If you think about Scandinavia, sun, light and heat are not the first things that come to mind, but rather long, dark winters and never-ending nights. Yet, if one has a sunny disposition, then everything becomes easier. Hans Nielsen is always smiling, with an elegant gait so that when you see him you feel like immediately responding with a smile in return. When he was young he looked like that famous actor who was popular in the 1940s, the British actor who saucily sang “When I’m Cleaning Windows” while playing his ukulele. Yes, that’s right, George Formby. That’s why his friends call him “Formby”, partly because he resembles him and partly due to his sunny nature and old-fashioned manners.
“Now I go cleanin' windows to earn an honest bob For a nosy parker it's an interestin' job Now it's a job that just suits me”.
As in Formby’s song, cleaning windows is an honest job and allows you to see a lot of interesting things, and although a hard job, it is especially suitable for the curious. Hans had exactly the same spirit in the mid-1950s, when he was fifteen and had left school. He was looking for a job and had already found two job advertisements in the newspaper. The first one interested him, as it was for a mechanic in a workshop in town. Indeed, Hans loved motorbikes, owning one himself and he felt he had a natural talent for mechanics. The other was for repairing pipes at Suhrs Pibereparation, a pipe shop near his house. Two different opportunities, but both attractive for a job seeker. You can’t be choosy when looking for a job, thought Hans positively. So he showed up at the workshop, hoping deep down to be able to fulfill his dream. Unfortunately, there were others who had the same idea, and he found a long queue of young men more or less the same age as him waiting to be interviewed. As soon as he saw the queue, Hans smiled, although he was slightly sorry. He didn’t wait for his turn and so left to go to the pipe shop. He had an choice in the end, but who knows if the other mechanics could say the same thing. There was no one at Shurs Pibereparation and he seemed to have been the only one to answer the job ad, so with a smile he was told he could start the next day. On his way back home he thought of what he would tell his mother. He had a job and that was the important thing, although it wasn’t the one he had hoped to get. He was aware he would not be paid as much as a mechanic, but who knows what he could learn from repairing pipes, as you could from cleaning windows, as George Formby said. He walked briskly, feeling contented and unconsciously started humming a cheerful song, his fingers moving over an imaginary keyboard in the air.
“And if I never had a cent, I'd be rich as Rockefeller, With gold dust at my feet, On the sunny side of the street”.
Money wasn’t everything. Of course, his mother didn’t think so when he told her of the new job, but as things stood for the moment it was alright, also because the pipe job was only temporary. Maybe she was right, after all she was the one who was responsible for his education. She was the one who sent him to piano lessons, distracting him from a young person’s usual pastimes. However, he agreed that music called for method and creativity, it represented freedom and elegance and was an excellent character-builder. Perhaps his mother was also right about the pipes. In any case he started work the next day. Hans was not alone in the shop, as apart from the owner, Poul Rasmussen, there was another apprentice called Sven Knudsen with whom he immediately struck up a friendship. Fixing the battered pipes so they could be smoked again almost became a mission for Hans. Indeed, through his work he felt that he could make people happy, by providing them with the possibility of smoking their pipes once again. The more battered the pipes, the greater his satisfaction of bringing them again to life. He saw all types of brands of pipes, studying each one in detail, thus learning to recognize their strengths and weaknesses at a glance. Hans did not make pipes, but he could very well have done so.
“If you can see what I can see, When I'm cleanin' windows”.
The friends who nicknamed him Formby started to mispronounce it as time went by, so that it turned into “Former”. It seemed as if fate was showing him the way. He wanted to mould, give shape and create. After two years of mending pipes, Hans was told by his mother to find a more worthwhile job. She had not been that happy with his job in the shop. Hans wondered why she didn’t think repairing pipes was worthwhile. However, it was reasonable to listen to his mother, in any case, with a smile.
“Grab your coat and get your hat, Leave your worries on the doorstep, Life can be so sweet, On the sunny side of the street”.
So one day he went to Poul Rassmussen and told him that he had found a job as a mechanic, which had been his first love. He would go and repair motorbikes and no longer pipes. Poul immediately understood that something was getting out of hand, as they had become firm friends and although Hans was still young and knew what he would do when he grew up, he had to let him go, although not completely. Indeed, he asked him to stay on at least to work in the shop on Saturdays. What about Sven? He had set up his own business and coincidentally asked Hans to help him in his free time. So the pipes didn’t seem to want to let Former go that easily. Whatever his mother said, he seemed to have a future in this business.
Thus, life continued, with pipes, motorbikes, piano lessons and smiles. Then he did his military service, one year away from everyone and everything. Following that, he returned to the workshop, a worthwhile and respectable job according to his mother. One sunny day, walking on the sunny side of the street, like the song that he liked so much, he decided to drop in the pipe shop to greet his friends. The window display of Shurs Pibereparation was still the same: three steps to go down into the shop, light filtering through the large window overlooking the street, and pipes proudly on display. The door still made the same sound when he opened it, a bell announcing someone’s arrival and a frrrrrrr of the door on the floor, as you had to push hard to open it, and the dust was the same too, the result of working with wood. Poul was reading the newspaper, not expecting any visits. On hearing the bell, he looked up assuming it was a client. At first he didn’t understand who it was and he just smiled, Then he realized who it was – good-natured, well-mannered Former, back again! It was sheer coincidence that he had just read in the newspaper that W. O. Larsen was seeking a pipe maker. Hans immediately took up the offer, although he had never actually made any pipes in his life. However, what could be easier, considering that he had been taking pipes apart to repair them for two years.
“If you can see what I can see, When I'm cleanin' windows”.
Hans knew everything there was to know about pipes and Poul knew that he had what it took to be successful and thus he could get away from his beloved motorbikes and work with briar instead, which suited better his character and style. So Poul decided to call Sven Bang, the manager at W.O. Larsen and told him: “I have just the person for you, you can stop looking for somebody”. Former was just twenty, with a charming smile and guaranteed future. His mother would have to accept this. The interview at W. O. Larsen went well, but then he had to demonstrate his skills practically and produce eight pipes that were in the catalogue of the Danish establishment. Former called Sven, who had already worked for Larsen in the past, and asked him if he could use his workshop over the weekend. Thus, he became Former by name and by nature. The results were excellent and he would work at W. O. Larsen for ten long years, succeeding in distilling his experience and talent in his pipes. Then, in 1972, still walking on the sunny side of the street by nature, a series of opportunities presented themselves. First, it was the Japanese market that asked him to create new Former pipes, then the Germans, and then in 1986 an interesting offer was made by the owner of a small pipe factory in Switzerland, who asked him to create a line of top quality, classic, half-finished pipes and also train his staff. Formertook up the challenge and this turning point in his life not only brought him professional success with his “Bentley Former’s Design” series of pipes, but it also led him to meet his future wife, Daniela.
“Can’t you hear the pitter-pat And that happy tune is your step Life can be complete On the sunny side of the street”
In 1997 it was time to return to Denmark. This was not only a physical, geographical desire. For Former, going home meant returning to the roots of his profession, as after years of working on semi-manufactured products, he wanted to go back to freehand work, thus giving meaning to his nickname, namely giving form, shaping and creating. No more machines coming between him and briar, but just familiarity with and respect of stylish lines and methods. Thus, Daniela and Former found a house near Sven Knudsen, their dear friend, and settled down in Toksvaerd, a small village near Copenhagen. In 2009 Hans “Former” Nielsen celebrated his first fifty years of activity as a pipe maker and created a new pipe for the occasion. At the International Pipe Show in China Hans was moved when his colleagues celebrated his anniversary with a huge cake.
His ultra-refined movements that have accompanied his long career are all distilled in the contours of his pipes. You just have to look at one and a smile will immediately spring to your lips. One thing that Hans always says about his life as a pipe maker is that you need to be patient and not forget that you are working with a piece of nature. You never know what is hidden within it and you must allow for changes while working on it if the material requires it. This is a little like Hans and his life, when he realised that pipes were the grains of his soul and he had to follow these inclinations. When his mother visited him, they often laughed about her lack of foresight as regards “worthwhile” work. It is just as well that she had a child who has always walked, elegantly smiling, on the sunny side of the street.
Special thanks to Mr. Hans Nielsen "Former" for his precious contribution
Milan, October 2013