Dateline Havana: Hotel Inglaterra

You stand in the grand lobby – gilded, ornate – waiting for the lift-doors to open. Off to your right, behind the wrought-iron grille, a pair of well-heeled diners sip at their coffee, eyeing the menu, while an unctuous waiter in starched shirt glides by. At any moment the lift will arrive and Bogart will step out, a laughing Bacall or Bergman on his arm….

You don’t go to the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana for its service (we left without eating, even though we were starving) but for the elegance, the ambience, the colours and scent of the corrupt and gorgeous neo-colonialism of pre-revolutionary Havana.

There is Somerset Maugham – or is it Graham Greene? – lounging on the patio. Outside the sun pounds like an iron spike into the pavement, but here, under the awnings, in the high-ceilinged dining room, or on the rooftop, at sundown, you are invited – seduced, inveigled – into a resurrected world of stars and starlets, fish-eyed politicians, sharp-suited mafiosi. Just around the corner – across the square, down a crumbling street – the ruined majesty of Habana Viejo, the old city, waits.

But first you pay homage at the Hotel Inglaterra. You take the lift to the rooftop, and order a caipirinha.

Slipping back into the moment

Coming home to South Africa is like slipping into old clothes, and I have been wearing these familiar garments for a week now. Hard to think (I wrote this on Thursday) that it is barely a week since I left Toronto.

The most joyous part has been reconnecting with my daughters, and their husbands, and meeting my beautiful, happy, chortling grandson. New worlds lie in his chubby little hands and beatific smile – long may he live to explore and enjoy them!

As for me, I can see already that being a grandfather is a whole new experience, and a sly but painless welcoming to my own second childhood…

Work-wise (what an awful phrase – the adding of ‘-wise’ to words as a kind of all-embracing explainer is a crime and should be punished) all has been good – but it is family that matters.

This one image should say it all. Eve and Joshua.





Grand tourer

One way to see Havana – to take in the major sights, get a feel, so to speak, for the lay of the land – is to take a ride in one of the fifties convertibles pictured in this image. Gaudy, romantic, gas-guzzling, polluting, they are the perfect expression of a particular version of the city.

Other cars from the fifties, clattering down the streets, overloaded with Cubans rather than with tourists, offer a different perspective: the view of a city just managing to scrape by, abandoned by modernity, impoverished yet resilient. Then there are the Russian Ladas, in various states of repair, the ancient trucks and buses, the motorcycles with sidecars, the handful of more modern cars and 4x4s, all part of a tapestry: politics and history through the filter of transport.

I hope to continue this journey, in small weekly instalments, along with more-or-less weekly chronicles from South Africa.


Tears, but the good kind

I woke this morning to the birds calling and whistling in the high trees outside and in the garden, the light streaming through the window, the air cool and damp after last night’s thunderstorm. You don’t hear birds much, in Toronto, certainly not at this time of year, not even in summer. I am here, I think, lying in bed, listening, and somehow I feel lighter, and looser, calmer, at one with myself and with my surroundings. It is good to be home.

I was met last night at the airport by Eve and Shaun, and my grandson Joshua: I bent over to greet him, and took his tiny hand, and kissed him, and the tears welled up, not only in my eyes but in Eve’s eyes too, as little Josh smiled up at us and gurgled happily.  ‘You’ve made my glasses steam up,’ I complained to Eve. ‘You’ve made my makeup run,’ she responded. We hugged and laughed.

More hugs and laughter when we arrived at Kathy and Gareth’s, even though it was almost midnight by then and everyone was tired.

Tears indeed, but of the good kind.

Au revoir Toronto

What better way to say au revoir Toronto than with three big XXXs in the sky above Roncies? Toronto, and Canada, have been good to me, and to us: I will miss our friends, and the weather, and the frolicking by the seaside and on the high mountains – wait, oops, that would be Cape Town, I guess!

Anyway folks, I fly out this evening, for sunny South Africa, and on Thursday night will greet my daughters and my sons in law and my new grandson in Johannesburg. Rob will follow at the end of February.

But, we will be back, and we will keep in touch, as we hope you will. This blog will be one way of keeping you posted, so Carry on Reading!

Au revoir, arrivederci XXX



Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

Nuevo Vedado, Havana. It is New Year’s Day, 2017. We drift towards wakefulness, in the blue room at our casa particular or homestay, on a raft of sound. The ring of a bucket as it’s set down on concrete. A man’s voice, and a woman’s, greeting the new year in Spanish. Water splashing, a dog barking. The rumble of a truck or car in the street outside. Screech of a parakeet. The noises are right inside here, in the room, amplified.

We were greeted on Saturday, on the eve of the new year, at Havana’s Jose Marti Habana airport, by Luise and Patricia. We have no Spanish, but Patricia speaks English; she translates for her husband. Soon Patricia and Rob are chatting away like sisters. We are from Toronto, Rob says, she has been here before, but a long time ago. She expects things have changed quite a lot since then. This is her husband’s first visit.

I am originally from South Africa, I add, my contribution to the conversation. Luise breaks into a broad grin. He was in Angola, he says. During the war.

Luise was an engineer his wife adds, quickly: meaning, he wasn’t involved in the fighting. Glen didn’t serve in the South African army, either, Rob says. He was against apartheid. Luise and I smile at each other: we are friends, we are saying, without speaking. But who would have thought, that Luise and I would have a connection, through Cuba’s support for the MPLA, against South Africa, in Angola’s war of liberation?

This is but the first of many moments where I have to pause to think, to try to make sense of where we are, what we are seeing. With this in mind, I begin this little photo essay on our trip to Havana, not chronologically, but thematically, politically, with images of the Plaza de la Revolucion, not far from the casa particular of Luise and Patricia.

The plaza is at once banal and fascinating, grandiose and crumbling. What strikes me more than anything is that it is a monument to old men, by old men, forever reliving a moment of youthful glory, while the present flows by, heedless, in the stares of tourists.

Connecting to outreach and mutually update

Once a year, dear Lucy Kellaway of the FT, bless her heart, offers scalding remedies for obfuscation and verbiage, the debasement of the language. The fauna of her verbal forest live, unfortunately, in the uplands of business, or else a thin-skinned, orange-haired ‘nasty man’ would surely – surely? – have taken the biscuit – and thrown it, like everything else he touches, into the garbage.

Clipped from:

Contenders for 2016’s gong ranged from euphemistic to ‘plain moronic’

Every January for the past decade I have handed out awards for horrible use of language in business. Usually the task amuses me. This year I have found the sheer weight of euphemism, grammatical infelicity, disingenuity and downright ugliness so lowering I have decided to start the 2016 Golden Flannel Awards with something more uplifting: a prize for clarity.

I am calling this the Wan Long prize, after the Chinese meat magnate who once uttered the clearest sentence ever spoken by a CEO: “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.” Mr Wan will surely approve of my winner, a BNSF railway executive who told a conference: “We move stuff from one place to another.”

This elegant, informative and borderline beautiful sentence is a reminder that despite the horrific nature of the entries below, clarity remains attainable.

Entrants included: I want to jump on your radar (a bad idea, as if you jump on radars they break)

I used to think guff was a product of failure and mediocrity — it existed because the truth was too painful, or because executives had not bothered to ascertain what the truth was.

Indeed, last year produced the usual crop of new euphemisms for firing people. Infosys announced an “orderly ramp-down of about 3,000 persons”. Upworthy, a small media company, had the nerve to call sacking 14 people an “investment lay-off”. Otherwise, 2016 proved that the most egregious jargon is a sign not of failure, but of overexcitement.

People promoting driverless cars, the most hyped industry segment of the moment, became world leaders in verbiage. Elon Musk claimed to be “laser-focused on achieving full self-driving capability on one integrated platform with an order of magnitude greater safety than the average manually driven car” (ie Tesla cars must stop crashing).

Better still was Iain Roberts, global managing director of the design company Ideo, who asked a question to which I hope never to hear the answer: “How to activate insights around latent mobility or multimodal needs?”

But the runaway winner was Ford CEO Mark Fields, who began the year with the depressing news that his company was “transitioning from an auto company to an auto company and a mobility company”. He then went on to declare: “Heritage is history with a future.” He was so chuffed with this, he said it more than once. On hearing it repeated, I’ve concluded it is less gnomic than downright moronic. Mr Fields is thus my new Chief Obfuscation Champion.

The PR industry excelled itself with increasingly fancy descriptions for the basic activities of emailing, talking and meeting. Entrants included: “I want to jump on your radar” (a bad idea, as if you jump on radars they break) and “let’s find a time to connect to mutually update”. My favourite came from a PR man named Michael who wrote: “I hope you don’t mind the outreach.” Alas, I do mind. To reach out has always been hateful, but making it a noun, and reversing the word order, does not help. Michael, you’ve won the Communications cup.

Take the intriguing reintroduction of “unfeigned regards” — last big in the 18th century and now found on emails from Indian help centres. But the winning sign-off, at the bottom of a message sent one Friday, was: “weekend well”. I nearly awarded it second prize for the best noun pretending to be a verb, though at the last minute this award was snatched by a consultant overheard saying: “Can we cold towel that?”

While he wins the Nerb prize, the sister prize, for the best verb masquerading as a noun, is won by another consultant who referred to a “global touch-base”.

Siemens broke records last year by winning two awards for renaming its healthcare business Healthineers. Not only does it land the Martin Lukes prize for the worst combination of two words, the accompanying video, featuring a singing CEO and writhing spandex-clad employees, wins a gold medal for most embarrassing company song of all time.

My favourite award every year is for a spurious renaming of a common noun. A couple of years ago, Speedo rechristened the swimming cap a “hair management system”. Last year, Falke went one better by renaming a line of socks “Life Performance Solutions”.

Falke’s fall from grace is sad, but nothing compared with eBay. The company I thought I would love forever for supplying my entire wardrobe and the contents of my house told the New York Times: “We are passionate about harnessing our platform to empower millions of people by levelling the playing field for them.”

Bingo! In fewer than 20 words it combined five previous years’ winners, only to say nothing at all. With a heavy heart, I award eBay my overall Golden Flannel Award for 2016.


via Lucy Kellaway’s jargon awards: corporate guff scales new heights

From Havana, with astonishment

Havana is like no other place I have been to, too layered, complex, brave, catastrophic – too much human experience compacted into one decaying, living, breathing city – to write about or photograph easily. And now that we are back in safe, sane, organized, clean Toronto, we are back also in the mode of ‘planification’  – preparing for tomorrow’s farewell party, preparing for my departure for South Africa on Wednesday – and in a place where meditation, thought, writing, and the making of images – not to mention figuring out what to even think about an astonishing city – must await a quieter time and another day.

Which is a long, roundabout way of saying, we are back, we are fine, we had an amazing time – and there will be photos and commentary to follow.

In the meanwhile, just one – fairly benign – image as a teaser: the famous Malacon.

The Malacon, Havana.jpg