I seem to be attracted to hobbies that require a lot of patiently-acquired skill. Believe me, this is not because I have any…
In the last couple of weeks, perhaps buoyed on by my first substantial paycheque, I have been spending a not-inconsiderable amount of money I don’t really have on things that I really don’t need. And are liable to cause me some consternation.
I’ve just taken up pipe smoking. God knows why, I’m really no good at it. I have, thus far, completely failed to keep the darned thing lit. And smoking anything gives me a headache. And yet, over the last couple of weeks I have meticulously scoured shops and websites and procured something of the necessary accoutrements of this gentlemanly activity: pipe, tobacco, pipe-tool, matches (and a series of dreadful cheap lighters). I have read the advice of websites, consulted friends and even plucked up the courage to converse with the tobacconist.
I have also sent the first film of the year off to the developers, loaded the second and, today, spent an obscene amount of money at the Lomography store (thanks to the distractive power of Twitter and the siren-like lure of Groupon). Each Sunday I have tried to resist the lure of Brick Lane market, where I know a stallholder will tempt me with second-hand cameras aplenty; battered SLRs and ancient Russian rangefinders, Box Brownies and handheld Super8’s. I have a Russian Rangefinder: I succumbed to Ebay around my birthday; it has yet to have a film put through it, as it has no metre, won’t focus, and I’d have to cut the film to size…
In the last two years or so I have gradually re-embraced photography, the slow, expensive and utterly haphazard dance of attempting creativity with broken hardware and (very) delayed gratification. I’ve loved and been utterly frustrated by it in equal measure. One of these days I will take a good picture that I am happy with; the composition and exposure will be right, the focus and the framing will be perfect, and the expression on my friends face in that moment will be a window unto their soul. But there are too many variables, too many possible ways to fail; something invariably always goes wrong. I now wait, not for the planned successes, but for the happy accidents. In those I can take a lot of joy.
Don’t get me wrong, I love taking pictures. I even love the frustration of failing so often, and the fact that I cannot see the results moments after pressing the shutter. I am learning, and looking back through the results of the last two years, I can see real progress. But that progress takes a great deal of patience, and a growing number of grey hairs. It’s slow and costly, in every sense of that word.
I’m not sure why I decided I wanted to try pipe smoking. When I went to l’Abri in the autumn of 2008 I had not smoked a thing in over 9 years. There I was surrounded by pipe smokers and fag-rollers, but I didn’t partake. Then, starting with a puff of Aaron’s pipe in Dorset, at the very end of our time together, I have shared a pipe, or a rolly, with friends on quiet occasions. I’ve even smoked a cigar or two at weddings. I’ve slowly regained an appreciation for a social smoke: for standing in the cold air with a friend; for the warmth at your fingers; and the sensation of smoke as it rolls around your mouth.
I love that sensation: deep and ephemeral and viscous like nothing else. There’s much I don’t like: the smell on your clothes; the way the aftertaste persists in your mouth for so long afterwards; the fur on your tongue; the possibility of cancer. Smoking isn’t cool, and yet I saw some form of romance in the pipe smoking of Aaron and Steven and Stephan.
It’s harder than it looks. There are all sorts of rules and recommendations about how to undertake each and every step; how to pack the pipe, how to light it, how to draw the smoke but not the fire into your mouth. There are special tobaccos, special tools. It is an arena full of mystery and ritual, like a long-forgotten religion. Much like film photography. I am fascinated, and attracted. I am romanced.
Yet, as I said, thus far I have utterly failed to keep the darned thing alight. I have managed to smoke only with a match held to the bowl (the lighters were all useless), too often getting the burning sensation on my tongue that I’m told is such a sin. The lightness of the American Black Cherry tobacco is fleeting in my nose and on my tongue, telling me that I have much still to discover. And I’m sure I look a pratt walking down the canal with a half-lit pipe hanging from my mouth.
Still I think I will persevere. Even though this is costing me money I don’t have. Even though it profits me nothing, causes me frustration, and could eventually cost me my life (although one hopes not). I am not a patient person. But I aspire to be. And perhaps one day I will.