COMPTON MACKENZIE – Sublime Tobacco. Chatto and Windus, UK, hardcover, 1957.

   Nowadays, when smoking is the eighth deadly sin, and smoking indoors constitutes a 4th degree misdemeanor, it’s oddly refreshing to read a book in praise of pure evil.

   According to Wikipedia, Mackenzie was well-known in his day as “a writer of fiction, biography, histories and a memoir, as well as a cultural commentator, raconteur and lifelong Scottish nationalist,” and his name is occasionally resurrected today through the miracle of television, as the author of Whiskey Galore  and Monarch of the Glen.

   This, however, is something completely different (*). A history and personal memoir of the stuff we set on fire, stick in our mouths, and suck on it.

   I should say at the outset, it’s mostly rather dull, then hasten to add that the part that ain’t dull is a really great read. And it comes at the beginning, so you don’t have to plow through a lot of soporifics to get there. Sublime Tobacco   opens with a quietly rhapsodic mix of tales from the author’s own life and those of his puffing acquaintances: an autobiographical accolade to the stuff of coffin nails,

   I was particularly charmed by the account of how he and his brother used to filch Daddy’s cigar butts from the ashtrays and smoke them in homemade pipes. When the old man got wise to it, he went for the time-honored cure-and-punishment: Gave them each a big cigar and ordered them to smoke it down to a stub. Mackenzie’s description of their delight and father’s dismay as the boys smoked cigars (at age 7 and 9) with pure enjoyment, then asked for another is a joy to read. And just as much fun, in a very different vein is his account of how he saved lives by calmly smoking two cigarettes outside the British Embassy in Athens during an anti-anglo riot.

   Sublime segues smoothly from anecdotes to critical evaluation, taking time along the way to throw in personal bits of business involving the various and sundry means and methods of filling one’s lungs with noxious smoke. He concedes the convenience of the cigarette, lauds the luxury of the cigar, but like any intelligent man, he gives primacy of place to the Pipe.

   Mackenzie’s catalogue of his own pipes, past and present, his analysis of form and function, shape and texture, and his nuanced descriptions of the tastes and aromas of the tobaccos of the world are vivid enough to discolor teeth in an avid reader. This is the work of a truly skillful writer, and his love of the subject is so evident and tender that I felt myself tearing up at times.

   Or maybe smoke got in my eyes.

(*) Thanks, Monty Python