Walking into Nat Sherman, the world-famous tobacconist's on Fifth Avenue, New York, some weeks ago, I quickly realised I wouldn't be able to run to an actual cigar, but pointed at a small paperback book on the history of them and asked the price. "About $35," drawled an assistant, without looking at me or removing from his lips the nine-inch cigar he was smoking. It wasn't so much the $35 that intimidated me as the "about". Eventually, I bought the next-cheapest thing I could see: a copy of a glossy magazine called Cigar Aficionado.
On the cover was General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The cover lines promised that he would be discussing Osama Bin Laden, Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and the war on terror, and I think I bought the magazine to see how the interviewer would finesse the shift from these apocalyptic matters to the subject of cigars. In practice, he did it like this: "Let's get on to some lighter stuff", which I found disappointing.
Franks talked about how he and other senior US officers had smoked cigars when they first entered one of Saddam Hussein's captured palaces. He stressed that it was not a celebration, but just the marking of a good moment, which seems a pretty fine distinction, and here is the difficulty if, like me, you're class conscious and drawn to the occasional cigar: how can you smoke them without looking as if you're showing off?
I wouldn't say that Arnold Schwarzenegger (currently trying to force through a smoking plaza for the California state legislature) has mastered the knack, but then neither have I.
Last week, while sitting in an already smoky pub, I took out a box of matches and a Havana Upmann Corona Junior, which I'd bought for a fiver at Davidoff of London, the tobacconist's shop in Jermyn Street. "I hope you're not going to light that thing," said a woman sitting at the next table. Well, she'd left me with no honourable way out. There's simply no precedent for someone taking out a cigar and some matches and then not bringing the two together. I wandered away from her and lit up, but the woman continued to stare at me, and I knew just what she was thinking: that I looked like a caricature of a capitalist, that I was vulgar.
"In one way," sighs Nick Foulkes, who is the cigar columnist of Country Life magazine and has twice been nominated as Havana Man of the Year, "a cigar has come to speak of the high life, and the apotheosis of that is Las Vegas."
Cigars used to speak of poshness. They were associated with Edward VII and mellow, after-dinner scenes in wainscoted rooms, but then the lifestyle magazines started to get interested, and now they are associated with images of businessmen giving each other high fives, or the long bouts of backslapping that inevitably follow Pro-Am golf tournaments.
I prefer to think of cigars in a third, more socially neutral way: as symbols of professional competence. Jimmy Savile smoked a cigar on Jim'll Fix It, and he always did fix it for the kids, didn't he? As far as I remember, he had a 100 per cent strike rate. When I was in my teens, I acted in The Threepenny Opera by Brecht, a work I admired, and there was the Marxist, pictured on the back cover of the programme, his pretend working-class smock offset by a large cigar. I think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel building the Great Western Railway while smoking cigars, or Winston Churchill winning the Second World War.
Nick Foulkes has a different idea again, though. He would be unlikely to smoke a cigar while working, or in the midst of some hectic party. Instead, he takes his Havanas alone, contemplatively, while staring out of the window. Now that is classy. And when the ban on smoking in public comes, we may all be forced to emulate him.