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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 09:29 GMT
And the Pipe Smoker of the Year for 2003 is...
Shunned by cigarette smokers
The loneliness of the modern pipe smoker
Pipe Smoker of the Year 2002 went to tobacco industry insider Richard Dunhill. With so few famous people now in the running for this once-prestigious award, BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley sets his sights on taking next year's title.

Once prime ministers, sporting legends and comic geniuses competed for the accolade Pipe Smoker of the Year.

Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson: Honoured pipe man and prime minister
This year the title passed from Russ Abbot (Top Variety Act... of 1990) to Richard Dunhill, the not very famous grandson of tobacco magnate Alfred Dunhill.

It's not often that you see an opportunity to join the celebrated ranks of Harold Wilson, JB Priestley, Eric Morecambe and Henry Cooper. But with the number of pipe devotees dwindling to perhaps 250,000, the bar has clearly been lowered to becoming - like these giants - Pipe Smoker of the Year.

'Love the pipe'

Thanks to my modest efforts at BBC News Online, I'm arguably as well-known a "public personality" as Richard Dunhill. Now all I have to do is put my non-smoking past behind me to meet the second criteria for the award, to "love the pipe".

A pipe smoker needs a pipe, but there exists a dizzying array of designs. What would impress the all important award conferrers of the Pipe Smokers' Council? A sleek Zulu, a sturdy bulldog or a bulbous bent apple?

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes: Too lazy to lift his hand
I seek the advice of Amanda Child, veteran of the UK Pipe Smoking Championships. "You'll have to experiment and see what sits in your mouth comfortably. Many younger people go for the traditional look of the curly Sherlock Holmes type."

Ms Child says this design not only satisfies many a new smoker's preconceived idea of what a pipe should look like, but the downward sweep of the stem means the lazy don't have to raise their hands head-high to hold one.

Straight or curly?

She directs me to the experts at 140-year-old London tobacconists Shervingtons, who warn me the workman-like Dublin pipe I've selected may not suit a journalist.

"If you work while smoking a straight pipe, you run the risk of spilling your tobacco every time you look down," says Geoffrey Templer. And he should know since he "only stops smoking to go to bed".

Test driving a curly pipe
Am I a curly man?
Having noted that PSOY alumni such as Trevor Baylis, Malcolm Bradbury, Tony Benn and Fred Trueman have all been straight-stem men, I decide to stick with this first choice and resign myself to having a keyboard clogged with shag.

"You'll need another pipe," says Mr Templer, who boasts a personal collection of 20 "work", "home" and "special" pipes. Another pipe?!? I covet the PSOY crown, but I don't want to support the entire pipe industry single-handed.

"It's very important to have more than one. As you smoke, the shank [the middle bit] can become saturated with saliva. That will make it taste bitter, so you need to rest that pipe and smoke another."

The (ready) rub

Slightly revolted, I enquire what sort of tobacco would suit a beginner and his (one and, definitely, only) pipe.

I'm seduced by several jars bearing such evocative names as Luxuria, Irish Cream, Black Vanilla, Highland Whiskey and Royal Yacht.

The first puff
Put that in your pipe...
"Gordon Bennett," says Mr Templar. Not a exclamation, as it turns out, but a mild and "aromatic" tobacco.

Armed with a pouch of the stuff, and following a quick smoking master class ("Not too much in the bowl. Not too loose. Not too packed. Puff. Quicker. Quicker!"), I take my pipe onto the streets for the first time.

Once lit, Gordon Bennett (surprisingly) doesn't send my virgin lungs into spasm as I accidentally inhale. However, it soon becomes impossible to negotiate the busy city streets while wreathed in smoke and with eyes fixed on my temperamental pipe bowl.

Shun me, shun my pipe

I decide to join the cigarette smokers huddled in the doorway of a nearby office building. "It smells nice, I suppose," says one woman, her suspicious look not wavering for a second.

Mr Templer had told me pipe smoking was a "relaxation". Keeping my pipe burning proves anything but relaxing.

Eddie Large as Popeye
Look and learn
Amanda Child admitted that she pulled faces "like Popeye" to keep her championship bowl alight. Sadly, following her advice, I draw more quizzical stares from passers-by than I do smoke.

Across the street I spot a fellow pipe smoker and possible mentor. James Bridge-Butler has 60 years' experience behind the pipe and quickly identifies my error.

"You need more tobacco than that," he says, gruffly packing my briar full of Gordon Bennett with a discoloured thumb.

Great bowls of fire

Stopping the flow of pedestrians with a display of bonhomie cigarette puffers can only envy, Mr Bridge-Butler soon has me generating more smoke than the Flying Scotsman.

"What is this?" he says, nose wrinkled in horror. "Is it that cherry stuff? The girls might like the smell, I suppose."

James Bridge-Butler
"The girls might like the smell, I suppose"
Oddly enough, since taking up the pipe I'd noticed that never have so many passing women looked at me... with undisguised contempt.

This seems to be one of the many down sides of "loving the pipe". Before this article is accused of glamorising tobacco products, I'd like to say that pipe smoking is neither cool nor clever. And it makes you smell like a jumble sale cardigan.

If you smoke a pipe, consider your health, and stop. If you don't smoke a pipe, don't start. If I'm to be PSOY 2003, I want as little competition as possible.

See also:

15 Oct 01 | Europe
Pipe smokers burn with ambition
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