Sherlock and shag

meer monday

Sherlock Holmes does seem to have settled on the cheapest and
strongest tobacco he could find, for everyday smoking at least. And
Watson, in the early stages of their acquaintance, did the same, for
in _A Study in Scarlet_ Holmes asks if Watson has any objections to
strong tobacco, and Watson replies that he always smokes ‘ship’s’
himself. ‘Ship’s’ is corded plug, formed by placing the leaves of an
inexpensive tobacco – in Watson’s day, quite probably the inferior
“Nicotiana rustica”, rather than the now universal “N. tabacum” – on
top of one another in a long row, then rolling them up and compressing
them, originally with a thin cord, though machinery was used on a
commercial scale later. When the resulting roll was a very thin one,
the tobacco was called ‘pig-tail,’ and this form was widely smoked,
or, in the days of wooden hulls, when burning tobacco would have been
a fire hazard, chewed, by sailors.

‘Ship’s’ can still be found at specialist tobacconists, but is not
recommended for those of a weak constitution. The mere act of lighting
the pipe produces a concentrated blast of tar and nicotine at the back
of the throat, which makes breathing extremely difficult. There is no
taste as such, only a harsh, rasping sensation, and the fumes and
smell are ‘acrid’, just as Watson describes them in _The Hound of the
Baskervilles_. A marvellous line by the underrated Nigel Bruce, in one
of his films with Rathbone, sums it up very well: ‘Fresh in
here. Smells like a pub after closing time.’

If Holmes’ before breakfast pipe consisted, as Watson says in “The
Engineer’s Thumb”, of plugs and dottles from yesterday’s smokes, and
if he had been smoking ‘ship’s’ yesterday, then it is not surprising
that he sometimes left his breakfast – and other meals – untouched.

Holmes remained faithful to his early love, the strongest possible
tobacco, frequently asking Watson to arrange for vast quantities of
‘shag’ to be sent round. ‘Shag’ is a generic term for any rough-cut
tobacco, but Holmes usually insists on the strongest available.”

sweet smokes.

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