The Weasel

Alarmed by the 53 per cent rise in cigar sales since 1993, American health authorities may soon demand that all cigar advertisements carry a health warning. They are concerned that the increase in consumption is among smokers under 40 rather than "old fogies with stogies". (No one is too fussed about the health of us old fogies.) In particular, young women have taken to cigars. Although this fashion has not yet taken off in a big way over here, the first signs are already with us. In the run- up to Christmas, an advert for brandy featured a willowy blonde puffing away furiously on a Corona-Corona.

Any female who fancies cutting a dash by crashing the ash should seek out a slim volume called Cigar Chic: A Woman's Perspective by Tomina Edmark (Summit, pounds 12). A successful US businesswoman, Ms Edmark stands for no nonsense about the small cigars women are usually offered: "I like large cigars such as the Churchill size." However, she insists that women should observe certain rules while toking on their stogies: "A woman should shape her lips in the form of a kiss so they encircle the cigar. The inner lips should touch the outside of the cigar, with the teeth touching - not biting - the cigar to stabilise it. This keeps your lipstick off of the cigar - important if you're sharing with a man."

Evidently a bit of a martinet, Ms Edmark adds: "Chewing on the head of a cigar is not recommended - it is simply bad form and the sign of an amateur (chewing tobacco and snuff are available)." Nor should females hold the cigar in their mouths while they're lighting it. "Men can and do, but women should not. You'll look unattractively like a blow-fish. Instead, take your time and look ladylike. Don't sacrifice your femininity for speed." Then follows a highly technical 500-word guide to lighting up: "Keep the flame about one-fourth inch from the tuck end..."

Despite her acid pen, the author reveals herself as a bit of an old softy at heart. When her husband Stephen proposed, the couple celebrated by smoking Romeo y Julietas: "I saved the stubs and bands and had them framed." She paints a charming picture of evenings chez Edmark : "Most of the time, we walk the dogs or float our cognac snifters in the spa while we smoke. Recently we tried Casa Blanca Robustos, made famous by Robert DeNiro in the movie Cape Fear. [DeNiro, you may recall, played a psychopathic murderer.] Stephen's had a nice draw. Mine, on the other hand, was like sucking on a garden hose."

Ms Edmark claims that smoking cigars "brings back the art of conversation". However, in the hour or more it takes to consume a Churchill, the conversational wells might dry up. In that event, you should follow her step-by-step guide to blowing smoke-rings: "1. Draw a thick puff of smoke into your mouth. 2. Make a large `O' shape with your mouth. 3. Put your tongue on the bottom of your mouth and back to block your throat passage. 4. Move your tongue up slightly and `pop' your jaw to push a little smoke out of your mouth." A smoke-ring should then appear, though suffocation seems an equally likely outcome.

I am surely not alone in being overcome with covetousness since I visited the Bonnard exhibition at the Tate Gallery, featured recently in this magazine. From his early, gentle eroticism to his luminous garden scenes framed by open doors and windows, Bonnard's output is consistently dazzling. This is all the more surprising when you consider that most of his works feature a single intransigent subject, Marthe de Meligny, born Maria Boursin, the artist's mistress whom he married after 30 years. In over 20 paintings, she is portrayed in the act of washing or bathing. Rather like James Bond or William Brown, Bonnard's beloved model never ages, looking much the same in The Bathroom (1908) as in the final, gloriously polychromatic Nude in the Bath and Small Dog (1941-6), which was completed after she died at the age of 73. (Go to see it now, or you'll have to go to Pittsburgh for the experience.) Marthe apparently spent most of her time sponging and soaking. In the exhibition catalogue, Sarah Whitfield notes the problems this posed for the artist: "The ceramic tiles, the patterned linoleum and the plain enamel tubs of the modern bathroom offered Bonnard a setting for the 20th-century nude so dauntingly banal that few others would have dared appropriate it." By painting at sunset when the tiles and lino were imbued with a shimmering iridescence, Bonnard magically transformed this humdrum environment.

It was once thought that Marthe suffered from a neurotic compulsion to wash, but Sarah Whitfield suggests that she might have been treating a physical complaint, possibly asthma or even tuberculosis. The curious circumstances that gave rise to some of this century's most glowing masterpieces has prompted a slightly morbid "spin-off" on sale in the Tate Gallery shop. Along with a nice red-checked tablecloth with four napkins (pounds 39.95) based on Bonnard's 1915 painting "Coffee", you can purchase a snowball- shaped chunk for pounds 1.65, wittily called "Bon Bain Bonnard". Believe it or not, it is bath-salts. Enjoy your soak.

Another installation in the Tate has also excited my acquisitive instincts, but I'm not sure if Per Kirkeby's brick wall, 88.5ft long by 13.5ft high, is really suitable for Weasel Villas. (Mrs W would only complain about the dusting.) However, I am impressed by the immaculate workmanship. I wouldn't mind getting Mr Kirkeby and his colleagues in to tackle the extensive renovation required in our house, but, judging by the language in the catalogue, there may be a few drawbacks in negotating the estimate. "Whoo, this job's gonna cost yer, guv. Universal forms with symbolic and associative meanings don't come cheap. What you've got here is crystalline structures based on the double helix but objectified and rationalised by the strict order and anonymity of the brickwork - and for that you need an RSJ. It'd come cheaper in breeze-block. Five sugars in mine, ta muchly."

While women are turning to cigars, men are increasingly drawn to cigarettes. At any rate, two of my chums, both the wrong side of 40, have taken to smoking the odd tab. But the big difference between these sad creatures and the proud, stogie-flaunting females is that the men are deeply nervous about being caught out. As soon as they sit in the pub, they produce a packet of 10 Marlboro Light and puff away furiously. Staggering out, they perform the odd ritual of sniffing their own lapels. "Do I smell? Do I smell?" they gabble before dashing back to their loved ones.

Department of Predictable Overhearings: In Wardour Street the other day, I happened to come across Jeremy Clarkson sauntering towards me with a two-man film crew. The maestro of the three-point metaphor was engaged in a voluble conversation with his companions. As we passed, I caught only a single word from their conversation, but it spoke volumes: "...Ferrari ..."

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