On a damp Tuesday in St John’s Wood, London, NW8, Lord’s Cricket Ground, home to the venerable MCC, was the venue for the 48th annual Tobacco Trade Lunch . But the spirits were immediately lifted by the crowd of pipe and cigar smokers that came into view as we strolled through the grounds, eagerly tucking into champagne on the lawn in the Harris Gardens. We don’t get to socialise much these days as a trade, you see, so when the opportunity arises it is generally grasped with both hands! Chilled glass to the fore, we surveyed the throng and were delighted to see a genuinely varied group – many of the ‘old guard’ seemed in fine fettle but amongst these cornerstones of the UK Tobacco Industry was a smattering of youth and even, in some cases, a touch of glamour. All a far cry from the doom and gloom of a few years back.
And what of the ‘chatter’ amongst the AITS members?
Well it was clear that there is no hiding, wherever one may be and whatever aspect of the industry one may be engaged in, from the economic difficulties that are being felt by all and sundry. But beneath the general frustration at the state of the economy it was clear there is a new optimism about the industry. The influx of new blood will have helped, of that there is no doubt, but after years of being the target of endless and at times mindless legislation there was perhaps a feeling that the lowest point in the cycle may have already taken place. It is no help to business when noone has any money to spend, but over time that will return and with luck the industry will be in a better place, ready for the market to come back, than in the past. It is all speculation of course, and if I was any good at that I would be writing this from a beach in the Maldives (which I’m not), but that was my ‘feeling’.
Having flown in for the day from Guernsey and then sat in London traffic for much of the late morning, our sejourn in the Harris Gardens was all too brief (although plenty long enough for some by the look of things!) and before long we were officiously called in to luncheon in the infamous Long Room. As a fan of cricket it was quite a thrill to wander through the famous pavillion and sit down for lunch overlooking the sweeping grounds where so much sporting history has been made. A vast room with high ceilings, I can only imagine the atmosphere when a batsman walks through on his way to take guard for the first time at the hallowed square. For the Australian openers at the start of an Ashes test, fairly hostile I would guess! The Master of Ceremonies read us the rules – no photos, mobile phones off and gents not allowed to remove jackets or loosen ties at any time, before a brief smoking related Grace and lunch.
I was fortunate to be sat near a large picture window overlooking the ground in all its glory, and was treated to the spectacle of the West Indies players warming up and familiarising themselves with the surroundings, no doubt in advance of one of their upcoming tour matches. One thing has to be said… I’ve seen more vigorous and arguably more effective warmups at a junior school sports day! Anyway, interspersed with the requisite smoking breaks for such a collection of folk, and a couple of exploratory wanders on my part to try to find the infamous Honours Boards (they weren’t to be found, only discovering later on that they are well and truly out of bounds in the players’ changing rooms) lunch meandered along for fully two enjoyable hours before the appearance of the guest speaker, Christine Hamilton. Judging by the comments around ours and other tables Mrs Hamilton is a Marmite sort of person – there are those that love her, and those that… well let’s leave it there shall we?! What couldn’t be denied however is that from the moment she took the microphone she had the whole room in stitches with her stories of life in politics, with more than a few choice words saved for her equally political husband. I do not envy that man…
But that unfortunately was our cue to leave on our journey back to island life. Our day was all too brief but a glimpse of the industry ‘movers and shakers’ filled me with positivity for the future. From a young chap who has recently taken over the tobacconist business from his father, and has set about transforming it from a gift selling aladdin’s cave back into a specialist tobacconist, to the representatives from the likes of STG, Dunhill and BAT who are busy fighting over market share and international expansion of their empires, there is a healthy heart beating in the world of pipes and tobacco.
A little history of the Tobacco Trade Lunch (care of the AITS)…
12th June 2012 is the 48th annual Tobacco Trade Lunch. It all began in 1964 when the Pipe Club of Great Britain inaugurated its “Pipe Man of the Year Award”. The first winner was actor Rupert Davies, famous at the time for his TV portrayal of Georges Simenon’s pipe smoking Inspector Maigret. He received not only a trophy but also a pipe specially crafted byAlfred Dunhill. A raffle to raise funds for past members of the trade, who have fallen on hard times, has been part of the proceedings from the start with the receipts donated to the Tobacco Trade Benevolent Association(TTBA), as it was then called. Then, as now, all the raffle prizes, which at the first lunch included a Mini with the number plate POY 1964, have been kindly donated by tobacco trade companies.
The Savoy Hotel in January was the lunch’s customary setting for 39 years, although on one occasion, perhaps as a premonition of things to come, it was held at Lord’s. For some reason, which is now shrouded in the smoke of time, no lunch took place in 1972.
Tobacco promotion regulations put an end to what by then was called the “Pipe Smoker of the Year” award after the 2003 lunch at which Stephen Fry received the last such accolade. Then the mantle passed to the Pipe and Pipe Tobacco Trade Association (PPTTA) and the Savoy lunches continued for a further three years before they were confronted by the smoking ban. Incensed by the threat to such a noble institution, the affectionately known “Gang of Four” resolved that the lunch should continue. Their sterling efforts, fully supported by AITS, resulted in the “Last Smokers’ Luncheon” held at the Landmark Hotel in June 2007, days before the ban came in. It was addressed by Boris Johnson as guest speaker. Guest speakers have been a feature of the lunches and since the venue switched to Lord’s in 2008 we have enjoyed contributions from: George Galloway (2008), Carol Thatcher (2009) Bobby Davro (2010) and Tom O’Connor (2011). For 2012 it was the turn of Christine Hamilton.
Past Pipesmokers of the Year
1964 Rupert Davies, 1965 Lord Wilson, 1966 Andrew Cruikshank, 1967 Warren Mitchell, 1968 Peter Cushing, 1969 Jack Hargreaves, 1970 Eric Morecombe, 1971 Lord Shinwell, 1973 Frank Muir, 1974 Fred Trueman ,1975 Sir Campbell Adamson, 1976 Lord Wilson, 1977 Brian Barnes, 1978 Magnus Magnusson, 1979 J.B. Priestley, 1980 EdwardFox, 1981 James Galway, 1982 Dave Lee Travis, 1983 Sir Patrick Moore, 1984 Sir Henry Cooper, 1985 Jimmy Greaves, 1986 David Bryant, 1987 Barry Norman, 1988 Sir Ian Botham, 1989 Jeremy Brett, 1990 Laurence Marks, 1991 Sir John Harvey-Jones, 1992 Tony Benn, 1993 Rod Hull, 1994 Sir Ranulph Firines, 1995 Jethro, 1996 Sir Cohn Davis, 1997 Malcolm Bradbury, 1998 Willie-John McBride, 1999 Trevor Baylis, 2000 Joss Ackland, 2001 Russ Abbot, 2002 Richard Dunhill, 2003 Stephen Fry