In Dorchester during the Christmas holiday I bought a two-slice electric toaster at Currys. It was a nice little toaster that worked very well when I got it home. And it cost only £4.50, which turned out to be little more than half the price of a packet of Marlboro cigarettes. It’s some years since I gave up smoking; but at my peak I smoked three packets of Marlboros a day, which now would cost the same as more than five two-slice electric toasters. Or, put another way, with the money I have saved from giving up smoking I could buy nearly 2,000 electric toasters a year. I could by now be running a successful electric toaster shop. Given that smoking indoors is now forbidden in any public place, and that cigarette packets are plastered with grisly photographs of rotten teeth, cancerous lungs, and gangrenous limbs, it is surprising that anyone still smokes at all; and especially, given the price of cigarettes, that smoking is most prevalent among the poor.
Nevertheless, the percentage of smokers in Britain has fallen by more than 50 per cent in the past 40 years; and now I read in the Financial Times that cigar-smoking is also declining so fast that at present rates the cigar will practically have disappeared from Britain by the year 2026. Although a decent Havana cigar costs upwards of £10, the price seems less likely to be the main reason for its fall, since its popularity is greatest among media grandees, City swells, gangsters and other show-offs who are keen to let us know that money is not a problem for them. A more likely reason for its decline is loss of glamour thanks to the law forbidding smoking in clubs and boardrooms, and the appearance on those once handsome cigar boxes of grim health warnings. This is all most demeaning for a tobacco reputedly rolled on the thighs of Cuban maidens. Friends in the City tell me it is true that cigar-smoking is now increasingly rare among merchant bankers and established businessmen, but common among hedge fund managers, who perhaps still consider it a condition of membership of the City elite.
Among the most famous cigar smokers of the 20th century — Winston Churchill, Orson Welles, Groucho Marx, Al Capone and, less reputably, Bill Clinton — was Evelyn Waugh, who, after achieving early fame as a novelist in the 1930s, went so far as to promote cigars in an advertisement on behalf of the Cuban government. This was published in the Times in 1938, and in it Waugh made the now surprising claim that cigars were cheap. ‘It always strikes me as odd that cigars should, almost universally, be regarded as symbols of wealth,’ he wrote. ‘I know of no other physical pleasure which can be purchased as cheaply, and leave behind it so few regrets or responsibilities.’ It was true, he said, that in fiction and films and caricatures cigars were always associated with ‘the elderly and the opulent’, but in fact they were one of the pleasures we could all afford to share with them. ‘How much in their harassed routine they need those exquisite hours when the Tobacco of Havana comes to calm their apprehensions and woo them into self-esteem,’ he wrote. ‘We, too, have our worries and we, too, turn to the same source of comfort.’
On Christmas Day, in the Somerset home of my daughter Eliza, and her husband, Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, I was offered the novelist’s old ear trumpet to try. I am rather deaf, as he was, and I was interested to see how it worked. It is a charming object, made of tortoiseshell, very light, and compressible so as to fit in a pocket, which was once given to him by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. And I am embarrassed to say that I think I heard rather better through Waugh’s ear trumpet than I do through my two state-of-the-art Swiss-made electronic hearing aids that cost me around £2,000 each a few years ago. Perhaps ear trumpets — not hearing aids — are the thing of the future. And perhaps cigars are, too; for I learn that in China, with its mushrooming opulence, cigar sales are booming. What China does, I expect we will all do eventually. And it may turn out that Evelyn Waugh was not the reactionary old curmudgeon that we imagine him to be but an inspired prophet and visionary.