Confessions of a pipe-dreamer

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The Independent Culture
OH AMPHORA! O Passing Clouds! O shag, o pigtail, O cheroot, O Taxol, Interferon and the slow, choking death! O ... excuse me. Need a breather. Bit puffed. Not the smoking; dear me, no. No; it's the emotion. It's the jet-lag; it's the altitude. We're 300ft above sea level here, you know. Three hundred feet! That's a lot. You'd die if you fell off. No wonder I'm out of breath.

Not that you would fall off. It would involve falling off North America, which isn't one of those things that happens. It's not a headline you see: Man Falls Off Continent, Escapes With Bruises. It would be like stubbing your toe on Africa. ("Ow! Where the heck did that come from?") No; it's just that here, 30 miles north of Seattle, out in the sticks, ground level is 300ft up. Silly, I know, but one just has to live with it, wheezing and choking.

It is not, as I say, the smoking. Smoking never did me any harm. I began smoking when I was 12 years old and, far from harming me, it did me a great deal of good. The sensual aromas of rich Latakia, bright Burley and soft golden Virginia perfumed the air and my clothes with a subtly seductive intimation of my exotic tastes, my sophistication and my almost scary manual dexterity. The various methods of tobacco consumption provided me with a range of gestures and character- motifs which meant that I was at ease in any situation - or, at least, my own particular version of ease, a strange and rather repellent mixture of adolescent angst, palpitating self-regard, undisguised cynicism and ill- focused but hypertensive lust.

Sometimes it would be the pipe. My taste has now more or less settled down to the classical designs, but then I would poke the most extraordinary things into my mouth, on the slightest encouragement (or, more often, no encouragement at all). There was the Tyrolean Fancy, a cross between a mahogany gaff- rigged cutter and a lavatory complete with seat, lid, chain and down pipe. There was the garish yellow pottery model, heavy as a brick, which took a whole ounce of tobacco and crackled and spat and gave off a hot reek of blistering varnish. There were the sea-dog-style clays, which stuck to the lips and glowed in the dark; there was the blue-patterned Delft pipe and matching pouch, a special offer with Troost tobacco and decorated with the Troost symbol, an 18th-century Dutchman in the pillory being comforted with a pipe of Troost ("Troost is Dutch for comfort" said the legend on the tobacco packet, and it certainly comforted me, 15 years old, gawky, ill-at-ease and unquestionably looking quite ridiculous with a huge Delft Troost-packed pipe poking mephitically out of my skinny, half-formed adolescent face).

And the tobaccos; glory be, the tobaccos. Not just Troost but Clan ("mild and full-bodied, cool and slow-burning, every well-filled and well-lit pipe is a new pleasure") and Yachtsman, curly-cut Edgeworth and reeking Erinmore (which the school janitor, Len, smoked, and claimed as a cure for all ills). There was black, lung-stunning Condor, and rich, reliable St Bruno, symbol of the tweedy virtues of school-story fatherhood, which I smoked with self-conscious stolidity, in a misguided effort to be my own mentor and wise authority-figure.

I dreamt of tobacconists' shops like others dreamt of football; it was my solace, my badge of manhood, my tribal totem, my collective unconscious; I could put on a new personality as simply as opening the tin. Tired of your current life? Just insert coin into slot and twist. Pfff! A tiny exhalation of Cavendish or Negrohead or soft, tarry Yenidje, and the world is transfigured. Holland House Aromatic transformed me into a wild-eyed musical virtuoso, loosely - or, rather, with slavish mimicry - based on a boy a couple of years my senior, with whom (I now realise) I was utterly in love, and who, curiously, never touched the stuff, being a Clan Aromatic man himself. (I suppose I didn't want him to think I was copying him, and my smoking a marginally different tobacco would distract him from the fact that I not only smoked it in an identical pipe, but wore identical shoes, shirts, haircut and hat, adopted his handwriting and his accent, and even, as soon as I was able, drove the same kind of car.

But, my love being (I also now realise) quite unrequited, I made efforts to assert my independence from the object of my yearnings. Sometimes I smoked the professional Rich Dark Honeydew; sometimes Cut Golden Bar, in imi- tation of "Fez" Parker, the physics master and another of my heroes. Other characters in my repertoire included The Dodgy Art Dealer (Royal Hunt Mixture), The Radio Producer (Balkan Sobranie), The Victorian Voluptuary (Cope's Escudo) and The Saloon-Bar Bore (Baby's Bottom, so-called because it was allegedly as smooth as one, and try marketing that one today).

Eventually, I settled down. Sobranie Flake was the one for me, smoked in a long, green-stained briar from Inderwick's of Carnaby Street, or a Sherlock Holmes calabash pipe bought in the tobacconist at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle. For a change, I would smoke Scott's Burma cheroots, or take snuff - Astaroth, from Fribourg and Treyer in the Haymarket.

But then it all went wrong. Sobranie Flake ceased to exist. Burma cheroots stopped being imported. Fribourg and Treyer's ancient and atmospheric shop became a novelty stationer's. And last week, walking down Carnaby Street, I noticed a sign in Inderwick's window announcing that they would close for ever at the end of the month. After 201 years.

My last hope was here, in Seattle. The Olympic Hotel still stands, though it is now the Four Seasons; but where I recall the tobacconist's stand is now a Guest Service desk staffed by glossy, clean-lunged young things, ignorant of the joys of a well-filled, well-lit pipe.

It's all over. The glory days are over. But perhaps I no longer need them. I know who I am now: a social pariah, lightly smoked, standing apart, with only my wheeze and crackling alveoli for company. As the old cigarette ad nearly said: "You're always alone with a Strand." !