My Grandad got me into this pipe smoking malarkey and back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s there were loads of old boys, strutting their pipe smoking stuff, up and down the highways and by-ways of Merry Old England.
The air back then was concoction, thick and ripe with the heady scent of cherry aromatics, Clan, Condor and diesel fumes; as I recall it, from the vantage point of my pram, two feet from the pavement, always looking upwards.
Nothing can pollute the air quite like a double decker bus from the 1980’s, aimed directly at a toddler’s face, as he rides his pram and who was always looking upwards.
By ‘98 I was legally allowed into the pubs and taverns of Merry Old England and, as I recall, in one hostelry in particular, local to this observer, the gentlemen in the “Old Phart’s Corner” would be playing crib or dominoes, reading a paper or eagerly looking through seed catalogues, in the hope of finding that one onion varietal that would win the parish vegetable growers prize that summer and all of them, to a man, smoked pipes.
Falcons were the workhorse of the day, the pub pipe of choice: virtually indestructible they are; you can drop them, put them in your pocket and stand up without any fear of the stem snapping or the bowl cracking, leaving a man in a pipe less state of being - a terrible spot to find yourself in.
There were always 4-8 “t’owd” lads, gathered round the dark brown table; the (from modern eyes) over sized tv perched on a shelf above them was only allowed to be turned on for the 6 Nations, the World Cup or war and woe betide anyone (especially anyone as lowly as the pub landlord) who wanted to put it on for any other reason - these old lads turned into a cabal of hissing cobras if anyone even thought about turning it on - “What’s next? You’ll be serving food and then this place won’t be a pub, it’ll be a bloody restaurant!”.
And so the remote control sat, motionless, alongside an empty tv, above the aged Praetorian Guard that sat below, looking at “something for Barbara for her birthday”.
Needless to say, their wives were only names, they were never seen. If you asked where they were you usually got a “No, May will be at the W.I tonight, they’re having a lecture on the intricacies of the the Irish linen trade of the 1880’s - gripping stuff I’m sure.”
During their heated arguments about where best to fish for barbel or if Randy Lad really would win the 4.13 at Kempton they used their pipes like batons; swirling them through the air like a conductor using his baton to control the raging orchestra in front of him, swirling and twirling, conducting the conversation, allowing one or other to talk depending on their conversational pedigree and previous form.
Then begins the prodding and the poking of the pipe stem at the piece of literature causing most offence on that particular day.
“The man must be mad!” Deploys a tactical stem poke at the paper.
“Who’s mad Gerry?”
“That bloody (………….. - insert name of offending individual), we’ll be in the knackers yard by Christmas!” Before the page is turned in disgust; the article best forgotten, move on, next piece nonsense?
To a man, they all seemed to wear thicken woolen cardigans, with brown leather buttons that looked like hot cross buns. The bench creaking and groaning as they leaned back to fish a tamper, a box of matches or an Extra Strong Mint from the cardigan pocket. Ease of access on those cardigans but, word of warning - don’t bend down to get something, otherwise everything falls out of those bloody pockets; it’s a design flaw y’know, might have to get the wife to see them up a bit to reduce the opening.
They had a rule: no one takes the third light off the match; even though none of them had come up against any German snipers in the first war, most of them had come up against the German sniper in the second war and “he was a bugger; he’d never stay still long enough for us to pop him off…and then before you know it, the bugger had popped up somewhere else, taking pot shots from a belfry.” All the while, blue smoke was curling up to the ceiling.
One old lad, Raymond by name, used to tell me that he had a German sniper throughout the war and he was called Helmut. In France it was Helmut taking pot shots as he ran up the beach, and then, on into Germany, Helmut went along too, still taking pot shots at them from behind hedges and barns; Ray used to say that it made it seem more friendly, if you knew the chap who was shooting at you.
The old boys lit up in rotation, almost like dehydrated synchronised swimmers: firstly there was some fiddling with the pipe, scraping it out, with a match usually, knocking it on the rim of the ashtray, without once removing their gaze from the newspaper or the game at hand.
Maybe there would be a rub of a furrowed brow as the empty pipe was placed between dentures and gently blown down, to check the draw was open. A shake of the head, a turn of the page or the placement of a card on the table.
The pouch would be disturbed from its slumber, an occasional tut as the remains of the pouch were picked over. The pipe was loaded, the pouch returned to its natural state of sleep. A match was struck and introduced to it’s victim. Blue smoke rose to the rafters.
Whilst all this was going on, the next chap would be at the scraping his bowl stage and the chap next to him would be at the knocking out stage and, before long, all would be smoking like a little circle of chimneys.
Those lads have all gone now, it’s left to others to moan about the price of beer, “that bloody idiot” and the fact that you can smell the khazis now that they’ve banned smoking in the pub and I think that’s possibly why you never see us in the wild these days - the smoking ban?
It was, at one point, a God given right, that all men on the British Isles were allowed to sup a pint and smoke a pipe at their own pace, in the company of comradesin a houseopen to the public. Ideally next to a roaring log fire on dark winters evenings, whilst putting the world to rights and discussing the merits of marrow fat peas as an accompaniment to meat ‘n tater pie.
Pipes aren’t quick, they are slow, they plod along, they need time and no one has got anytime anymore so we carve out little moments of calm for ourselves, in solitude: in our sheds, our garages, our green houses but rarely in the company of comrades as we no longer set the world to rights.
It’s sad really.
Anyway, that’s my take on it on a Saturday morning.
happy pipes. ✌?