When did you last see a pipe-smoker? Even in these days when smokers are gathered on every street-corner, doggedly puffing away, you are as likely to spot someone smoking a pipe as someone wearing spats, or riding a penny-farthing, or yodelling. For 40 years, the British Pipesmokers’ Council ran an award for the Pipe Smoker Of The Year, but they discontinued it ten years ago. The list of past winners — Jack Hargreaves, Frank Muir, Fred Trueman, J.B. Priestley — is marvellously evocative of a bygone era.
Their contemporary equivalents — Jeremy Paxman, David Mitchell, Andrew Flintoff, Martin Amis — wouldn’t be seen dead with a pipe in their mouths. My favourite modern political portrait is Ruskin Spear’s of Harold Wilson, pipe wedged in mouth, his head shrouded in clouds of smoke.
With the death of Tony Benn in March, we may well have seen the last of the great political pipe-smokers. It is easier to imagine today’s party leaders — Cameron, Clegg and Miliband — wearing bowler hats than puffing on pipes. Of all our contemporary politicians, only Vince Cable looks even remotely suited to a pipe, and that is because he has a very old-fashioned face, of the sort that might easily belong to a background soldier on Dad’s Army.
The modern face is ill-suited to a pipe. This was my first reaction on seeing the photograph of the flaky U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl posing with a pipe between his lips at an observation post in Afghanistan before he was captured by the Taliban. It may have looked good on Biggles, but it simply looks silly on Bowe Bergdahl, almost as though a child has just crayoned it onto the picture, and will shortly be adding a pair of specs, a top hat and a Hitler moustache.
Small wonder that Bowe Bergdahl’s colleagues remember him as a bit of a weirdo and others claim he is a traitor.
In the old days, smoking a pipe was taken as a sign that you were a trusty sort, given to wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches while chewing the cud over topical issues in the saloon bar. These days, smoking a pipe signals that you are as nutty as a fruitcake.
Pipes used to be associated with patience, perhaps because they always seemed to be going out. My boarding-school headmaster used to puff-puff-puff on his pipe in the classroom — those were the days! — but he never seemed to be able to get more than three puffs at a time before it went out.
There followed an elaborate process of putting in more tobacco, tapping it down, and then desperately trying to relight it with a noisy stream of sucks. At some stage, a pipe-cleaner might be employed. At last, the pipe would be relit — before, seconds later, going out again. Nowadays, no one has the time for such an exhausting procedure, or for such a high ratio of effort to pleasure.
It was all different in the old days. ‘It is quite a three-pipe problem,’ says Sherlock Holmes to Dr Watson in The Red-Headed League, ‘and I beg that you won’t speak to me for 50 minutes.’Patrick Moore poses with a pipe the shape of a telescope - which he was given for being Pipe Smoker of The Year in 1984
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