Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 July 2019

An old briar pipe finds its way into Malcolm Guite’s hands

OCCASIONALLY, the pleasures of childhood survive and even blossom in adulthood, but in another form. So, with me, there is a kinship between the pleasure I have in handling briar pipes, and the pleasure I had in finding conkers.

It wasn’t the conker competitions that I enjoyed, standing there at the risk of having one’s thumb struck by an opponent’s vicious swipe. No, it was picking up the conkers themselves that gave me the greatest pleasure. I loved the swirls and patterns in their shiny brown sides, like the grain in highly polished wood. I especially liked to take a new one out from its fresh green carapace, and think, as I uncovered it, “I am the first person ever to see this.”

Now, likewise, I enjoy the patterning on this old Peterson pipe. The stem joins the bowl with a bright silver band, beneath which is the tightly patterned grain of the briar, parts like flames and tiger-stripes, others in tight little knots and whorls, which aficionados call “bird’s-eye”. But, unlike the conkers, which soon clouded, dried, and shrivelled, my briar pipes stay beautiful. Indeed, their pattern seems enriched by the passing years, aided by all the reading, conversation, and writing they have witnessed. This Peterson is a case in point.

About ten years ago, I walked out to Grantchester with a couple of American C. S. Lewis scholars, and, over tea in the orchard, they got out their pipes and we began to talk poetry. I was distressed to find I hadn’t brought my pipe, but one of my companions produced a “spare” for me to smoke: a beautiful, large-bowled, long-stemmed Peterson. As I took it up, I noticed from the hall-mark on the silver band that it was an early one.

“Why, this is a ‘pre-Republic Peterson!” I said, and so it was. So, as we smoked, we began to think of all the great poetry written in Ireland since this pipe had first been made in Dublin: we recited Yeats and Kavanagh, Longley, Mahon, and Heaney — it was wonderful. As we got ready to leave, I gave back the pipe.

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“No,” said my friend. “You must keep it; for you know what it is and what it means.”

I demurred, but he insisted. He said: “I, too, was given this pipe. I saw it in the Peterson shop in Dublin, and couldn’t afford it, but an older and wealthier friend bought it for me.”

Five years later, I was leading a retreat about Lewis on the Isle of Wight, and a group of us were smoking pipes in the evening on a balcony looking out over the sea. I took out this pipe and it was much admired; so I told the story. All the while, an elderly American, who was co-hosting the event, was grinning from ear to ear. “Show it to me,” he said. “Yes,” he declared, with some satisfaction. “I bought this pipe many years ago, and gave it to the man who gave it to you!”

“Then it must come back to you,” I said. “On the contrary,” he said. “You must keep it, and pass it on, when the time comes, to some younger enthusiast who also knows what it is and what it means.”

I feel certain that that will happen: that the pipe, rather like a wand in Harry Potter, will find its next true keeper. I look forward to that day; for the pipe will carry with it all the good talk, good stories, and poetry that it has already encouraged, and, in new hands, be ready for more.

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