For possibly the last time ever, I want to revive all those stupid rituals real pipe smokers took so much to heart and spoke of with such reverence. Now we rarely see, or even smell a pipe being smoked, I feel I must record the strange, ancient habits of the sailors of my day with respect to ‘baccy’, some perhaps, long since lost. Tobacco was rarely bartered except with people outside the Service. At sea we received our allowance and could buy named brands at sixpence a packet of twenty. Ashore we took enough to do us, and when attached to an establishment one could buy 400 tailor-made cigarettes for three shillings and four pence. The other Services denigrated sailors when they met, in the way sailors taunted the RAF by calling them the Brylcream Boys. We believed we were the Senior Service and some would boast it in the company of the other Services, often followed by an affray,. The other Services inferred our interests were ‘Rum, bum and ‘baccy’ which was not entirely without foundation. The regular duty free issue of, either pipe tobacco, cigarette tobacco or leaf on a regular basis, for a pittance, was another ducat in the lower deck barter game. It was a treasured perk. The tobacco was of the best quality, and, although it was illegal, a bare handful of non-smokers in any ship’s company, would take their ration and sell it either on board or ashore, or trade it for goods or services ashore, which was more common. Leaf tobacco was rarely taken as it was a bother to process, but I learned the art, which, while being complicated, dirty and smelly, was nonetheless rewarding, if one liked heavy plug pipe tobacco. I will post for the aficionados of pipe smoking, details of the process on board ship rather than in a factory, in a day or two.
One took a plug of rich, very dark tobacco, pared it with a sharp knife, rubbed, the cuttings pleasurably and with anticipation between the heel of the thumb of one hand and the palm of the other, then, after carefully and expertly filling the bowl of a pipe, it could then be smoked with relish and satisfaction. To a sailor the advantages of a pipe over cigarettes were that it stayed alight longer, it did not burn down in a wind, nor fly ash into the face, particularly if the pipe was fitted with a wind-guard. It left both hands free, and had a macho element too. I distinctly remember actresses in films saying words, which today sound so utterly banal and ridiculous, such as “I like to see a man smoking a pipe.” Why? They were probably paid a fortune to say it, but there were those who mimicked it and believed what was said.
What is true, though, is that there was so much more to pipe smoking than cigarettes. The different sizes and shapes of pipes, made of so many different woods, at such a range of prices, they became more than a tool, they became an obsession. They could be collected for their own sake and it was a rare pipe smoker who had less than four. They were memorabilia, keys to events or people. Men sat and discussed the merits of this make against that, this shape or that, this tobacco or that. There were rituals which were almost unconscious but which had an inbuilt element of satisfaction. Even the mucky job of grinding out the build up of coke in the bowl had its compensation, it showed the pipe was mature. There was the ‘burning in’ of a pipe, the sacrifice of valuable tobacco, taste and pleasure over the first few weeks measured against the pleasures of a mature smoke for years to come. There was the tactile pleasure, followed by the visual one when the smoker ran the warm bowl down the crevice between nose and cheek to feel the smooth warmth of the pipe, like handling a smooth pebble, and to then admire the burr-walnut or fine wood which now shone in all its glory. There was again the tactile pleasure of the leather pouch and the teasing out of the tobacco. There were tobaccos with wonderful smells which assailed one as soon as the pouch was opened, some smelled like Christmas pudding, others were tangy, all turned grown men into Bisto Kids. Pipe smokers would hand their pouches round so others could experience the smell and texture of their chosen brand and then a long discussion on the merits of brands would ensue yet again, a script worn threadbare, but which never seemed to pall, and the dangers of smoking were rarely, if ever talked about
Surprisingly there was great satisfaction to be had in attaining the acquired and precise art and skill of filling and tamping a pipe, which had elements cigarette smoking rarely achieved. The fact of having to carry out these tasks induced a natural break in work which could be justified at all levels and which allowed the mind a short respite for filling, lighting the tobacco evenly, which was an art in itself, and then dragging that glorious drug deep into the lungs if one inhaled. I write this long description because soon pipe smoking, which is now frowned upon, will be a thing of the past and people will have forgotten the rituals and the simple pleasures the pipe gave to the smoker, if not to the rest.