A Martian, coming across a copy of 'Cigar Aficionado', would believe that all humans were encumbered by smouldering telegraph poles lodged in the middle of their faces

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The Independent Culture
There is much to be said in favour of cigars. An excellent circumlocutory prop, they can be waved genially during philosophical rumination or wielded in a vigorous prodding motion in order to underline trenchant opinion. The most piffling remark is transformed into memorable aphorism when accompanied by a cigar. Along with being a splendidly ludicrous addition to the phizog, they are most effective tools for annoying the fastidious. The only drawback about cigars is that smoking them is akin to standing downwind of a bonfire.

Such thoughts sprang to mind last week with the news that the late President Kennedy's cigar humidor was purchased at Sotheby's, New York, for $598,000 (pounds 388,000) by Marvin R Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine. It seemed a substantial sum for the owner of what must surely be a flimsy specialist newsletter - though Mr Shanken, when interviewed after the auction, was so blase about his coup that he could not recall how much he had paid for the little walnut box.

The answer to this conundrum is that Cigar Aficionado, as with so many things which emerge from America, is somewhat larger than you might imagine. Running to 354 glossy pages, the current issue is much the same size as a phone book. Because of its bias, the publication gives a very peculiar view of the world. A Martian, coming across a copy, would believe that all humans were encumbered by smouldering telegraph poles lodged in the middle of their faces.

The journal starts promisingly with a road test of 104 upmarket stogies, ranging from a Cuban Bolivar Corona ("a solid core of nuts and spices") to a Fonseca Corona from the Dominican Republic ("hints of spice and dried orange peel, with a strong woody finish" - see what I mean about bonfires?). But the rest of this bulky journal is a bit of a disappointment. After all, there is only so much you can say about cigars. Much of the paper is taken up with bland profiles, rather in the style of in-flight magazines, of prominent stogy-suckers. We learn, for example, that actor Matt Dillon favours Montecristos, while model Lauren Hutton is partial to H Upmanns. Such padding is required to interleave the prodigious amount of advertising aimed at fat-cat fans of a big smoke. Among the pricey ephemera being touted is a pair of gold cuff links fashioned after cigar butt-ends - the ash is made of platinum.

But I did learn something of value from a back issue of the periodical, which featured a remarkable photograph taken by a long-lensed paparazzo, of President Clinton chomping on a cigar of Churchillian dimensions while tangling with the world's problems at his desk in the Oval Office. Like me, the Prez enjoys the idea of a cigar - but, unfortunately, smoking has been officially banned in the White House. His solution to this problem is simply not to light up.

Still no luck with my campaign to gain admittance to the gardens of Buckingham Palace, 45 empty acres in the centre of London - but Mrs W and I did get into another royal property the other day. The 30-acre plot of Frogmore House, in the shadow of Windsor Castle, is open to the public for all of four days a year - though it seems unlikely that any members of the royal family have spent much time at Frogmore since the Queen Mum passed part of her honeymoon there in 1923.

Admittedly, Queen Mary, the frosty-looking one who died in 1953 (it is intriguing to conjecture what she would have made of recent royal shenanigans), was rather a fan of the place. You can admire her extensive collection of tea caddies on those rare occasions when it is open. Possibly the fact that Frogmore lies bang under Heathrow's incoming flight path, with jumbos passing overhead every 30 seconds, is one reason why it has fallen from regal favour. At one point during our visit, a Japanese Airlines plane roared over, much to the delight of a large party from the same country, with a yen to learn more about another island monarchy.

Still, the gardens are very pleasant, with a meandering lake and a Gothic "ruin" built as a picturesque feature in the 18th century. Mrs W tutted at the weeds which are allowed to proliferate in parts of the grounds. "That cow parsley should come out," she hissed. "And there are thistles growing in the mulch." Could it be that Prince Charles has a hand in the garden's management?

To be honest, the interest of most visitors was morbid rather than horticultural: ignoring the profusion of flowering shrubs and the 200,000 bulbs planted by Queen Mary, the majority of sightseers headed directly to the Royal Mausoleum, for a gander at the life-size marble effigies of Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort (still uncomfortably wearing spurs while supine on the slab). I knew from Prince Edward's recent TV hagiography that the late Duke of Windsor was also interred thereabouts. A statue overlooking the recumbent forms of V & A was inscribed "David" (the family moniker for Edward VIII), but its profuse beard and beetling brow suggested this was a representation of the Old Testament monarch rather than the inventor of the Windsor tie-knot.

In fact, the man who was king for 11 months lies in a plot outside the mausoleum, some distance from the graves of Victoria's many children. Though the public was not allowed to approach the tombstones (the plethora of "Out of Bounds" signs at Frogmore gave one the feeling of being back at school), a printed plan indicated who lay where. A freehand addition in spidery calligraphy gave the position of late arrivals, including the duchess of windsor 1896-1986 alongside the Duke.

"They've put them in Siberia," gasped one of the visitors, which was not quite fair. Though slightly isolated, the playboy prince and his partner were among their own. From beyond the barrier, it was possible to read the humble inscription on a nearby gravestone: duke of gloucester 1900- 1974, kg, kt, kp, gcb, gcmg, gcvo, gcstj, pc. Whoever said that death was the great leveller?

Perhaps it is an indication of the increasing regulation of our society that audiences usually arrive at cinemas before the start of a film and leave their seats when it has finished. Not so long ago, people took a far more nonchalant approach to the film maker's carefully-wrought narrative. They would arrive at the cinema at a time that was convenient to them, then watch the tail end of the main film, before sitting through the "B" feature together with the trailers and Pearl & Dean's wonderfully tacky announcements. Finally, they would watch the first bit of the film, until, following a whispered conversation ("Is this where we came in?"), they would make their way outside for the bus home.

The cinema was not so much a theatre as a place of refuge, where patrons could make themselves at home for the day, sometimes watching the same movie three or four times over. I recall hearing a retired cinema manager reminisce about the quirks of continuous performance. One afternoon, hearing a slurping noise in the stalls, he discovered a cineaste spooning up a bowl of steaming soup, smuggled in under the folds of his gaberdine. Nowadays, however, things are much more regimented. Admission is by no means guaranteed once the film has started, though I recently saw an usherette allow in a couple who had arrived five minutes late for a showing of Emma Thompson's elegant entertainment, Sense and Sensibility. "It's all right," she vouchsafed. "You haven't missed anything exciting"