Sorry, no cigar

Sorry, no cigar

Michael Jackson faces the legacy of Beano and Dandy
The cigar appeared to be travelling under its own power as it entered the bar. It was a cigare volant as long as a freight train. I remembered waiting half an hour at a crossing in Billings, Montana, before the rear locomotive came into view. The power behind the cigar seemed to take even longer in appearing, as though it were in a different time-zone. I was consumed with curiosity. Such big issues occupy my musing mind. How was the cigar kept in a state of levitation? A mobile crane with a cantilever system? A human version, designed by Gerald Scarfe? Except that whisky is Steadman’s territory. He has sprayed on every lamppost from Kirkwall to Bladnoch. I find it hard to dismiss the notion that men with huge cigars come from Dundee. I mean from the drawing boards (surely not computer screens) of Beano and Dandy. Those two comics have for decades recycled their magnificently crude stereotypes of cigar-smoking, top-hatted arrogance, invariably ensconced at Hotel Splendide, and with recourse to bottles boldly labelled WHISKY and CHAMPAGNE. These images may be created in a city that is provincial within Scotland, but they have a universality that has connected with generations of English children who wouldn’t know Dundee from Doncaster. Scots soccer fans still laugh about an English newscaster who tried too hard to pronounce Tannadice. “Tanna-dee-chay”, he said, almost in Czech. As you are no doubt aware, we are speaking of Dundee United’s stadium. I rarely mused about Dundee until I met a bonnie young lassie who sings of her anxiety to go there. I don’t think she is craving Stewart’s Cream of the Barley, as that Dundodian whisky is favoured mainly in Northern Ireland. If it’s the jute or the jam she’s missing, I’m out of luck. If it’s the journalism she needs, I’m in with a chance. “Gissa job”, as a Liverpudlian called Yosser used to say.Novelist Nobuhiko Yoshimura, from Osaka, Japan, told me recently that his home city had a working-class humour reminiscent of that in Liverpool. Another friend from Osaka was my saviour on the night of the volant.The cigar was gripped in an embouchure that would have been the envy of Dizzy Gillespie (there’s a good Scots surname for you). The embouchure loosened and released a sound: “S’big.” I agreed, it was the biggest cigar I had ever seen. I had misunderstood; he had said Zbig. He was introducing himself. Zbigniew is a common name in the part of London where I live, about as common as Raj, Sean – or Michael. Zbig offered me a drink. We were in the Harbour Inn, at Bowmore, on Islay. I was starving, and had been told that no table could be found for myself, my photographer colleague, or his assistant, and the kitchen was about to close. I was, uncharacteristically, behaving in a British way: not making a fuss, blaming myself (I had not booked, and should have realised that it was necessary). Zbig wanted to fight on my behalf. He said the things I couldn’t: that my books had extensively covered and supported the island’s distilleries since the mid 1980s, when Islay whiskies seemed terminally out of fashion; that I was writing whole pages on Islay whiskies in London dailies and international glossies long before anyone else was paying any attention to the island. Couldn’t they at least fix me a sandwich?Nice try, Zbig, but the Polish cavalry would not have moved the Harbour Inn to serve me at this point. Confronted with your super-stogie, they remembered Beano and Dandy. Like me, they were being British. Their Britishness took the form of ill-disguised satisfaction at being unable to serve me. Zbig had given it his best shot, for which I was grateful. My friend from Osaka, Yuji Nakamura, had an idea. Yuji has a bar called Peko, in his home city. On the island, he was staying at the Marine Hotel, which recently became the home of the Islay Whisky Club. Rather than phoning, he popped round in person. Soon afterwards we were sitting down to steaks with Bowmore sauce.We lost Zbig. If you see a cigare volant, could you please say hi …
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