "What? In this heat, old boy? No, what you want is a gin fizz." And a gin fizz has been my tipple of choice ever since. (Great play, by the way. Suzy Amy was in it, for one thing.)

And I had read so many books in which the heroes smoke a pipe, and it's always described with such sensual pleasure that I felt compelled to join in. (It's like when people really enjoy a drink in a film, and watching it makes you thirsty.)
I think, if there was any one thing that made me become a pipe-smoker above all else, it was this deceptively ordinary paragraph from William Addison's book The English Country Parson:

"The following morning I sat for an hour or so at the window of the fine old sixteenth-century inn where I was staying, smoking a meditative pipe and looking out across a paddock to the church again."

As soon as I read it, I knew that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to smoke a meditative pipe from the window of a sixteenth century inn while looking at a paddock.
Then there was a tiny little moment, easily overlooked, in a Bette Davis film from the early thirties called Ex-Lady. It's this shockingly progressive movie about a young couple who opt to sleep together unmarried, and there's a scene where Bette's getting the flat ready for her lover's visit. Obviously, they're as modern as can be, and so the flat is all white and silver and gleaming and sharp angles, and the whole atmosphere is of sex. And in preparation for this night of debauchery, as well as putting on slinky lingerie and buffing up the pillows, she lovingly gets his pipe out and puts it on the table. (I probably could have avoided that double-entendre there, but if you're partial to such things I offer it to you at no extra charge.) It's probably the only brown, cosy-looking thing in the entire apartment. And suddenly, if you notice it at all, your whole mental picture of this night they're going to be spending together changes, and instead of the tuxedoed young blade who does, in fact, come through the door, you're expecting someone like Gilbert Harding, in tweed plus-fours and a shooting hat. Such is the power of the pipe.

All these things called out to me, and the message was clear: a man is not a man without a pipe.
But 1930s peer pressure wouldn't be enough to compel me to stick at it after the initial curiosity had been sated. The truth is that Bulldog Drummond was right. There really is nothing quite so relaxing as a pipe: less frenetic than the fag, more urbane than the cigar, and irresistibly stylish, its aroma filling the room with echoes of cracked leather, linseed oil and Alistair Maclean paperbacks yellowing in the morning sun.

It took me a while to find my brand. I began experimenting with the ones I remembered from when I was a boy and you were still allowed to advertise it on the telly: Condor, Mellow Virginia, Erinmore.

Ah, them was the days.

But you'd be surprised how few brands even supermarkets now bother to stock. Some sell none. And I'm always the first person the staff have ever heard asking for any such thing.
Old-looking newsagents are always your best bet, but you should never go anywhere unprepared: some of the places I expected to find it most easily are among those where it proved most elusive.
I once made the mistake of not taking any on a holiday to a tiny village on the coast of Cornwall, just this side of Land's End, on the grounds that any neighbourhood comprised largely of grizzled-looking sailor folk, and where there was only one shop with shrimp nets piled up for sale outside, would unquestionably have a vast range of tobaccos on offer. Wrong.
They had Hello magazine but they didn't have pipe tobacco.

Then one year, as a novelty birthday present, I was given a tin of Sherlock Holmes tobacco, made in Dublin.
I loved the fact that it was in an old-style tin rather than a plastic pouch; it has a sweet, mysterious aroma befitting the name, and obviously it has that name. It instantly became my brand.
I used to get it by mail order, but on moving to Bath found that a local newsagent, the delightfully named Bog Island News, actually stocks it behind the counter, and many other tempting brands too, which I might one day sample should my complete and unwavering contentment with Sherlock Holmes ever pall.

This is me in my old London flat - oh the memories that old thermostat brings back - producing a billowing cloud of Sherlock so beautiful that it actually looks like it's part of the Hopper painting we had pinned to the kitchen door at the time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

(insert alliterative title)

Some more Mina magic for you, following the success of 'Bang Bang' a few weeks back, which according to the stats scored more hits in the first two minutes than the sneezing panda has managed in nearly two years.