Cuban Cigar Compendium

To celebrate the recent publication of The Cuban Cigar Handbook, we bring you 10 facts all about these famously inimitable cigars!

This is the complete aficionado’s guide to the best Cuban cigars in the world. With detailed history of Cuban cigars, The Cuban Cigar Handbook affords truly fascinating insight into the roles and techniques of Cuban tobacco growers.


Europeans first discovered tobacco in 1492, upon their encounter with Native Americans.

Harvesting tobacco begins in December and goes on until sometime in March.

Cigars are made up of 3 types of tobacco leaves, whose variations determine the character and flavour of the cigar. They are the capa (wrapper), capote (binder) and fortaleza (filler).

The capa is the most difficult to grow as it needs indirect sunlight. Capote is made from the upper-most leaves of the tobacco plant, the ones that get the most sun; and this makes them more pliable and durable for rolling.

Once tobacco is harvested, it is usually hung and air-dried for approximately 30 days (a process known as ‘curing’).

The two dominant groups of cigar sizes are parejos and figurados. Parejos are cigars with straight sides, whereas figurados are irregularly shaped. They are considered to be of higher quality because they are so difficult to make.

A cigarillo is a machine-made cigar that tends to be narrower and shorter than a traditional cigar – not the same as little cigars!

The word “habanos” simply means something originating from Havana.

Habanos SA owns all the Cuban cigar brands and Cuban cigarettes sold and distributed worldwide.

To avoid being conned into buying fake Cuban cigars, always remember: if the price sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!

Find out more about these timeless symbols of wealth and luxury here:


Black History Month

In October 1959, before the Civil Rights movement would spread across the United States, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, underwent medical treatment to help disguise himself as a black man. He then travelled through the segregated Deep South of America, exchanging the privileged life of a white man for the enduring disenfranchisement of the black man. As he moved across this deeply racially prejudiced landscape, Griffin encountered the racism, casual violence and discrimination that was the daily experience of millions of Americans.

From the unrelenting threat of violence to the comparatively minor indignities of being forbidden from using certain drinking fountains or buying food from particular shops, Griffin documented the racism experienced in response to his new identity and opened the eyes of white America to the blatant and unforgiveable abuses going on in their country.

Black Like Me was Griffin’s effort to persuade America to open its eyes… Black Like Me still speaks to us from a distance of 50 years; it resonates because its true topic is not race but humanity…  As long as one group persecutes, fears and detests another, Black Like Me will, sadly, remain essential reading.” Guardian

Black Like Me was first published in 1961, reminds readers of the enduring threat of racial aggression – indeed, after its publication, Griffin received numerous death threats and, several years later, he was almost beaten to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Amidst this horror, however, it also demonstrates the monumental difference that just one man can make. Griffin was a novelist, photographer and journalist, serving both in the French Resistance during World War Two and the US army. After the publication of Black Like Me, Griffin became deeply involved with the emerging Civil Rights movement, working closely with Martin Luther King among others.

“One of the most extraordinary books ever written about relations between the races.” ‘The Today Programme,’ BBC Radio 4

Also published in the Independent Voices series is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stride Towards Freedom, a memoir of the Civil Rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. described Stride Toward Freedom as “the chronicle of 50.000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of non-violence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth”.

On December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Rallied by the young preacher and activist Martin Luther King Jr. the black community of Montgomery organised a historic boycott of the bus service, rising up together to protest racial segregation.

This was the first large-scale, non-violent resistance of its kind in America, and marked the beginning of a national Civil Rights movement. Stride Toward Freedom is the account of that pivotal turning point in American history told through Martin Luther King’s own experiences and stories, chronicling his community’s refusal to accept the injustices of racial discrimination.

At the time, Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old and the pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery. Within a year he was a national figure and a leader of the Civil Rights movement, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated on April 4th 1968.

Throughout this month of particular awareness of Black History, reading accounts by people as revolutionary and inspiring as Martin Luther King and John Howard Griffin offers us invaluable insight to the thankless and tortuous daily hardships endured by so many millions of black people across history.                             


Stranger Danger

On the 26th December 1985, Whitley Strieber was at his family cabin in upstate New York. He was woken by a small figure (too small to be a child) and blacked out. When he came around, he was in the woods outside the cabin and felt the presence of another figure.

Hypnosis revealed that Strieber had been abducted by a UFO before and he came to realise that he had been abducted by these alien life forms for most of his life. As he began to record his experiences with visitors from ‘elsewhere’, Strieber began to ask: why are they here? What are the aliens trying to communicate? Are they here to guide and transform mankind?

In Communion: A True Story, Strieber considers his status as an ambassador for alien contact from another world. Does Communion solve the greatest mystery of our time?

“This is the story of one man’s attempt to deal with a shattering assault from the unknown. It is a true story, as true as I know how to describe it.” Whitley Strieber

Whether the reader believes Strieber’s terrifying account or not, Communion will forever alter how they view, and experience, the world.

“I am convinced that he’s telling the truth.” W.S. Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch 


The internationally renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, is a believer (a bel-Strieber?), and considers the presence of UFO’s a fact. While he isn’t concerned with the matter of their existence, he is deeply troubled by how dangerous extra terrestrials may turn out to be.

In a film recently released online (Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places), Hawking warns of the potential threat in seeking communication with aliens. Indeed, extraterrestrial societies could be eons more advanced than we are. To them, we could just be no “more valuable than we see bacteria”, and treated with disdain at best, violence at worst.

Hawking advises that, considering how entirely clueless we are about the intentions or disposition of aliens, we must all lay low. But Seth Shostak, writing for The Guardian, thinks it is much too late for these cautionary warnings.

He notes that we have been leaking radio transmissions into space for the last 70 years. With our television broadcasts, high-frequency radio tuning, and use of radar, any extraterrestrial society able to pick up on these emissions will almost certainly have the wherewithal to communicate with us – or even destroy us.

“Any society with the capability to threaten Earth is overwhelmingly likely to already have the kit required to pick up the leakage we’ve been wafting skyward for seven decades. The requisite radio technology is far easier than the necessary rocket technology.” Seth Shostak (The Guardian, 27th September)

Not that we’re to worry. So long as NASA is calm, then we should relax and expect to be safe. Shostak, however, errs on the side of caution, and points out that:

“If Hawking is really concerned, perhaps he should make sure his online movie isn’t broadcast.” Shostak

For now, if you’d like to learn more about Strieber’s classic account of his paranormal encounters free from any potential broadcasting issues, look out for the newest edition of Communion here:


The Descent of Woman

The publication of Elaine Morgan’s work The Descent of Woman in 1972 incited some seriously radical discussion. As the first argument for the equal role of women in human evolution, it created an international debate and became a rallying-point for feminism, changing the terminology of anthropologists forever.

“Part feminist polemic, part evolutionary bombshell.” The Guardian

Starting with her demolition of the Biblical myth that woman was a mere afterthought to the creation of man, Morgan rejects the enduring male-centric theories of evolution to rewrite our understanding of human history.

Rather than women developing breasts to fulfil the sexual appetites of men (see: Desmond Morris’ claim that female breasts evolved to remind men of buttocks during new-found face-to-face copulation, as opposed to rear-mounting as is the case with almost all other land mammals), Morgan argues that the female body evolved to adapt to its own needs.

“Evolutionary patterns are more likely to have followed woman’s needs and requirements than man’s.” Carol Dix, The Guardian, 1972

Indeed, Morgan argues that human breasts developed as they have so that young children could get a better grasp whilst feeding; something especially important in the absence of body hair. While many believe that our human lack of body hair (unlike our primate ancestors) occurred to keep men cool while hunting, this does not explain why women also lost their body hair. As Jill Tweedie comments in a contemporary Guardian article:

“There were two sexes around at the time, and I don’t believe it’s ever been all that easy to part a woman from a fur coat, just to save the old man from getting into a muck-sweat during his supreme moments. What was supposed to be happening to the female during this period of denudation?”

While some of the phrasing is somewhat objectionable, Tweedie’s point is irrefutably cogent. Tweedie goes on to sharply observe that:

“The fact that the substitution in a book on anthropology, of the pronoun “he” for the “she” should come as quite such a shock is proof not only that anthropologists, like all scientists, carefully pose only those questions to which they have some sort of answers but that their original hypotheses are often emotionally suspect and, in the particular case of the evolution of the human species, most unscientifically male-orientated.”


The Descent of Woman points out the entire Western world’s half-blind approach to understanding our own human pre-history, and calls for a complete re-evaluation of what we thought we knew. It remains a key text in feminist history, as well as an extension to the author’s famed Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

Morgan’s theories have garnered more and more academic credence since the publication of her seminal works The Descent of Woman (1972) and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997). To hear more about the aquatic ape hypothesis, tune into BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday morning and listen to Sir David Attenborough explain this ground-breaking interpretation of human pre-history!


What is the Waterside Ape?

Next Wednesday, Sir David Attenborough will discuss a theory violently once ridiculed by scientists worldwide- a theory made popular by someone with absolutely no scientific training, yet one that gripped the world since its publication. At 52 years old, Elaine Morgan, incensed by the total absence of women in the history of evolution, championed the alternative explanation for human evolution: the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

“A revelatory read for anyone interested in human origins.” BBC Wildlife

This theory was first put forward in 1960 by marine biologist, Professor Sir Alister Hardy. He cast his investigation to the Pliocene epoch, which, although it lasted roughly five million years, is not supported by any contemporary fossil information. This void in our understanding of evolutionary history – the so-called “fossil gap” – means that our journey from being hairy quadrupeds to naked, fatty-skinned, bipedal beings remains a mystery.

Elaine Morgan gives a revolutionary hypothesis that explains our anatomic anomalies—why we walk on two legs, why we are covered in fat, why we can control our rate of breathing? The answers point to one conclusion: millions of years ago our ancestors were trapped in a semi-aquatic environment.

“It was one of the most outrageous, improbable evolutionary ideas ever proposed… now the idea… is becoming respectable.” The Observer

It is generally accepted in our Post-Darwinian society that apes evolved into humans when climate changes forced them to descend from their decaying tree-tops to live on the savannah. Both Hardy and Morgan believe that primates’ physiology changed dramatically when a population of woodland apes became stranded on a large island close to what is now Ethiopia. After the waters receded and the apes returned to the mainland, their aquatic adaptations remained.

Morgan points out that the only other mammals with these features (naked and covered with fat) are whales, seals and pachyderms. To explain her theory as to why humans differ in so many ways from other primates, she published The Descent of Woman in 1972, and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis in 1997.


Despite scientists’ resounding disregard for her theories, the books both became international bestsellers, and in the decades since Morgan’s aquatic ape hypothesis, it has gained widespread support – including from Sir David Attenborough.

In recent years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in Elaine Morgan, she has appeared at literary festivals, been profiled in ‘The Guardian’ and voted as one of the 100 most important Welsh people ever.



At 9am on Wednesday 14th September, Sir David Attenborough will speak on BBC Radio 4 to address this once ridiculed theory which is now evermore increasingly accepted in mainstream scientific discourse.

Sir David first considered the controversial theory on Radio 4 in 2004. In this new series of two programmes, The Waterside Ape, he brings us up to date with the story and the evidence put forward since then – both for the hypothesis and also for its continuing detractors.

Back in 2004, Sir David asked Elaine Morgan how long it would take for the aquatic adaptation theory to become a mainstream account of human origins. She answered, “I’ll give it ten years.” As we review the new evidence, has she been proved right?

(Blurb taken from:



Who is Madeleine Brent?

In 1969, Peter O´Donnell was asked by Souvenir Press to write a gothic novel – but, being a man of his time, he was reluctant to write anything too ‘feminine’, as many considered the gothic romance genre to be.

So, he decided to write under the female alias ‘Madeleine Brent’, a name that shares the initials of his legendary thriller heroine ‘Modesty Blaise’. Madeleine Brent’s real identity was one of publishing’s best kept secrets, not revealed even when O’Donnell won the Romantic Novelist of the Year award in 1978 for Merlin’s Keep.

Madeleine Brent’s nine romance novels brought an element of adventure and mystery into the romance novel. They depict feisty heroines during the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign in exotic locations, from a circus troupe touring Hungary to the Hindu Kush, who must unravel the secrets of their birth and overcome great odds to be with the men they love.

Madeleine Brent’s first novel Tregaron’s Daughter is set in Cornwall at the turn of the twentieth-century and follows the fortunes of Cadi Tregaron, a sixteen year-old fisherman’s daughter. Happy in the small community of the coastal village where she has spent her life, the only hint of disquiet has been a recurring dream – of a great house standing in water and of a faceless man who awaits her there – a dream which is sometimes wonderful and sometimes terrifying.


By a cruel blow Cadi is left alone in the world, but she is taken into a wealthy family where she lives like a lady with servants to wait upon her and is treated as one of the family. Too self-reliant to be spoilt by this change in her fortunes, she is perhaps too self-reliant for her own good, for at Meadhaven she finds mystery, danger and a hidden enemy. Is it the wayward young Richard Morton? Or the grey-eyed stranger who is forever watching her? Or is it Lucian Farrel, her benefactor’s maverick nephew, whose face now becomes the one to haunt her dream.

“One of the best romantic thrillers I have read in years.” Annabel

But the dream turns to nightmare, for she finds that the house standing in water is a reality and that she is bound to it by a freak of ancestry. Here, in the house of her dream and far from her own country, Cadi comes to know heartbreak and grief, and learns the frightening truth about herself and the hidden enemy who threatens her life.

Merlin’s Keep opens in the remote regions of the Himalayas, where the strange and lovely heroine, Jani, has been brought up by a runaway English soldier on the borders of Tibet, and moves on to encompass the rich and ancient mythology of bygone Britain.

Both Jani’s past and that of her soldier protector are shrouded in a mystery that grows ever deeper for Jani when the foreign demon on a black horse comes from the south to take her away to a new and frightening world – a London orphanage.

“It has half-a-dozen novels’ worth of drama, colour, exotic settings and romantic characters. For heaven’s sake, read it!”  The Times

Later, when she moves on and finds the Woman in Red, Jani becomes one of the family in a Hampshire household. And it is here that her past is gradually uncovered, and she becomes locked in a macabre struggle, long prophesied by the High Lama of her Tibetan days, against the strange and terrifying powers of the Silver Man.


Madeleine Brent’s story of love and loyalty, of mystery and danger, moves on to a startling climax back amid the mountains on the roof of the world, where it all began. One of her most enthralling novels, it reveals all her talents for combining excitement with the unravelling of a secret, amid the drama of an exotic setting. For anyone in need of a mid-week Poldark fix, follow the links below to pick up a Madeleine Brent novel now! &


QI Beer Fact #3!

And here we have our third fact about beer for the day!

Before hops became the standard ingredient for flavouring beer in the 8th century, a herbal mixture called gruit was the additive of choice. The Catholic Church used to collect tax on gruit, whereas hops was not taxed – so each European nation’s decision to switch from one to the other became charged with tones of religious dissent.

While the transfer from gruit to hops ran contemporaneously with the publication of Luther‘s theses, Germany remained the last country to continue using gruit. When the breweries of the Rhine region eventually moved to hops, the income of the Church was dramatically reduced as a result. As such, the Reformation certainly had some help from hops!

All our beer facts have come from History in a Pint Glass.

Down Beer Street front cover