There are certain things that, due to technological progress or changing tastes, we no longer tend to see in everyday life. But every now and then you come across a refreshing glimpse of yesteryear amid the 21st-century. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago during my lunch-hour as I walked into Cheltenham town centre. Outside a shop, I saw a tall gentleman, smartly dressed in a tweed suit. He had a contented and reflective look on his face as he engaged in a seldom-seen pursuit and I instantly thought: “Now, there’s a sight you don’t see very often these days.” At once the memories started to flood back. I have seen him on several occasions since, doing exactly the same thing and, as I walk past him, I know that he is enjoying a moment’s peace within the frantically paced world. You see, dear reader, the tweed-suited gentleman of whom I write, is one of a particularly rare breed in these times; he is a pipe smoker.
I come from a family in which many relatives, including both grandfathers, my father and several uncles, were all, at some point in their lives, pipe smokers. The sight and the smell of someone smoking a pipe take me right back to childhood. That pleasant aroma of pipe tobacco used to drift through the house and garden as the pipe smokers in our midst puffed away quietly, with their slightly lopsided grins and clenched-teeth expressions. To me it seemed like some peculiar ancient art. There were mysterious rituals such as the repeated tapping of the pipe bowl upside down in order to extract the ash, and cleaning the pipe bowl with a penknife to remove any remaining debris. To clean the stem, the wire, woolly-coated pipe cleaners would be used. Once clean, the bowl would be carefully refilled, tamping down the shreds of golden-leafed tobacco, before it was lit, with a certain degree of ceremony, then the gentle clouds of contentment would emerge.
I suppose because of this family tradition I was always aware of famous pipe smokers including the legendary RAF fighter ace Sir Douglas Bader, Eric Morecambe, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Labour politician Tony Benn who famously said: "Tea and tobacco are my two comforts in life." Even the great scientist Albert Einstein once declared: "I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs." In the realms of fiction, of course, we have those two great detectives Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Maigret, both of whom would puff away, cogitate and reflect on the clues in the latest case they were attempting to solve.
As a child I was regularly sent on an errand to the village shop to purchase “A quarter of Erinmore Mixture.” Somehow I can’t imagine getting away with that today! The golden colour of the label, with the red lettering, is still firmly imprinted on my mind. Apart from the different types of tobacco and their colourful packaging there were countless shapes and styles of pipes too - from the straight stems to the rather more curved, ornate ones, and the different varieties of wood and other materials they were crafted from. There was also something magical and mystical about those old-fashioned tobacconists' shops and the racks of pipes and smoking accessories they displayed. Step inside and you would enter another world filled with a wonderful aroma of proper gentlemanly pipe tobacco - rich, redolent and refined. It was a world that spoke of another age, one that was largely ignorant of smoking's health risks, which today are clearly evident and we are, thankfully, aware.
Now, of course, the trend (or should that be taste?) is for the curious vaping devices that seem to boil away permanently like old kettles – emitting a foul fog of fruity fumes. I must confess that, as a non-smoker, I much prefer the aroma of pipe tobacco or cigars. Nothing can extinguish the fond memories these evoke for me, because I always associate them with childhood, family, home - and especially Christmas.
One of the famous pipe smokers I mentioned, Eric Morecambe, is featured with his comedy partner, "Little Ern", in a wonderful article in Evergreen's forthcoming winter issue celebrating favourite festive viewing from the 1970s and '80s. If you want to be sure of receiving a copy click here for subscription details.