The Apostole of Pipes: Rick Newcombe and The Pipe Dream Trilogy
by Mark irwin
Case N° 130114
THE APOSTOLE OF PIPES: RICK NEWCOMBE AND THE PIPE DREAM TRILOGY*
by Mark irwin
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. – St. Paul
Just before leaving for the sanitarium for a “refresher,” Charles Mundungus called to wish me a happy new year, and somewhere in the course of his prattling said he had just finished a portrait of Rick Newcombe as “Apostle of Pipes.” He didn’t give me time to ask about it before hanging up, but sent me a copy of the painting a few days later after his arrival in Geneva. I am a huge of fan of Newcombe’s books, and Mundungus’ remark got me to thinking.
There have been pipe-smoking popes like Pope Benedict the XIII (1649-1730) and apologists of the faith like C. S. Lewis, but I don’t recall anyone in the long history and theology of pipe smoking referred to as an “Apostle of Pipes” before. As the theologians among us will say, one doesn’t get to be an apostle of without zeal and endless self-confidence, constant controversy and the penning of influential epistles. From a biblical perspective, the apostolate is mostly a matter of long-term, level-headed experience over more-or-less rocky terrain. In current Catholic usage, the term is reserved for laity who spread the good news. All of these, it seems to me, characterize Mr. Newcombe’s involvement in the hobby.
Mundungus may have been spinning his way randomly through the universe with this comment, as is so often his wont. God knows he has few qualifications within the hobby that legitimize his suggestion, apart from 37 years of pipe-smoking and an abiding sensibility that there is something sacred about this pastime. But over the past week I find myself coming back to his comment, each time with a growing conviction that he’s right.
So over a few bowls of G. L. Pease’s Abingdon, I put Mundungus’ theory to the threefold “acid test” of politics, money and religion. Taken singly, any of these is a sure-fire skewer for getting into a bar fight. Forge them together and you’ve got a trident capable of creating irreconcilable differences. Newcombe’s apostolic genius, it seems to me, is his willingness to discuss and debate all these things within the hobby in a joyful spirit of unflinching camaraderie, and having done so give us a wider concord and deeper sense of ourselves as practitioners of the gentle art of smoking.
“To me, the most important thing is that the pipe be a great smoker. All else is secondary.” –Personal Note for the Fifth Printing, In Search of Pipe Dreams.
Money is one of the more interesting if undiscussed topics in our hobby, one which inevitably comes up in a discussion of Newcombe’s books because of his interest in high-end Danish pipes. Mundungus told me that while he was at the Chicago show he talked to Gene Umberger (author of Tobacco and Its Use, 3rd Ed. 2009) about American pipe shows in the “old days”—meaning ten or more years ago—and Gene remarked about how much they’ve changed. He said there used to be tables and tables of guys with pipes and tins to swap and show, with only a smattering of merchant and pipe artisan tables. Now it’s the reverse. All you see are high-dollar artisans and merchants, with maybe one or two old-timey tables. This says something important about the sea change in our hobby.
One significant factor distinguishing many old-time pipemen from cigar or cigarette smokers was simply the fact that pipe smoking was much less expensive. It still holds true today insofar as the relative cost of tobacco incurred. But ours has become more of a collector’s hobby than at any previous time in its history, and this has changed the shape of who we are.
The current lines of economic stratification are obvious when you compare much of Pipes & Tobaccos and The Pipe Collector with e-magazines like Pipesmagazine.com and Pipe Smoker Unleashed—the first two it seems to me are written mainly by and for the “older” pipeman, while the latter are produced with the “younger” pipeman in mind. And by that I don’t mean necessarily mean one’s biological age, but the number of years one has been smoking a pipe.
The matter of one’s “pipe-smoking age” is covered by the “Acquisition Axiom” in my Five Laws of Pipe-Smoking, which states “the Malthusian growth model applies to pipe smoking. The formula for exponential growth of a variable x at the positive growth rate r, as time t goes on in discrete intervals (that is, at integer times 0, 1, 2, 3, ...), is xt = x0 (1+r)t. In pipeman’s terms, fill in any time interval you like, and if pipe-smoking remains at a relatively fixed rate over time, the pipe smoker generally will be found to accumulate pipes and tobaccos at a geometric rate corresponding to his financial capability.”†
There are exceptions that prove the rule, but I’ve rarely known the “Acquisition Axiom” to fail: Newcombe’s own testimony concerning his early years as a pipeman upholds it, mine certainly does, and I’d lay odds yours does as well. But even or perhaps especially among the abbas (or older) pipemen, there can be some acrimonious grumbling and “pipe-envy” when it comes to the amount of money one should spend on a pipe.
A man of moderate means, I shied away from In Search of Pipe Dreams for years, believing its contents were intended for the wealthy. I’d heard negative comments and read reviews saying just enough to confirm me in my own vile prejudices. Then somewhere along the way I stumbled across an article Newcombe wrote for Pipe Friendly in the late 1990s celebrating factory pipes—and not those vintage unsmoked rarities pulled like so many rabbits out of a hat by pipe necromancers like Neal Archer Roan and Greg Pease, but contemporary factory pipes. Pipes, in fact, manufactured by what one man recently referred to in my hearing as that “small and inconsequential pipe-maker” from Ireland—Peterson! I think I audibly gasped, because Petes (as you may know) have always been a particular passion of mine.
“Well,” I thought, “surely this isn’t the same Rick Newcombe,” but if you turn to page 149 of In Search of Pipe Dreams, you’ll find that article, with no disavowals or retractions whatsoever. Well, this turned my elitist idea of Newcombe on its head. Mundungus kindly brought me an autographed copy Still Searching for Pipe Dreams (2012), the second part of the trilogy, back from his rough ride at the Chicagoland Pipe Show last May, and with pipe and book in hand I found some of the most enjoyable pipe reading I’ve ever experienced.
The first two installments of Pipe Dreams reveal a pipeman who, in the prime of his life (which for us seems to mean our sixties and beyond) may have the advantage of deeper pockets pockets than some, but honestly couldn’t care less what a pipe costs because price is beside the point. The point for Newcombe is quality: quality of life, quality of relationship, quality of craftsmanship. There is so little pontificating and so much sheer joy in these books that the only faults one can possibly lay at their door is that (1) the author is sufficiently at home with himself to refuse to be anyone else, and (2) he happens to prefer Danish high-grades. Yet even in these regards Rick takes pains to not be misunderstood.
In my family there’s a saying, “Buy the smallest house in the most expensive neighborhood you can afford,” which means that quality matters, but has to be legitimized within the framework of the rest of your life. Where you may be content in the earlier years of your pipe-smoking life with a variety of mostly low to medium price-entry points and brands, even if you stick to the same marque you will probably be drawn to ever-better examples of the maker’s art as time goes by. And if you’re not, so what? As the Apostle of Pipes says, “The most important thing is to enjoy and appreciate what we have.”‡
“Enjoy your pipe collecting and pipe smoking hobby your own way.”
–In Search of Pipe Dreams 220.
Stepping into the “political arena”—which too often seems to mean stepping on someone else’s toes or having him step on yours—there are two levels of concern in the Pipe Dreams trilogy. The first addresses the common ground of our hobby, viz., the discussion of pipes, tobaccos, smoking, collecting and maintaining one’s pipes. Albert Mendez has written so eloquently of Rick’s position in his “Somewhat Introductory” to In Search of Pipe Dreams that I can do no better than repeat it:
“De gustibus et coloribus non disputandum. ‘There is no arguing about tastes and colours.’ This hoary maxim . . . perfectly defines the core idea of Mr. Newcomb’s philosophy. . . . To this I might add a more recent motto of my own coinage: accept no limitations. Mr. Newcombe constantly stresses that one should not allow any other person, including the writer, to dictate what one should or should not do with one’s pipes and tobacco, and that one should find by personal trial what is most personally satisfying” (xv).
My “Third Law of Pipe Smoking” expresses the same idea in slightly fewer words: “Every pipe its pipeman.” By this law, Dunhill’s White Spot stem logo is intrinsically no more meaningful than Missouri Meerschaum’s red and white paper bowl logo unless I find it to be so. “Most of us have been brainwashed into thinking that only big things matter; small things have no significance,” writes Trappist monk Michael Casey. “On the contrary, meaning is a subjective reality. Something may have meaning for me and not for you. A course of action [or a pipe!] is meaningful to me if it accords with the beliefs and values by which I shape my life” (Fully Human, Fully Divine 155). There’s nothing so depressing to me as another fellow’s ex cathedra pontificating. I’m sure that’s because when he sorts the wheat from the chaff and the sheep from the goats, I always find myself put out to pasture. Sometimes these fellows are just being mildly snobbish, but at other times I get the feeling I’m in the presence of outright intolerance. In either case I make a note to avoid such men in the future if at all possible (cf. Still Searching 66).
Within this arena of our hobby’s common ground, Newcombe has several preferences (not dogmas!) which form a great deal of the appeal of his dialogical approach. Here is a short list of some of my favorites:
- Your pipes should have an easy draw. (In Search of, 80)
- An estate pipe cleaned and refinished to its original condition can be the best bargain imaginable. (In Search of 46ff.)
- A clean pipe makes all the difference. (In Search of, 107)
- Pipe smoking is an ideal antidote to stress. (In Search of 235)
- McClelland’s food-grade tins make ideal tobacco “jars” for daily smoking needs. (Still Searching 79-81)
- Pipe friendships—our common ground—are among the great joys of the hobby. (Still Searching 86ff, 113ff)
- The rule of thumb governing the best tobacco is always the choice the tobacco lover makes. (Still Searching 111)
- There is a direct link between freedom and the right to smoke. (In Search of, 22)
- Pipe smoking in the 21st century is an act of rebellion (Still Searching 7)
I could go on with another half-dozen ideas, but this short list is enough to demonstrate how many of Rick’s preferences have generated positive thought and discussion in our community as a whole.
The second level of political concern in the Pipe Dreams books concerns the external threat to our hobby, specifically the direct link between freedom and the right to smoke. This threat has never been far from Rick’s mind, expressed in one of his earliest articles, “Put That in Your Pipe” (In Search of, 7ff) and one of his latest, “Politics and Pipes” (The Pipe Collector, Winter 2012, 3). I find it very sobering that even some of my closest friends and relatives think I’m either paranoid or politically stupid when I bring up the liberal fascist or “nanny state” agenda as it affects smoking and other personal rights. I find myself wanting to channel the revolutionary spirit of Thomas Paine, sending out pamphlets updating Anderson’s little child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to say to all the doctors, do-gooders and political-correctness crowd, “But this isn’t freedom at all—it’s mindless conformity!”
If you’re of my generation or older, you’ll remember similar personal threats posed by the nannies regarding both coffee and butter back in the early 1990s. We should take a lesson from the both the coffee and dairy industries, not to mention the American craft beer movement, which has created a Golden Age for American beer over the past two decades. All of them championed their causes by an appeal to both moderation and the quality of life each engenders.
Remember that it was just three years ago this month that Cohen and Dogget’s HR4439, the notorious “Tobacco Tax Parity Act of 2010,” was threatening U.S. pipemen. I was elated that by raising our collective voices we were able to divert that catastrophe. But what bothered me then and still disturbs me now are the number of pipe-smokers I know who are more interested in “Duck and Cover” survival tactics than standing up for our rights. I understand why the IPCPR led the way to our victory; what I don’t understand is why we aren’t being pro-active ourselves in educating the public to understand the real benefits of pipe-smoking, including getting the medical facts straight—especially in the comparative light of much more serious major health epidemics in the U.S. like obesity, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Pipe smokers share a secret that eludes the rest of the world.
–In Search of Pipe Dreams 66.
In Chapter Eleven of Still Searching for Pipe Dreams Newcombe makes a great case for pipes and pipe smoking as part of “a balanced life”: “Pipe collecting and pipe smoking are hobbies that I embrace to make my life richer and more enjoyable, but they are not an end in themselves”; rather, they should be understood as part of “a life filled with goals, love, exercise, creativity and intellectual curiosity”(124, emphasis mine). Rick’s answer to the question “which “part”? is fairly obvious, but it’s good to remind ourselves of it—“Without a doubt, the best aspect of pipe smoking is creating a Zen-like state of mind” (P&T Winter 2013, 54).
For the uninitiated, Zen is not a zoned-out state of navel-gazing, but the practice of meditation, which is what “zen” means. It is not a theology nor a dogma, but has its nearest Western equivalent to what we Christians have called since the time of William Law “the contemplative lifestyle”—a practice intended to bring enlightenment, understanding, peace and compassion. Newcombe’s advocacy for “Balance” (Still Searching 123ff) has much in common with what Buddha calls the “Middle Way.”
Of course, nothing turns the klieg lights onto a man’s soul quicker than bringing up his “religion” or “ultimate concerns”—by which I mean roughly what theologian Paul Tillich meant—what matters most and most deeply to an individual. Some folks seem to keep such matters locked up in the spiritual equivalent of a Winchester Gun Safe. And granting that many pipemen may not want to publicly discuss their personal understanding of what is and is not sacred, most anyone who claims the moniker “pipeman” would probably agree pipes and tobaccos are an important part of what makes life worth living.
I’ve always felt pipe-smoking goes beyond “gourmandizing”—and I mean no disrespect to Fred Hanna. I hold a robust Doctrine of the Incarnation, as my mentor Dr. Nathan Scott, Jr. taught me—that is, that there is a deep, rich goodness of Creation which is intended to be enjoyed and appreciated. Nevertheless, I find myself more comfortable with Newcombe’s larger understanding that pipe smoking is “a source of unending pleasure and relaxation, an antidote to stress, a way of escaping from the pressures of the modern world, a satisfying hobby that promotes peace of mind, excitement, stimulation, satisfaction and serenity—all at the same time” (In Search of 220). Perhaps we don’t talk about this aspect of the hobby much simply because it’s such an open secret.
Just as the world’s great contemplatives—whether Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Moslem or Hindu—have more in common with each other than with many who claim allegiance to these faiths—so I think Newcombe calls us as pipe smokers to recognize and celebrate our common higher ground. That he does this without losing sight that we each have our own collecting interests and styles and circles of influence only enhances the importance of his contribution. If it is true, as Sykes Wilford recently averred from his viewpoint as a businessman, that a genuine renaissance of pipe smoking is now under way, this becomes even more important.§
With a message like this, it’s no surprise that Newcombe was awarded the Doctor of Pipes by the Chicagoland Pipe Club in 2005. But what makes the Pipe Dreams books so unique is the—dare I say it?—humility—behind them both. I don’t mean the Caspar Milquetoast variety, but that essential self-confidence that the Christian contemplative would understand as true humilitas and the Buddhist as mindfulness: in the way of being that holds power very loosely, that really isn’t interested in itself so much as the joys and pleasures to be found in relationship to others, which in our case means the world of pipes and tobaccos and the people who make and enjoy them. Nyd og værdsætte!—Enjoy and appreciate!
* Well, it stands to reason there will be a third book, doesn’t it? Nobody stops in the middle of a trilogy—not George Lucas, not J. R. R. Tolkien, not nobody. In the meantime you can take a peek at what (hopefully) will find their way into that book in his two latest published works, “Politics and Pipes,” The Pipe Collector, December 2012, p. 3., and “It All Began With Peterson,” Pipes & Tobaccos, Vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 2013, pp. 48-52; on pp. 54-55 Rick announces that an audio book version of both the first and second installments of the trilogy will appear on itunes, with a great deal of new material, in the near future.
† Unpublished. An abridged version of my “Five Laws of Pipe Smoking” appears in The Pipe Collector, Vol 19, Number 5, October 2011, pp. 3-7.
‡ Newcombe, “A Great New Pipe Book,” Pipes & Tobaccos, Vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 2013, 55. Incidentally, Mundungus told me that “Enjoy and Appreciate” is the motto (in Danish of course) floating out of Newcombe’s pipe in his painting.
§ Sykes Wilford, Pipeline, Smokingpipes.com, December 31, 2012.
MUNDUNGUS PIPE STATISTICS :
60 pipes in current rotation
17 unsmoked pipes
01 Cavicchi special order Hungarian awaiting delivery
01 Peterson Estate 5s Dublin Spigot on Reserve from You Know Who
01 Peterson Estate 573 “Quaint” on order from Across the Pond
Average time spent daily looking at pipes: 05 minutes
Average time spent daily thinking about pipes: Now & Zen
Average time spent daily smoking pipes: 1 hr, 55 min