Read, rattle and roll

Malcolm Deas

  • Holy Smoke by G. Cabrera Infante
    Faber, 329 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13518 8
  • Tobacco on the Periphery. A Case Study in Cuban Labour History: 1860-1958 by Jean Stubbs
    Cambridge, 203 pp, £25.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 521 25423 X

I like to regard people both making it and smoking it not only as a sort of friendship, but as a vast domain of democracy wherein we find gathered people of every class and race and creed, having in pipe or plug or cigar or cigarette, a bond of sympathetic understanding and a contact of common interest and good fellowship. I like to contemplate the business of producing and the pleasure of consuming this exalted plant as really a realm peopled by congenial spirits and ruled only by those kindlier human emotions which the smoke of these fragrant leaves kindles in the heart of man ...

Carl Avery Werner, Tobaccoland (1922)

... his soldiers knew, as one of them put it, that he was capable of ordering them to be shot without putting down his cigar ... The vivid and well-known phrase that Garibaldi ordered men to be shot ‘without taking the cigar out of his mouth’ is unfortunately an incorrect translation of Hoffstetter’s original German.

Jasper Ridley, Garibaldi

Some twenty years ago the idea (come from England, no doubt) that cigars, like Loos’s blondes, were for gentlemen only, was dispelled by the scraggly mien of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s handsome head, both clad in US Army surplus fatigues, both enveloped in smoking beards and both smoking foul, fat cigars. These, gentlemen, were no gentlemen.

G. Cabrera Infante, Holy Smoke

Cabrera Infante’s book is the work of a learned and well-read Cuban cigar-smoker, film-goer, wit, novelist and master of free association. He has lived in London since 1966 and here writes in English. Holy Smoke will come to rank as one of the oddest items in the large bibliography of tobacco. It starts with Columbus, works forward to current cigar conditions in Cuba and clubland, and then labours through the appearance of the cigar in all the many films the author can remember in which cigars appeared: ‘Why so many movies, old boy? Simply because those who forget the movies of the past are condemned to see remakes. By the same token, or ticket, if one does not enjoy the movies of our time one will never be able to enjoy the movies of the past.’ It ends with an anthology with comments of the cigar in literature, from Ben Jonson to Stéphane Mallarmé.

Tobacco-jar writing, like Norfolk-jacket writing, is a small perennial menace in what Mencken called beautiful letters (Mencken gets into Holy Smoke through a grandfather in the cigar trade) and usually produces what publishers call ‘a celebration’, which usually calls for no such thing. Cabrera likes smoking cigars: ‘My idea of happiness is to sit alone in the lobby of an old hotel after a late dinner, when the lights go out at the entrance and only the desk and the doorman are visible from my comfortable armchair. I then smoke my long black cigar in peace, in the dark: once a primeval bonfire in the clear of the forest, now a civilised ember glowing in the night like a beacon to the soul.’ All the same, he knows that rhapsody does not make a good read. Nor does connoisseurship or dogma, and there is not too much of either, which is welcome now that it is getting hard for an ordinary person to buy a quarter pound of cheddar. He gives a sardonic view of some famous shops:

the different brands that are still extant in Cuba are only names: they are all made in three unified factories to eliminate capitalist competitiveness and, supposedly, greed. ‘At the beginning,’ says a Dunhill salesman blowing rings of U-phoria out of the slim panatella of his body wrapped in brown, ‘they wanted to make all the cigars in one factory and put all their cigars in one big box with no label on the lid.’ He closed his eyes and opened them again. ‘That wouldn’t do, of course,’ he went on, ‘so we persuaded them to do otherwise. That is, as before. Now we have all the old brands with those mottled, sorry motley, colours for the labels where they print their medals won at the exhibition of 1800 or whenever.’ He breathed the dry air of Dunhill’s as if it were men’s cologne to add, inviting me into a secluded cedar wood cabinet with no name on the door: ‘Do come in to peruse.’ I looked at him, tall and wan as he was, and told him: ‘You should invite me to Cuba not to Peru.’ ‘I beg your pardon!’ He didn’t quite follow me, but when I followed him he let me know that he didn’t appreciate my pun. The English, you see, have no sense of humour.

Robert Lewis of St James’s Street, ‘the most beautiful cigar shop’, does not for all that escape a little mockery. ‘If the salesman feels you are truly worthy,’ says the magazine You, ‘you might be invited downstairs to the basement.’ ‘They also have an attic upstairs,’ adds Cabrera, ‘but that is only for exploding cigars.’ You is quoted once more: ‘In one glass showcase there is a mahogany cigar-box bearing the simple inscription “The Fort”. This was Edward III’s personal humidor.’ And the visit ends: ‘I said good-bye to the shop but it didn’t answer back. Shops never do. Old man Proudhon was right: property is deaf.’

Cigar-smoking is also described as quite a simple business. You make some sort of a hole in it, if necessary, light it and smoke it. You do not have to roll it around next to your ear:

    Try and avoid ... the little number Leslie Caron did in Gigi. Forget all about the cute little act even if it happened in fin de siècle Paris. I mean when she picked a cigar from the box (it was an etui in motley mahogany: yes, I remember it well) to hold it to her lovely earlobe and rolled it between French finger and thin thumb to listen better to – to what for heaven’s sake? Tobacco termites working nights Chez Maxim? The sound of a cigar being gently crushed to pieces by a feminine hand? (In the trade this is called ‘listening to the band’. Bravo!)

As to what to do with the band, whether to take it off or not, Cabrera mildly inclines towards taking it off. Mallarmé advised so more urgently: ‘Clay, Upmann, Valle, and in those beautiful boxes I was able to evoke the future ballets of beautiful female dancers just by stripping their cigar bands off first – for that’s how it’s done.’ The band has nothing to do with any past vogue for white gloves. Holy Smoke is tolerant: ‘Of course you can leave the band on if you want to advertise what you smoke, preferably an expensive brand ... On the other hand, if you don’t want to appear too nouveau riche, you can strike off the band – and throw it away ... Or the other way round: keep the band and throw the cigar into the nearest ashtray.’

There were no dandies in white gloves demanding bands. Nor were any cigars rolled on the thighs of mulattas or negresses. The aura of female undress in cigar manufacture comes from Don José’s description of cigar-making in Seville in Mérimée’s Carmen:

On me mit de garde à la manufacture de tabacs à Séville. Si vous êtes allé à Séville, vous aurez vu ce grand bâtiment-là, hors des remparts, pres du Guadalquivir ... Vous saurez, monsieur, qu’il y a bien quatre à cinq cents femmes occupées dans la manufacture. Ce sont elles qui roulent les cigares dans une grande salle où les hommes n’entrent pas sans une permission ... parce qu’elles se mettent à leur aise, les jeunes surtout, quand il fait chaud.

On such small foundations does the Anglo-Saxon imagination build, when it contemplates the tropics, quand it fait chaud.

The young Cabrera Infante read Carmen in an abridged edition when he was 12, and confesses to peeping through windows of Cuban cigar factories ever since. Jean Stubbs went to Cuba in 1968 to survey the same scene, motivated by an interest in Latin American labour in the process of industrialisation and urbanisation. She married a Cuban and has settled in Cuba. Her monograph sometimes overlaps and coincides with Holy Smoke, and though it is unlikely that it will be on sale in Dunhill’s or Robert Lewis’s, it is a high-quality article that can be read with pleasure and profit, at the cost of two and a half Montecristo havana havanas – I rely on Cabrera’s prices. It is the first study of Cuban tobacco production to appear in English since Fernando Ortiz’s classic Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar appeared in translation in 1947.

Stubbs starts with an industry that was already in decline: the high point of Cuban cigar export was 1855, when the island achieved a figure never again attained – 360 million cigars. This figure was eroded by the development of cigar production in Europe and North America, using Cuban leaf, particularly wrappers, and in the case of the United States, Cuban skills. The high-quality Cuban cigar, the hand-rolled Havana, proved over the years unsurpassable – Cabrera will tell you which smokes of Honduras, Tampa and elsewhere run it closest – but its market share was eroded by cheaper and later by machine production elsewhere, favoured by tariffs, official and private monopolies, the cigarette, and even the myth of the good five cent cigar, which does not exist but which many a government and country needs and, prices adapted for inflation, peddles away.

Cuban producers employed, along with free-labour, prisoners, slaves – Stubbs’s researches establish a significant proportion of slave labour prior to abolition – and indentured Chinese. In rolling, the work-force was prior to the revolution of 1 January 1959 masculine. As Cabrera reports, ‘all I saw was ugly men sweating in their undershirts and hairy chests all in a row. So much for the smoke of myth.’ More sweating was done in the small out-work shops or chinchales (‘literally,’ says Cabrera, ‘a room full of bugs’). Women were employed in stemming – removing the leaf from the stem – in some other ancillary tasks and in cigarette-making, not much in cigar-rolling. The best jobs went to whites: ‘Stringent requirements needed to be met to become a master cigar-maker, sorter or box-decorator, as entry into the cream of the cigar trades became restricted along race and craft lines, as much by the white workers as the manufacturers themselves. Correspondingly, this was when the skill of cigar rolling most came into its own.’ Female labour was introduced on a large scale not in Cuba but in Trenton, New Jersey, by George W. Hill of American Tobacco. The slump of 1929 led him to remove the rolling of La Coronas from Cuba, when these particular cigars were ‘enjoying their highest recorded price (60 cents apiece) and as a corollary their lowest recorded sales’. In Trenton, ‘with the windows closed, in the moist fragrance of imitation Caribbean air, 2,000 carefully taught Trenton girls roll La Corona cigars, 1,000 with the left hand and 1,000 with the right, the wrapper leaf being split in two, one half having to be rolled in the opposite direction from the other.’ The move to Trenton also eliminated la fuma, ‘the enormous number of cigars smoked by workers’. The Trenton girls did not have the habit.

Likewise it was not the Cubans who could take advantage of the machine. In the 1920s both manufacturers and workers fiercely resisted the introduction of mechanisation by Por Larranaga. (The episode is described by Stubbs but has escaped Cabrera, who contrasts the old romance of that brand with the Larranaga-echoing but essentially nouveau presentation of today’s Davidoff.) A Presidential decree compelled Larranaga to put an extra band on their machine-made cigars, which probably caused more band-stripping than the demise of any fashion for white gloves. The essence of the question is that Cuba’s interest has for long been protection of her share of the upper end of the market, and the best cigars are notoriously hand-rolled in Havana. Some Cuban cigars are made by machine, particularly for the domestic market. ‘The fastest (but not necessarily the best) cigar roller can make, at the most, 300 cigars a day,’ writes Cabrera. ‘An ordinary machine can manufacture 1,000 cigars an hour.’ The Revolution agrees with St James’s that the less said about these last, the better.

Hand-rolling, according to Stubbs, continues to predominate. The practice of reading to the rollers to relieve the monotony is variously described in both these books. It appears to have been originated in the early 1880s by one Nicholas Azcarate in ‘the long prison galleries of the Arsenal del Apostadero in Havana’, where prisoners rolled cigarettes. It was taken up by a skilled artisan in the Partagas factory, Saturnino Martinez. Don Jaime Partagas provided a special wooden reading desk. ‘From then on it was all read, rattle and roll,’ says Cabrera. The favourite authors in early days were Hugo (‘His Notre Dame is an all-time favourite with romantic rollers’), Eugène Sue, Alexandre Dumas (hence Montecristo), Galdos and Zola. Hugo, the greatest European influence in Latin America in the 19th century, wrote when he heard of the practice ‘a letter of thanksgiving to Partagas’: ‘This was read aloud to the torcedores (rollers) and in turn created a circular relationship. When the First War of Cuban Independence was raging in the late 1870s a group of Cuban mothers in exile wrote a letter to Hugo, begging him to intercede with the Spanish authorities “to put an end to the carnage” ... Hugo, who knew what exile and civil strife meant, wrote a moving political plaidoyer in the form of a “Letter to Cuban Mothers”, which circulated among Cuban exiles until the end of the century.’ According to Cabrera, some Hugo is still read – Notre Dame, not Les Miserables – but A Tale of Two Cities is banned, and the rollers from time to time have to listen to The Complete Speeches of Fidel Castro.

Stubbs records that reading was banned altogether between 1866 and 1878, and cites the opinion of Gaspar Jorge Garcia Gallo, writing in 1936, on the effect of all this.

    The cigar maker is a worker who, through his tradition of struggle, his discussion on the shop floor, the daily readings of the press and literary works, and radio broadcasts, has a cultural veneer which makes him feel superior in this respect to other workers. Because of this he speaks and gives his opinion on everything. He generally takes up theatrical poses and oratory style which makes him stand out in any meeting or assembly. If he is on the platform, or writes for any paper, he uses flowery and metaphorical language, even if this means that the thread is lost in the exuberance of form ...

    One of our closest friends, on referring to the cigar maker, throws out the following: ‘He has cultural indigestion,’ he says, and he’s not mistaken. He attributes that indigestion to the quantity and quality of the things that are read to him and that he himself reads. And it’s true, the cause is to be found in the lack of method of reading in the shops. Nonetheless, workers in the industry must, at the same time, be seen as the most educated nucleus of workers. From the tobacco industry have come public officials, teachers, artists, professionals, members of congress, and intellectuals, and their first steps were always taken in the galleries of the cigar factory.

George W. Hill was to have none of this:

    During the rolling, weighing and inspecting, from a platform above each of the great sunny floors, come the strains of piano playing to entertain the girls at their work. The calming element of music is substituted for the more dangerous one of public reading to which Havana cigar makers are accustomed and into which the Cuban readers, hired by the workers themselves, often injected comment on and criticism of labour conditions. In Trenton, the music is supplied by the Company and if the player avoids such things as Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, it is not likely to cause much unrest. And it is very picturesque.

Cuban cigar workers, according to Stubbs, now suffer less than they used to do in hard times. But with all respect to Karl Marx the ‘poet of commodities’, one feels that much poetry has gone with the rationalisation of the industry into Consolidado Numero I and Fabrica de Tobacos 3, and that the fate of the Cuban cigar is uncertain as the government of the Cuban people evolves into the administration of Cuban things. Revolutions do not respect luxurious arts, though they may carry them on. Do the Cubans really still produce the 700 vitolas, types of cigar, that they claim to produce? Rollers grow old Marx himself (evidence of Liebknecht, cited by Cabrera) smoked dreadful cigars. Wait and see. Caviar is produced by a fish, it is not a true precedent.