The following article was recently published by Allan Massie on The Daily Telegraph website, and all credits go to him.
Allan Massie is a Scottish writer who has published nearly 30 books, including a sequence of novels set in ancient Rome. His non-fiction works range from a study of Byron’s travels to a celebration of Scottish rugby. He has been a political columnist for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph and writes a literary column for The Spectator.
Harold Wilson was rarely seen in public without his pipe. It was part of his persona, like Churchill with his fat cigar. He used it as a prop when he was interviewed on television, taking it out of his pocket, filling it and lighting it, sometimes to give himself time to decide how best to answer a question. If in private he often preferred a cigar, the pipe was employed to enable him to present himself as a reassuring, avuncular figure, a man of the people. You could trust a man with a pipe.
In his first term as prime minister, in 1965, he was named Pipe Smoker of the Year; then, in 1976, Pipe Man of the Decade. Now, however, the BBC, in its wisdom, or in thrall to its own addiction – which is to political correctness – has chosen to play down Wilson’s pipe in its five-hour tribute to be shown on BBC Parliament.
His former political adviser, Lord Donoughue, says this is “Stalinist”. Wilson’s pipe is to be frozen out, just as fallen members of the Soviet Politburo were removed from photographs. I call it pathetic. One wonders if the BBC would deprive Churchill of his cigar. It would be no surprise if it did. After all, the Pipe Smoker of the Year award was discontinued in 2004, for fear that it contravened laws against the advertising of tobacco. Tony Benn and the veteran trade unionist Manny Shinwell were two other politicians who won it, while there were several distinguished sportsmen among the ranks too: Fred Trueman, Henry Cooper, Jimmy Greaves, Ian Botham and the greatest Lions captain, Willie John McBride – a reminder that although pipe-smoking has often been seen as the preserve of the middle-aged and elderly, young and fit people have also enjoyed puffing away at a pipe. Even so, it’s fair to say that pipes commonly went with tweed jackets and corduroy trousers and were typically smoked by schoolmasters, university dons and vicars. Boys in boarding schools liked having a pipe-smoking housemaster; you were aware of his presence, knew when he was on the prowl.
Pipe-smoking has always been associated with common sense, even wisdom, which is why Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows smoked a pipe. It is a comforting habit, aiding contemplation; I often turn to a pipe when reading a book for review. Authors should be grateful: it puts me in a mellow mood. Sherlock Holmes called a difficult case “a three-pipe problem”. He wasn’t the only famous fictional detective to favour a pipe. Simenon’s Maigret puffed his way through every investigation. The actor Rupert Davies was the first person to get the pipe-smoking award, presumably because he played Maigret, and smoked his pipe so well on television. Rather surprisingly perhaps, Dorothy L Sayers’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was also a pipe smoker. I have the notion that Miss Sayers smoked one herself, even if not as devotedly as Simenon. Authors sometimes lend their own habits to their favourite characters.
This may be why Philip Marlowe, greatest of tough-guy private eyes, was a pipe-lover; his creator, Raymond Chandler, was rarely photographed without a briar in mouth or hand. Even so, he wasn’t quite as dedicated as that other distinguished old boy of Dulwich College, P G Wodehouse, still photographed, pipe in mouth and tapping away at his typewriter well into his eighties. The young Evelyn Waugh smoked a pipe, but turned to cigars when he became more prosperous. J B Priestley, however, puffed away well into old age, Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1979.
You seldom see people smoking a pipe in public now, in this country anyway, though it is still a common sight at café tables in Paris. (Back in the Forties and Fifties anyone who wanted to be regarded as a French intellectual copied the example of the prophet of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and took to a pipe.) This may make it appear that pipe-smoking is in sharp decline. I’m not so sure. Cigar shops are all well-stocked with pipes and pipe tobacco, and Amazon has 20 pages of pipes and pipe-related smoking materials listed for sale. This suggests a lively market, even if most pipe-smoking is done at home and confined to a designated smoking-room, as in Victorian times. There were great pipe smokers then certainly, Tennyson and Carlyle among them. Tennyson was rarely seen except in a haze of tobacco smoke. Carlyle preferred a clay pipe, which he would smoke only once or twice and then set aside to hand over to a poor man or beggar.
One of my few memories of my maternal grandfather, an Aberdeenshire farmer, is of the pleasure I had as a small boy being shown his pipes – the pleasure he took in showing them to me also. I still have his favourite tobacco jar, a fine decorative object with a quotation from Bismarck on it: “The value of tobacco is best understood when it is the last you possess and there is no chance of getting any more.” How true! Fortunately the jar is not empty, and so, in a little while, when I am about to read a book for review, I shall fill my pipe and get to work.
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