344. The Smoky Muse of Malcolm Guite
I am delighted this morning to offer an interview with Malcolm Guite, the prolific author, poet, theologian, folk singer and pipe smoker. With 17 books listed on Amazon, 3 solo albums on iTunes and YouTube, a blog, a YouTube channel with over 18K subscribers and a day job as chaplain for Oxford University, Guite is obviously a man who uses his time wisely and well. Add to that his love of Tolkien, Lewis, good beer (Theakston’s Old Peculiar is one of his favorites—as it is mine) and a regular wee dram, what more could you ask of him? Did you say, Well, it would be rather nice if he smoked a Peterson pipe? That goes without saying.
If you’re unacquainted with the World of Guite, you might want to listen to his Dylanesque Dancing Through the Fire while reading this. Then again, better wait until you’ve finished this post or you’ll never read it! By way of introduction read instead this opening paragraph from his recent essay “Smoking My Pipe,” in Ordinary Saints: Living Everyday Life to the Glory of God:
“I am an inveterate pipe smoker. No, inveterate is not the right word: it sounds pejorative, a concession to a weakness or a vice. On the contrary, the long settled, rich leisure of pipe-smoking, the warm and companionable sessions given over to it, are not a vice or an indulgence, but rather a recovery: a recovery of simple being, from the desert wastes of doing. It is a return to the first and primal gift from God, who is Being itself, and in His love and for His glory, has created us, let us be, shared with us gift of being. Naturally we must occasionally do something, but that’s usually where the trouble starts, as it did in Eden, and has continued since, until we became so foolish as to think we are saved by our own actions, our works, and God has once again to knock us off our latest high horse, as He did with Paul, and teach us to accept everything anew by sheer grace.” (21)
How did you first come to the pipe?
I first took up a pipe as a direct result of reading The Lord of the Rings, where it seemed to me that Pipe Smoking was, as it should be, deeply associated with friendship, thoughtful conversation, playfulness, and, as in the chapter “Flotsam and Jetsam,” comfort in adversity, all things I have valued and needed throughout my life.
Later my pipe smoking was confirmed and enriched by other literary associations: Tennyson was a great pipe smoker, and the statue of him in Trinity College includes a discreet pipe and tobacco leaves, tucked away amongst his flowing robes. Then there was Sherlock Holmes of course, Mark Twain, and, as I came to study the Inklings the realization that Tolkien and Lewis were both pipe smokers and smoked not only as part of their own fellowship, but also, whilst writing!
It was in the spring of 1977, at the age of 19 that I started smoking a pipe and I began with clay pipes, which were cheap and plentiful and particularly with a clay churchwarden, which seemed the most Hobbitesque pipe I could find. I first encountered the name of Kapp & Peterson reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot [see Post #210], where the character Pozzo laments the loss of his pipe “a genuine Kapp and Peterson.” So my first “proper” Briar Pipe, was a System Kapp & Peterson which I bought in Dublin in June of ’77 at the beginning of a long rambling walk round Ireland. When I came back from the Ireland trek and went up to Cambridge University as an undergraduate that little pipe became a prop in a University production of Godot, in which I played the part of Lucky, so I didn’t get to hold my own pipe, but I was delighted to see it on stage, “dipped and glamoured” as Heaney would say, by the play.
Was your novitiate as pipe smoker a long one, or once taken up did you progress rapidly into holy orders as a Pipeman?
In those days I didn’t know any other pipe smokers (most of my friends were smoking other things altogether!) so I had to learn by trial and error, but a couple of weeks or so into my Ireland walk I met some old men in Donegal who helped me and showed me better ways to pack the pipe, and clean it, and also the mysteries of the System reservoir, and how that could be dried out and freshened with a tissue. Another break-through was being able to smoke at home. Neither of my parents smoked and I was afraid of the reaction when I told my mother I was smoking a pipe. Happily she was delighted and said “as long as it’s a pipe it’s fine” – she went on to tell me that she always had happy associations with pipe smoking because when her father took out his pipe at home she knew it meant he was relaxed and perhaps ready to read them something, and as a little girl she used to climb on to the arm of his big old arm chair whilst he read and smoked. By the time I came up to Cambridge as a student later that year, I was a pretty regular pipe smoker, and have been ever since.
When smoking, you’re nearly always seen with a Peterson in your YouTube videos. Are there are other marques you enjoy, or has Peterson always been “the pipe” much as Irene Adler was “the Woman” for Sherlock Holmes?
Petersons are definitely my main pipes, though as a student I never owned more than a couple of pipes as I couldn’t afford to collect them. Since then I have ventured into a couple of other makes. I have two Savinelli pipes and a couple of Rattrays. I particularly like the Rattrays because my mother told me that was the kind her father smoked (my mother and all her forbears are Scots). I also have three or four Meerschaums, though I’ve never been able to acquire a Peterson one.
Do you think of yourself as a pipe collector, a pipe smoker, or a combination of the two?
I think of myself as both. My collection has grown gradually. When I began to travel as a speaker and writer, and actually to be paid for my gigs (!) I started buying Peterson pipes to mark and celebrate these different engagements.
So when I was staying at The Kilns in Oxford (Lewis’s home) I bought two pipes from the wonderful shop on the high street which was, I believe, patronized by both Lewis and Tolkien, My ‘Lewis Pipe’ was a Sherlock Holmes Lestrade, my first in that series, and the most expensive pipe I had ever bought up to that point, and my “Tolkien Pipe” was a Peterson Churchwarden.
I still think of that first stay at The Kilns whenever I smoke them. I liked the Lestrade so much that I went on to buy five or six others in that series , each pipe associated with a either a speaking tour or the publication of a book. I was delighted when your book came out and I learned so much more about the Peterson story; it makes me value and enjoy my own collection of Petersons all the more.
You spoke briefly in your interview for Pipes Radio Magazine Show of Kapp & Peterson’s iconic Thinking Man and their 1905 slogan “The Thinking Man Smokes A Peterson.” What does that mean for you? In what way is the Peterson pipe something different than other pipes?
I have always loved that Thinking Man picture and slogan. It speaks to me of what the old monks called “otium sacrum” (holy leisure). It suggests quiet, contemplation, the thoughtful, genial consideration of the world and its problems, detachment, perspective, and slowly acquired wisdom. I’m old enough to remember some of the dubious ads for pipe tobaccos like St. Bruno’s which suggested that as soon as a man lit up he would be surrounded by beautiful women all anxious to join him in his open-topped sports car! Anyone who thinks pipe smoking will lead to such a scenario, is I think likely to be disappointed, though I have noticed that most passing strangers comment favorably on the aroma of my pipe when I am smoking outdoors. But for me the pipe had always been about something mellow, and reflective, something with the aura of tradition, which “The Thinking Man” encapsulates, but in addition there always remains for me a little Middle-Earth magic in every bowl I smoke.
Could you elaborate on what you said in Ordinary Saints about the role of pipe-smoking in your spiritual pilgrimage?
When I smoke my pipe, I appear to be doing something: I’m selecting my pipe, usually an old Irish Peterson. I’m filling it slowly, skillfully and at just the right consistency with tobacco that has been chosen with care, for its taste, its fragrance, its penumbra of delicate associations (Deluxe Navy Rolls to recall my nautical life, Three Nuns because it was commended by both C. S. Lewis and Seamus Heaney, Troost Aromatic Cavendish because the word Troost means comfort). I’m lighting the pipe, delighting in the sudden miraculous flare and energy of flame as it leaps from my battered brass Zippo, I’m drawing it gently, I’m letting the pipe itself and the quality of its draw, settle my breathing into a rhythm proper for contemplation.
So Pipe-Smoking for me, leads naturally into contemplation and Thanksgiving, remembering at leisure the sheer goodness of God and his World and the extraordinary privilege of having been allowed to exist in the first place. There is not enough thanksgiving in the world!
What would you say as an apologist and apostle for pipe smoking to all those who look with frowning disapprobation on it for religious, medical or sociopolitical reasons?
There has been a real shift in social attitudes and I think it’s a great pity that pipes have been included in the general disapprobation of smoking. Pipes, like cigars, are an exception. You don’t smoke a pipe like an automaton, as cigarette addicts do, scarcely aware of what you’re doing, to pacify a craving. On the contrary you choose to smoke in leisure, as a positive pleasure, you are not driven to it, you could perfectly well do without it. It is a positive choice and not a negative reflex.
Whilst I understand the concern about passive smoking and the bans on smoking in shared rooms, I really do miss the days when I could sup a pint and smoke a pipe in the Eagle and Child in Oxford, sitting in the very room where Lewis and Tolkien smoked and talked and encouraged one another to change the world with their astonishing mythopoeic writing.
One consequence though of pipes being caught up unnecessarily in the anti-smoking attitudes and legislation is that pipe smokers now feel a real kinship with one another, like members of an oppressed church. So when they gather in each other’s gardens, or in the little smoking shelters some pubs have in their gardens, there is an instant recognition and friendship.
I don’t think pipe smoking carries any particular socio-political connotations in the UK. Those of my generation and older smoke as they’ve always done and come from all walks of life and all political persuasions, but I do notice the younger generation have a certain style and set of interests in common: they tend to wear tweed and waistcoats, they often have beards, they are usually literary in their leanings and well educated, and you get the sense that they are seeking and savoring a way of life and a set of associations which have been marginalized by the high-tech, hygienic, sparse minimalism of our times. In that sense they are more consciously in a kind of revolt, or resistance to the spirit of the age, more consciously seeking a genuinely alternative life-style, than we were. And since I also resist the bleak reductive materialism of our age, its pseudo-efficiency, and its ignorance of and contempt for the past, I am more than happy to bless these younger pipe-smokers in their entirely understandable resistance to some modern mores.
Where does pipe smoking fit in your literary life, and specifically in your life as a poet?
Someone once described poetry as “language slowed down” and I think Pipe-smoking is in one sense “life slowed down,” at least while the bowl is lit and drawing, and so I have found that pipe-smoking and the composition of poetry go together. Indeed in my practice they are so entwined that without a pipe to accompany and encourage my pen I feel almost dried up and bereft of inspiration. I once wrote a song called “My Smoky Muse” which opened rather defiantly with the lines:
I’m not what they need in the fitness clubs
there’s no place for me in the smoke-free pubs . . .
but went on to celebrate the muse herself:
She knows how I love the way she breathes
The way she swathes me in wraiths and wreathes
And shares her favours with vagrants and thieves
And leaves them so confused
She comes to me veiled in graceful swirls
I trace the fragrance in her fingers and her curls
Her skin shines pale beneath strange black pearls
My smoky muse
Malcolm’s review of The Peterson Pipe
Malcolm’s review of The Pipes of Middle Earth
Photos and illustrations courtesy Malcolm Guite
Peterson photos courtesy Smokingpipes.com