Drinking tea with a colleague each morning, conversations are nothing, if not eclectic.
Today’s meander began with a recollection of an old priest my colleague had known, a Benedictine who had the title ‘Dom.’
‘I knew a Dom Paul,’ I said. ‘A lovely old gentleman, too gentle for the Twentieth Century. He was a great man for taking snuff, much of which seemed to be left on his soutane.’
‘My grandmother took snuff,’ my colleague replied.
His grandmother had been a countrywoman born in Edwardian times. It was not hard to imagine a black and white picture of her, sitting outside a whitewashed thatched cottage.
‘My grandfather smoked a pipe’, he said. ‘Warhorse tobacco that you had to pare and rub yourself.’
(It had never occurred to me before that the term ‘ready-rubbed’ on the packs of Golden Virginia tobacco that my father smoked meant that a person did not have to rub it themselves.)
‘Pipe smoking seemed popular among the professional classes,’ I said. ‘Clergy smoked pipes, and academics. I wonder if there was a hierarchy of tobacco.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘Cigarette smokers were thought less polite.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but I know there were clergy who smoked a pipe who would have met with disapproval if they had smoked cigarettes. There seemed to some sort of distinction.’
Did the distinction arise because pipe smoking had been established since the arrival of tobacco, whereas cigarettes were a phenomenon of modern mass production? Did the massive number of cigarette smokers and much smaller number of pipe smokers prompt a notion that cigarette smoking was somehow ‘common?’
Sitting pondering the conversation during the relative calm of a secondary school lunchtime, I wondered if somewhere there was a diagram illustrating the tobacco hierarchy.
Cigars would obviously have been the top, the preference of wealthy gentlemen at clubs and in dining rooms after dinner. Then there would have been the pipe smokers, the genteel, taciturn souls who puffed reflectively as they listened to conversations. Then would have come cigarette smokers, a number of whom would have also been cigar smokers, but who by their sheer weight of number would have been seen as engaged in an activity for the masses.
Cigarettes rolled by the smoker themselves would presumably have lain somewhere between the pipe and the manufactured cigarettes (although my late father, who rolled his own, would have insisted he was the most common of being).
Where, though, would snuff have been? A Benedictine priest and an Irish countrywoman were far apart.