February 15, 2011

A Three-Pipe Problem

      ‘What are you going to do, then?’ I asked.
      ‘To smoke,’ he answered. ‘It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’ He curled himself up in his chair, with his think knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird. I had come to the conclusion that he had dropped asleep, and indeed was nodding myself, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with the gesture of a man who has made up his mind, and put his pipe down upon the mantel-piece. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Red-Headed League, 1891).
Mr. Nestor pressed his thumb down on a half-filled pipe, closed his eyes, and thought. Over a long life he had come to recognise the difference between a connoisseur, an addict, and a buffoon. People who smoked common-or-garden cigarettes – foul things – merited none of his attention. They were slaves to nasty tobacco, and he could not laud the wilfully enslaved, however wonderful their character in between puffs. Men who smoked cigars for the look of the thing on special occasions, with no mind to what a cigar was beyond its use as an ever-decreasing phallic symbol, also did not command his attention. They compensated for lack of depth by conspicuous display. It was not for him. The cigar aficionado – not merely the purchaser of the eponymous magazine – was a different matter altogether. He saw the art in the thing, and went about his business as might an expert of wine, or of porcelain. So long as he was not obsessed by the passion that burnt within him, Mr. Nestor was interested to talk to him (knowing, of course, that there was usually fire where there was smoke).

For Nestor, all of these characters faded into the mist when put next to the man of the pipe. The pipe smoker was one of three things: deeply cerebral and intelligent, worldly wise, or a fool. (Nestor disregarded the fourth pipe smoker: the affected man. Any pipe smoker who did not fit his three categories was a charlatan and a disgrace. To smoke a pipe as an affectation was to ape virtue; and virtue, Nestor thought, could not be found in any ape.) He thought back over many decades to his early childhood, sitting on the bony knee of his grandfather, who prepared his pipe with meticulous ease. The sweet blue smoke enveloped them like a shawl, and the child craned his neck to hear what lessons in life might rise up on the plumes of smoke, to be inhaled and passively absorbed. Here was learning, straight from the wisdom of lived years.

Nestor then considered the learning of books and of civilisation, and the teachers thereof. The pipe, for dons and politicians, connected a circuitry of thinking and doing; breathing, cogitating and gesticulating. The pipe, brought to the lips, signified cerebration. As it was withdrawn and directed towards listeners, it presaged words of direction, of decision, and of authority. A man who tells you what to do by allowing his words to follow the length of an arm and rise up out of a pipe is a man whom you obey, thought Nestor. Here was presence. Here was charisma. Here was the embodiment of all that was wise.

And then Nestor remembered the man he knew who liked to smoke his pipe when playing golf. When playing a shot, the man placed his pipe in a trouser pocket. It still surprised Nestor that the man had only once set his trousers alight. If you asked that man about the incident, he would deny it. The scars were an old war wound, he’d claim. But you know what they say: ‘Liar, liar…’

Nestor pinched these reflections into a single confusion of tobacco, pressed it into his pipe, and smoked it.


  1. I miss my pipe, and summer evening cigars.
    Winter here is too wet for outdoor reflection moments, and I respect my little ones too much to subject them to indoor clouds second-hand from me.
    I detest cigarettes, and love the line on them "People who smoked common-or-garden cigarettes – foul things – merited none of his attention".

  2. Much obliged SW. Winter shall soon depart...

  3. smoking well iy will belongs to museums soon i guess


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