December 9, 1956
UP IN SMOKE
BY RUSSELL KIRK
--Mr. Kirk is the author of " The Conservative Mind " and other works--
In the High street of the ancient town of Perth, at the heart of Scotland, stands the most interesting tobacconist's shop in the world: Rattray's of Perth. Mr. Charles Rattray, the proprietor, a gentleman nearing 80 years of age, is a wise man. The contemplative virtues thrive in the fumes from a pipeful of good tobacco. Surrounded by his wooden images of Pocahontas, Black Boys, and Highlanders, Mr. Rattray discourses of enduring verities. He knows, for instance, the meaning of tradition.
" Look at almost any painting," says Mr. Rattray. " Three-quarters of the canvas is covered by the background. Tradition is the background of our life. Take away the background, and you have spoilt the painting." There surely is no dearth of tradition in Rattray's of Perth: the finest collection of antique tobacco jars in the world stands on its mahogany shelves, and the Virginian and Turkish tobaccos in its venerable bins are blended by adepts of the old school. The whole handsome shop in the High street has an 18th century elegance. Mr. Rattray who knows his Scottish history, has Jacobite sympathies; and this is fitting enough, for the first image of a Highlander set above the door of an 18th century tobacconist's shop was put there as a sign to persecuted adherents of the Stuarts that they would find congenial company within.
Tobacco blending and selling in Britain is a trade still in private hands. A shop like Rattray's of Perth is a far cry from the dreary little holes-in-the-wall that dispense cigarets in Italy or Spain - for that matter , in most of Europe. The tobacco trade being a state monopoly in the Latin lands, the tobacconists' shops there are squalid affairs, generally; their prices are very high; and the quality, and small variety of their wares are discouraging. In Britain, however, it is still possible - for a price, the excise duties upon tobacco being inordinately heavy - to buy decent tobacco at a decent shop.
Yet even in Britain establishments like Rattray's belong to the order that is passing. "Ten years ago," Mr. Charles Rattray observes, " I could give a lecture on the history of the trade to four or five decent tobacconists roundabout. Now there is no one left to listen to me." Nowadays, along with many other old and good institutions, the better tobacconists' shops are sliding down to dusty death; and the reasons for their plight are not far to seek.
The burden of taxation imposed by the garrison state and the welfare state is the primary cause. Cigarets cost nearly twice as much in Britain as in America, tho wage rates are only half those of America. Indifferent cigars cost three shillings and sixpence (50¢); tolerable ones, seven shillings ($1). Generally speaking, cigars have been taxed out of the shops, for the rate of taxation upon them passed the point of diminishing returns years ago; and many do not even bother to carry cigars, there being no custom for them.
At a large shop which calls itself " Fife's Tobacco Depot," I asked the proprietor, " What cigars do you have? " He turned perplexedly and commenced to search his top shelves. "Agnes," he called out after two or three minutes, '' where did we put that cigar?
Ideology and class resentment enter into the duty upon cigars: in the German speaking countries, cigars always have been regarded as a popular commodity, and so their price remains low. But in Britain, for many years, to puff upon a cigar has been considered a token of affluence; and, therefore, persons fond of the doctrine of equal misery have taxed the cigar trade to death in the belief that if you can afford a cigar, you can afford any amount of duty. To diminish the duty, even tho the amount of revenue might be doubled by a prudent reduction of the rate, would be to invite the fury of the socialist.
In the welfare state, income taxes compel the paring of middle class budgets to the bone; and one stroke of the paring knife shears away the better tobaccos. Working class incomes have risen; but they have not risen enough to provide a new consuming public for cigars and special blends; and, besides, the British workingman, long accustomed to bad tobacco, rarely asks for anything but the cheapest brands of cigarets. Even to smoke a pipe is become a real luxury. With duty, the price of a pound of Rattray's Red Rapparee mixture, in Britain, is 84 shillings ($11.75). But if a pound of that same tobacco is posted to a customer in the United States, duty free, the price is only 24 shillings ($3.35). Yet no one indulges any hope that the duty will be lowered.
Thus the old fashioned tobacconist finds himself with his back to the wall. His old customers, as a body, are being taxed out of existence; even the taste for decent tobacco is suspect, in some quarters, as smacking of the Bad Old Days. Good tobacco and pleasant tobacconists' shops are trifling enough matters, no doubt, in this age of catastrophe. Greater things have gone down the drain. But as part of the amenities of civilization, they are bound up with a complex of tastes and pleasures and preferences and refinements which mark any elevated culture. In the thorogoing equalitarian society, no doubt, everyone will get his tobacco ration, even if he doesn't want it; but the tobacco, I suspect, will not be worth the smoking.
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