The State of the Union Jack

holmesI was fortunate enough to have vacationed this summer in the United Kingdom. Split between Scotland and England, I managed to commandeer enough time away from the missus to seek out some tobacco shops and observe the general public presence (or lack thereof) of our pipe and cigar smoking counterparts across The Pond. In the span of my twelve day visit I noticed only one pipe smoker, who was conversing with a friend by the Albert Dock in Liverpool. I guess that’s still a better statistic per capita than the one homeland sighting I had in the last six months. (Although I do suspect the latter may have been a cagey subterfuge for consuming other nefarious substances).


I always talk myself into believing that I will certainly find plenty of shops and opportunities to browse through, and purchase lots of interesting pipe tobaccos whenever I travel outside my usual dull circles. Any city of merit, I reason, should have something to offer. And yet, time and time again I am still sadly amazed that many major cities in the western hemisphere have little or nothing to offer in the way of pipe tobacco. Happily, it was not the case this time.


In Liverpool, just a few short blocks from the hotel in the main downtown district, I visited the Alfie Turmeaus shop (part of a three location venture, also in London and Chester). When I walked in, I discovered I was in the Cigarette part of the shop. To enter the Pipe and Cigar part of the store, I had to exit back to the street and go to a separate entrance that was located on the other side of a large unrelated business that separated the two. In a  city that bustled with activity at mid-morning, the pipe side door was blocked by the shopkeeper, who was sitting having a cupper for herself. She was obviously pleasantly surprised to have a customer appear.


The hidden nature of tobacco products in Britain these days was quickly evident when I walked into that small storefront. Any and all view of the tobacco itself and it’s packaging is hidden away behind solid white wooden baffles that are only raised long enough to reach in and snatch out one’s request – and then quickly slammed shut like they were trying to keep the flies out.  I managed to persuade the store keep to leave the lid up long enough for me to browse. Not a large selection, but an adequate representation of British standards, most of which are still readily available in the States. The notable exception was a conspicuous line of Presbyterian Mixture tins, which I happily snatched up for sharing and caring purposes, along with some Rattray’s flakes for good personal measure. The only briars for sale were in a small basket of … well, basket pipes.


My only other purchasing effort came in Edinburgh. In the heart of the government district was a tobacconist shop sadly devoid of any interesting pipe tobacco, with the exception of some standardly enjoyable Gawith offerings. I asked for St. Bruno, and was advised to try the convenience store right up the street, where I was indeed able to score a pouch of the elusive patron saint.


All in all, I think the most unfortunate aspect of the UK pipe tobacco experience is the ever oppressive presence of epoxy welded warning stickers and gruesome photos of uncontrolled microbial growths, with various catchy phrases reminding us that we are endangering the future of the human species every time we stoke our pipes. All the fine artwork man-hours and hopes of proudly displayed tins of conquest adorning the shelves of consenting adult shoppers is thus effectively reduced to a rubble of shamefully defaced landfill fodder. Even the tin of Celtic Talisman I acquired that I somehow managed to strip clear of it’s cover warning, still remains with an indelible image on it’s reverse of a chalky cadaver on a mortuary slab, with a towel over it’s eyes, eerily emblazoned with the legend of surety that,  as smokers, we are headed for an early demise.


My response then? A little photoshopping and glue.

Now I proudly display my own permanent war cry:

st bruno