Every few years I notice an object which resides behind the glass doors of a cabinet in my study. It’s on the second shelf, just in front of a row of miscellaneous books and adjacent to a strange viewing device bearing the Japanese-inspired monogram of Toulouse Lautrec, purchased in the small museum next to the giant cathedral in Albi.
The object is a nostalgic representation of a by-gone age, a historical artefact linking me to my forbears and a pre-digital non-PC era.
It evokes at once images of learned Victorians dimly lit in leather armchairs grappling with new ideas while sipping whiskey from cut-class tumblers.
Simultaneously, however, we can also picture Irish navvies taking well-earned breaks from their canal-digging endeavours, or cloth-capped Northerners on grim street corners of mining towns, immortalised in black and white.
I suppose, like the best horror films, I should never reveal the nature of the object in order to maintain suspense, stir the imaginations of my readers, and avoid the inevitable anticlimax when it is revealed.
However, we are not dealing with papier-mâché dinosaurs or badly-rendered CG ghouls, so here we go: we are talking of a pipe.
Of course, the title of this piece probably gave that away, since it is hard these days to write a headline without an attempt at some kind of witty word-play. The large picture of a pipe might have given the game away, too.
Yes, a pipe, a finely wrought briar artefact purchased many years ago in Frederick Tranter’s shop in Bath, under the aegis of long-departed Lightfoot Sr, himself an adept with the old meerschaum and beard.
No doubt this shop has seen better days, although still extant, and the few remaining ageing bearded pipe-smokers have long since retreated to their respective garden sheds, shooed into the shadows by current social and legislative trends.
And so every few years I notice my fine pipe (no smutty remarks, please), and, appreciating its workmanship and texture, bring it out of its hiding place, along with a tin of hand-blended Danish tobacco imbued with the aroma of coffee, once purchased in Copenhagen and no doubt long past its sell by date, if tobacco possesses such things.
Now I’m not really a smoker, and never have been, although my various abodes have always had stocks of Gitanes, Sobranie, and various brands of cigar languishing in the shadows, and every now and again I indulge.
There’s just something magical and wondrous about sitting in my garden after midnight with a glass of whiskey or rum, listening to some fine tunes on the iPhone and gazing at a clear night sky and all that it offers the contemplative viewer, while occasionally puffing on a ‘gar (as Mike Watt calls them). Take away any of those principal ingredients and the experience just isn’t the same, and loses its magic.
Modern PC-ism might describe my relaxing nocturnal habit in slightly different terms: damaging brain cells, liver and throat through the imbibing of alcohol, harming my already shredded ear drums through the use of headphones, and the introduction of various carcinogenic toxins to the body due to contact with burning New World leaf products.
But I say fuck those killjoys in their white coats and clipboards, the dull end of science feeding into the straightjacket of overweening government bent on wiping out all traces of childlike flights of fancy and wonder.
Einstein liked a pipe, and I hear that Heisenberg smoked sixty Woodbines a day, while Madame Curie was rarely seen without a Gauloise dangling from the corner of her gob, and these were true visionaries of science.
Such habits in the end do not really warrant analysis when indulged in moderation, and too much of practically anything will kill you. Hell, life itself may kill you, and usually does.
But I digress. Each time I bring out the pipe, the same thing happens. After admiring it, handling it and remembering a long lost world, I fill the bowl with the noxious weed, and light up.
Shortly after, coughing and spluttering, head dizzy and stomach convulsing with the strong unaccustomed intake of Nick O’Teen and his chemical pals, I realise that the habit is not for me, and the pipe is replaced in the cabinet, there to linger a while longer until I repeat the experiment years hence, never learning.
The projected image of the waistcoated intellectual puffing away in his leather armchair, bewhiskered and adorned with a pince-nez, is after all nothing more than a pipe dream.