by Joshua Humphreys
THE SCRAPING of the bowl. The rustle of the pouch. The scents escaped of vanilla and cherry. The soft and careful loading.
The stem between the teeth. The strike of a match. The crackling kindling of calm and the first cloud in and out—and the room is filled with smoke.
It is 7am.
I first started smoking a pipe after the death of my grandfather, one (but not the) John Muir. A life-long smoker and a personality much larger than his long life, still today one of my fondest memories is his early emergence from the hallway to the kitchen, in dressing gown and slippers and with first pipe between his smile, to squeeze his orange juice and sugar his cornflakes.
He died when I was first starting to move from stand-up to comedy novels and at first a pipe was just a wistful and occasional accompaniment to a glass of Strega cream on my Brunswick porch.
Five years later, I took my pipe with me to Vietnam, where I would make my first attempt at writing a novel whose style was wholly my own. I smoked it each morning at my desk and it soon wafted its way into my writing routine. After three aborted attempts at writing a novel this new one found itself finished and I cannot discount the contribution of smoking tobacco to its pages. Five years later again and I cannot write without smoking my pipe. As well would you ask me to do so without coffee and a desk as without my Savinelli Straight and a pouch of cherry cavendish.
For you see the last thing the body wants to do is write. While the mind wishes to do nothing else, truly the body would attempt to kill itself before it were forced for five hours to sit down and still. So in smoking a pipe it does.
Once a year some Christians have their foreheads crossed with ash—remember thou art dust and into dust thou shalt return. The writer does not need to be reminded of his mortality; it is what in the first place has made him sit down to write. Rather the writer smokes because he must prove that he does not care that he will return to dust, and must assert that death probably will not take him because he is always attempting to take it. Death, Richard Aurelius tells us, smiles at us all. Every burning pipe is a writer’s insolent smile back.
Death and utilitarianism, the unavoidable disappointments of the age—and every pipe put to the mouth is a grin to the first and a middle finger to the second. The pipe states and proves that what is unhealthy might in fact be good, and that renouncing all that is harmful makes writing, and so life, impossible. Merely by smoking a pipe you have joined the resistance. You are with each poisoned breath telling the virtuous world that though it may urge you to think one way, even apparently for your own benefit, this mind is not to be bought and cares for other things. Without moving you are both violent reactionary and radical revolutionist.
Though in fact you are moving, for smoking is a kind of trick. The very last thing the body wants to do is write and in smoking the body moves without moving. Smoking limits the body’s range so that it is never without reach of the keyboard. By tricking the elbows into thinking they are active it is an essential part of the balancing ritual that must be performed in order to get words onto a page. Were the pipe not lit the arms would much prefer to do the hula. In the absence of fire above, the feet (and I have many times witnessed this) begin to tap and soon to dance. Within minutes they are outside walking and one’s legs are not in any way below one’s desk.
This touches upon the neuropsychology of it all. Most people’s minds are wandering at least fifty percent of their waking time. (This is a fact, not an insult—or a compliment.) It takes the average person half an hour to achieve the focus required to do work they do not care for and, if distracted, fifteen minutes to regain that futile focus. Even then they can hold it only for thirty minutes. This, the brain as slave.
But the writer’s brain is free, and to him the last paragraph is repugnant.
A pipe smoulders upon the difference between science and art. The scientist must prove to you the benefit of things before consenting to your doing them. The artist proves their goodness while he does them. This has always been the way of the artist. So as the first pipe begins to puff you have already your focus. Twenty minutes later, as you find it less and less productive of smoke you find yourself more and more so of words. You may lay it down, drink more coffee, write clearly for an hour. When later you find yourself embroiled in a matter of style and have to stop to chase a synonym, you might look to the spines on your desk—those efforts that have preceded yours—and if the synonym comes easily you go on. But if you cannot admit the greater lucidity of your second word you alight upon the pipe: resting, ready, waiting—and pregnant with clarity.
You tap out its ash, scrape clean its bowl, and again the rustle of the pouch and the soft and careful loading. The room refilled with smoke, the synonym is either deemed ideal or you remember that before you die you shall probably have the chance to switch it out again and the writing once more flows.
There are musical things in smoke. There ought to be many musical things in writing. There’s something very personal to one’s pipe and there ought to be quite a few things personal to one’s writing. Here the pipe’s cloud, more voluminous than a cigarette’s, acts as a kind of force-field, a marking off of one’s mind—this is my book and my characters—this, is my world, and you out there shall carry no smallness beyond these billows nor impinge upon the freedom of what breathes within. For free it strives to remain.
In Vietnam smoking is not yet frowned upon nor preposterously taxed. When compared with my own country that socialist republic is found a land of liberty—or tú do, as Vietnamese would have it. John Patric switched from cigars to a pipe in order to save money for travel. Evelyn Waugh switched from a pipe to cigars once he could afford it. In London a pouch of my cherry cavendish costs $34. In Melbourne they are, and I neither exaggerate nor round up, $95. In Vietnam, they are $6. One sixteenth of the price. So Australia is not productive of writers and of all the meagre indications that exile is my lot and Vietnam is to be my Elba, this is one of the clearer reasons for the embracing of banishment.
I wonder, if you were asked to choose personal or political freedom, which you would prefer. In one country you have no political liberty—no freedom of speech under a one-party state ruled by bribery and decree. But you may possess unlimited personal freedom as well as procure pipe tobacco at its actual price. In Australia you have no freedom of speech and are ruled by an institutionalised bribery that is unquestioned by two parties. You are filmed several times while trying to cross the street at any point other than that which the ruling party deems safe, on your way back from wage-slavery to a tiny home that is tobacco- and alcohol-free not out of choice, but because the government deems you unworthy of enjoying such things unless you make a great deal more money than does a writer.
So he remains in his Vietnamese village and each morning takes up his seat at his desk. He places the stem of his pipe between his teeth and upon the day’s first lighting has in place his freedom and the corner-thread of his routine as he begins gently to smirk back at death and the blank page.
Hours later, after three, maybe four, such rituals of rebellion and 3000 words the writer’s mind is euphoric, empty, and exhausted. He might even feel ill, for he has smoked too much and has literally poisoned himself with smoke. He lays down his pipe and closes his laptop and goes for lunch, where he takes to the bottle—of beer if he is smart, for it is barely midday.