Class conscious

When I walked into my local last week and asked for my usual Hamlet cigar, the barman laughed at me. He's been wanting to do that for months, I suspect, so it's just as well he got it out of the way . . . and I could see his point. Hamlets are for put-upon husbands who, lighting up, earn poignantly brief release from respectable drudgery - a respite symbolised in the ads by the playing of Bach's "Air on a G-String". Hamlet man smokes one a day, eking out the packs given to him at Christmas, along with socks and a coffee mug inscribed "I'd rather be golfing".

I smoke Hamlets because I like the taste, but I don't know how to behave when I have one in my mouth. Normally, cigars dictate a plutocratic swagger, but a Hamlet isn't big enough for that. It's a sort of parody cigar for the petit bourgeois. They do stock Hamlets at London's premier cigar shop, Davidoff in Jermyn Street, at around £2.70 a pack. They tend to be overlooked by the average Davidoff customer - succinctly characterised for me by one assistant as "rich" - and the Hamlets, being machine-made, do not justify a place in the walk-in humidor, which is packed with cigars costing up to £30 apiece.

You'd have to be brave to buy Hamlets in Davidoff; braver still to light one up in the new smoking bars exploiting the trendiness of cigars among the young. But the great brown batons self- consciously wielded by brattish City types in such places symbolise the same thing as the cigars smoked after dinner in country houses: success combined with wilful, anti-bourgeois decadence. Smoking big cigars, after all, is only slightly less vulgar than actually burning money.

I should know, because on millennium eve my wife bought me a cigar important enough to be contained in its own little wooden coffin, and by smoking it on the front seat of a borrowed Lexus as we inched through the crowds of central London at 1am, I provoked several drunks to hurl themselves in fury at our windscreen.

The millennium eve passed off without violence, but had I not bottled out quickly and flung that stogie through the window, things might have been very different.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul