The Tobacconist

tobacconist shop

Like the sensory memories of many a boy, mine started at the heels of my father.

No dubbin-soaked football, nor linseed-oiled cricket bat for me. My father was an artist, so linseed oil featured in the smell-library of memory but, combined with oil paint and turpentine and, walking at waist height alongside, the overriding aroma was the smell of damp Harris Tweed jacket and a pocket full of pipe.

My father’s tweed jackets were (as I suppose they were to many men from the 1940’s onwards) hardy utility garments full of pockets – interior and exterior. Exterior top breast - handkerchief (decorative), interior  left - pens and wallet, interior right - specs and cheque book, exterior right - handkerchief (cotton, functional) and coins (pre-decimal). Exterior pocket left, however, was solely devoted to pipe smoking.

There was the briar itself - not generally a high grade, but often ‘seconds’ of long established, respected brands: Orlik, GBD, BBB, Comoy, Civic, Parker and Peterson.  Serviceable pipes, separated from their classier counterparts by a small sand-pit or a less than perfect grain. There were the accoutrements - pipe cleaners, reamer, sometimes chalk or wire mesh plugs to collect ‘dottle’. Once, I found a sprung lid to place on the bowl for windy conditions.  If not a tin, then there might be a pigskin pouch for a pipe and a day’s worth.  Or, if the tobacco had been bought loose from Bewlays, an oilskin roll.  Of the tins, there were standard round 1oz, in deeper and shallower versions. The small rectangular flake tin, and the large 2oz rectangular, ready rubbed.

In short, just as there was a set of spanners for the Morris Minor, there was a toolkit that went into the left hand pocket that enabled the art of pipe smoking.  The paraphernalia, maintenance and ritual were of course what first drew me to the art, as much as the soothing smoke itself.

Growing up in the London suburbs in the 1960s, I would watch at the feet of my grandparent’s contemporaries, World War 1 veterans, as they played bowls in municipal parks or, limbless, they surveyed from their wicker bath chairs and rubbed out palmfuls of flake and pressed them into the well-caked and seasoned bowls of their pipes. Silent old sages: quiet and contemplative in their puffing and rolling of lignum vitae ball on lawn.  Of course, they never spoke about what they had seen, but there was a sense that their pipes had seen them through.  And would continue to do so until their turn came.

Then there were the tobacconists. As well as the chains (Bewlays, as mentioned) every small town and village had premises devoted to the “filthie noveltie” (James 1, Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604). While Presbyterian Scot King James found it ‘a black stinking fume’ and ‘Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless’ I found, these souks of fragrant smoke and Christmas-cakey, cased and pressed tobaccos as comforting as mother’s milk.  A twisted metaphor, perhaps, but one that may illustrate the dilemma of the 21st Century pipe smoker in search of supply and safe haven.

The brands were numerous and varied. Their wonderful graphic tins and packages ranging in style from the Victorian and baroque to the 60’s and minimal.  A list, in no particular order and not necessarily definitive, of brands I remember pipemen filling their pipes in school staffroom and saloon bar:

Lloyd’s Bondman - Red, circular tin, Arts and Crafts white font.

Cut Golden Bar - Gold, rectangular tin.

Three Nuns (Nun Nicer) - Round tin, brown, red font.

Rich Dark Honeydew - Dark brown, circular tin.

Whiskey Flake - Green, circular tin.

Balkan Sobranie - Delightful, illustrative black and white tin,

Four Square - Silver, minimal design.

Gold Block - Gold, ditto.

3 nuns

There are more, but these are some of the forgotten brands I remember buying:

St Julien, Sweet Briar Flake, Cope’s Baby’s Bottom, Walnut Flake, and the ones I never got on with, Erinmore, Condor and Old Bogie Roll (Cough)….

The list could go on… but the experience that sealed the deal for me was an outing with my father to Fribourg and Treyer in London’s Haymarket in the 1970s.  It is still one of London’s oldest preserved shopfronts, dating back to the 1790s, but sadly now full of tourist tat and Union Jacks.  My old man was in search of one of F&T’s fine ‘Cutty’ pipes, modelled on a clay, along with an ounce of their fine ‘Seville’ snuff and some loose Latakia tobacco.   The exotic smells of this Georgian hangover and the unctuous, expert service made me, at an early age, want to join the brotherhood in the way that the first fitting for a suit might have done.

Being a good parent, my dad did what he could to deter me from early uptake of this  “…custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine,…” (James 1, again).  But as aversion therapy, having sat me down with a pipeful of strong, American “Edgeworth Flake” on a hot Sunday afternoon watching me smoke the best part of it and, after green face and spinning head, having smoked the rest the following day he decided that I had passed the test. My grandfather patted me on the back and gave me a pound for my perseverance.

A rite of passage.

Having passed the test, I have continued to smoke my pipe, on and off, as cigarettes and cigars have come and gone, for nearly forty years.  I now smoke nothing else.  I have collected pipes, the best of new and old: Dunhill, Sasieni, Ashton, Astley, Sims, Upshall…but have increasingly lamented the decline in tobacco choice and availability.

James the First in 1604 was of course our first enemy, and his inheritors recently took up the mantle. They confused the gentle pastime of the pipe and its carefully produced and nurtured vegetable products with the chemically enhanced cabbage coffin nails of the corporate tobacco giants, and squeezed out the specialists.

pipe making

While us pipe afficionados should be grouped with the micro-breweries and sustainable  niche-producers, we have unfortunately been saddled with the taxes and legislation of the global scale abusers.  Most pipe tobaccos are now produced in small pockets between international taxation and specific national demand (Denmark, for example).  The only market large enough to sustain a full cavalcade of pipes and tobacco being, of course, the land mass of the US where there are still enough pipe enthusiasts to sustain an industry.  In the UK, we are, for the most part, a minority group of non-inhalers, connoisseurs, tasters and thinkers, and have been confused with users, abusers and the thoughtless inhalers.

Our tobacco emporia have gone.

In London, in my recent lifetime’s experience, Inderwick’s (Carnaby Street) Smith’s (Charing Cross Rd.) Shervington’s (Holborn) pipe and tobacco experts all of more than a century’s experience, have expired, as have retail pipemakers Astley and Dunhill.  The small boutiques within Harrods and Selfridges are reduced to minimal booths between designer labels, mostly serving Cubans to monied Americans.

Thank god (and in spite of King James) we say, for the stalwart tobacconistas such as EA Carey and their cohorts who fly the flag for the pastime.  It is more than just a habit, one that has soothed minds from Einstein to Patrick Moore, by way of Hemingway and James Joyce, one that inspires small producers and craftsmen.  Artisan pipe makers and craftsmen across the UK , Europe and the USA continue to blend tobacco and carve pipes from organic materials in the way that people have continued to make our other solaces – from specialist alcohol to cheese – in the face of corporate dominance.

We will carry on.

So, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

pipe and smoke

‘Cocky Dunhill’ – Aug 2013

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9 Responses to The Tobacconist

  1. avatar L.Whitfield says:

    I was a mere youth of twenty five when suddenly I decided I wanted to be a pipe smoker. My dad smoked cigarettes and my only pipe smoking uncle smoked Condor Bar, an eye watering pungent smell that had us all coughing like patients in a t.b.ward. After some experimentation I found the brand I was to adhere to for the next thirty years, Whisky Ready Rubbed otherwise known as heaven in a bowl. The ritual of cleaning out the bowl, slowly refilling it while making sure not to pack it too tightly nor too lightly, then the act of setting it on fire mmmmm. Sadly there came a moment when with much tutting & shaking of his head my G.P. called a halt to my days as a smoker (weak willed as I am I inhaled) – now after some years I cannot put on a tweed jacket, trilby & cavalry twill trousers without longing for my pipe.

    • avatar Marcus says:

      That creates a great image, thanks Mr Whitfield! Our Highland Fling blend has a wee dram, not that I’m trying to tempt you back!

  2. avatar Steven H says:

    This is a great read. It perfectly captures the delights of the pipe and all it means to its devotees, the demise of the small scale, local and knowledgeable tobacconist, the degradation of pipe smokers in the eyes of decision and policy makers who ought to know better but don’t, and the determination of our fraternity to continue with what is not only an enjoyable but also very necessary pastime for so many of us in our increasingly dehumanised world.
    I am not really a political animal but I am getting that way in the face of topsy-turvy politics which can turn things upside down and inside out at the drop of a hat and at the slightest whim, all for a rather abstract notion of correctness.
    I had better go and fill a pipe and suck in those comforting clouds whilst I simmer down and get the blood pressure back to normal! Grrrrr!!!! Actually, I am a very placid, quiet and normal guy by nature, love animals, love nature, love friends and family and, of course, love my pipe. Happy smoking today, wherever you are!

  3. avatar John Taylor says:

    My boyhood, again spanning the 60s, reflects the memories recounted in this article. My Dad smoked a pipe, as did my favourite uncle. Dad smoked Mahogany Ready Rubbed amongst other blends, which I remember going to the shop for (ah the good old days). My Uncle smoked Holland House at some point.

    There was a small tobacconist in my home town of Oldham called Boltons, which I remember visiting. The smell in that shop was intoxicating, and must have had some impact on my future decision to take up the pipe.

    Having said that, a pipe was more or less thrust upon me. I’ve never smoked cigarettes, but did enjoy the occasional cigar. Dad came home from a holiday, produced a pipe, and said something like, “here, have a do at that.”

    I took to it like the proverbial duck, with no real tutoring from anyone. I’d be about 28 at the time. Now, nearly 200 pipes and countless grammes of tobacco later, here I am.

    Although I have a number of what would be considered higher grade pipes, I still enjoy my magic inch ones, and always have some Carey blends on hand.

    And under a bed in a shoebox, all cleaned and shiny, are Dad’s pipes, which will always be very precious to me.

    • avatar Marcus says:

      Great reminiscences John, thanks for sharing them with us! It’s also fantastic to hear that Carey pipes and tobacco feature amongst your collections.

    • avatar Nicholas says:

      Or was it Boulton’s?

  4. avatar Alex says:

    I too grew up in the 1960′s and remember the old tobacconists. There was one in my home town (sadly gone now). I bought my first pipe and tobacco from there and puffed happily whilst playing darts at my local pub (also sadly gone). As life as I know it has faded like an old photograph I am happy to have found Carey’s still catering to we few…we happy few.

  5. avatar tony cavanagh says:

    My favourite tobacco was Three Nuns Empire Blend. It was no longer available after 1988. I then changed to Carey Spritzer Aromatic.

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