Sitting in Cape Town, thinking of Havana

So I have come to the end of a week in Cape Town – a round of project inception meetings with officials and academics, dinners out with my 85 year old mother or quiet evenings at home watching The Crown on Netflix, calls on FaceTime to my wife in Toronto, and – stealing a few moments here and there – working on my photos from Havana.

And so it is, I guess, that we inhabit multiple places, multiple eras. Echoes of ‘radical economic transformation,’ from this week’s State of the Nation address, provide a ghostly, sardonic music to accompany the photos – if you want radical economic transformation, try Cuba.

Yet these scenes, and the people in them, ask you to relate, not comment: other people, getting on with their lives, on their own special island.

Habana Vieja: street scenes

There is more to Havana than just Habana Vieja: and there are a lot more images to process and – geez, if I were more pretentious than I like to think I am – ‘curate.’

But before I move on – to art deco suburban architecture, 50s cars and cinemas, the melancholy drama of the Malecon – there is (for now, anyway) a final set of images of the old town to be posted.

As with the last post, I’ve done these in colour: much as I love black and white, the way it reveals, caresses, form and texture, you just have to show the leprous bloom, the fatal opulence of Habana Vieja, in colour.

 

Habana Vieja: looking in

You visit Havana, you don’t want to be just a nosy outsider, a tactless tourist, a peeping voyeur – and yet, the place is so different, both in the world that you see before you and in the things you can’t see, but know or imagine are there, that your senses stand on tiptoe to peer into stairwells, catch glimpses of interiors when the doors or the windows lean open. So I took a few photos, of doors and stairwells – not too many, just a few – which I thought I would share with you.

They are, if you like, both images and symbols.

Habana Vieja: two murals

Cuba’s history, of course – by which I mean only its modern history, which we can date back to the first Spanish warships, sailing off the island in the late 1400s – long predates the Revolution.

As Richard Gott explains, in his dry but absorbing Cuba, A New History (published in 2004) there has always been trouble: privateers, conquistadores, slavery, wars and coups, poverty and excess, rebellions and the mafia pock-mark the narrative like bullet-holes in a wall.

Visiting Havana, in this sense, means descending into an archeological dig. At the surface is the Revolution, with its heroic moment, followed by scars and decay: below it there are layers upon layers. Hard-edged or crumbling, you see this most immediately in the architecture. You see it also in the bodies – dark, light, African, European – of the Cuban people, and in glimpses of the culture. The music, obviously, but the art also, and – if we had stayed longer, and if we understood the language – many other manifestations.

These two murals, found in the streets of Habana Vieja – the Old City – give you the idea. The one, with its bold figures, worn but strong, offers a window into Cuba’s history of slavery and its African population; the other, with a hooded woman, her breasts two snaggle-toothed fish, speaks to darker perceptions and other beliefs.

Neither, let it be said, says anything of Revolution.

The dark side of Havana

Once more to Havana….

So far, I’ve tried not to fall into the trap that the English novelist George Eliot described more than a hundred years ago: seeing other people’s misery as ‘picturesque.’

I’ve described, and shown, the Hotel Inglaterra, posted images of the magnificent Grand Theatre and other architectural triumphs, monuments and renovations, and avoided overt comment on – well, on the dark side of Havana.

By which I mean, not its flawed grandeur, or its magnificent decay, but its political system. In a word: communism.

Because one of the things you can’t help noticing is the drab, dreary, official lexicon of ‘the Revolution.’ Everything in Havana tracks back to the one brief, heroic moment of glory, a moment frozen in time, historical but without history, in the sense that nothing, evidently, appears to have happened in the half-century since then.

The hard-as-nails old men who rule Cuba appear, still, in the public iconography, as long-haired, gorgeous, romantic revolutionaries, uncorrupted and incorruptible, while everything you see – crumbling infrastructure, a quarantined, impoverished but somehow still resilient people – gives the lie to their lies.

Yes, the American embargo has done enormous damage. Yes, the regime has delivered education and health-care. But the regime, let it be said, is the author, also, of Cuba’s misfortune.

Failed economic policies, incompetence, repression – not to mention Cuba’s long alliance with and dependence on the Soviet Union – are visible everywhere in the streets and on the faces that you see in Havana. The tools of dictatorship – the cult of the leaders,  cult of the Revolution, the ideological instruments of the schools and the radio, not to mention the ‘repressive apparatus’ of police and the prisons – are there, too, if you choose to see them.

Here are a few images: the primary school, touchingly – or cynically – named after Camilo Cienfuegos: like Che Guevara, a hero of the Revolution who fell out with the Castros and died – would you believe it? – in mysterious circumstances.

And then you stumble across a simple memorial – on a street corner, lost, almost tender, standing in deep shadow beneath the leaves and branches – to Ethel and Julius  Rosenberg.

 

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.

Glass Staircase, Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

One of the things you are entitled to when you become a Canadian citizen, along with the right to vote and a Canadian passport and, let’s face it, the privileges and benefits of being a Canadian, is a Cultural Access Pass – a ‘passport’ of sorts to all kinds of cultural spaces and places and travel opportunities all over Canada.

It’s a nice touch, even if you are unlikely ever to use a fraction of it: the kind of thing we Canadians do, to make people feel welcome, by giving them a tour of the house.

In the case of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the home of the Canadian Opera and Ballet Companies here in Toronto, what a very fine house it is too: an airy lightbox of glass, steel and timber, by the South African-born architect, Jack Diamond. We were guests there last night, for the dress rehearsal of Bellini’s opera, ‘Norma,’ and what a fine treat that was!

There is a staircase, in the foyer, of frosted glass, that descends in terraces from the upper landings, and the crowds descending reminded me of a poem, whose name escapes me, by a mid-century American poet, whose name escapes me also, but it doesn’t matter because here instead are some images: taken on my iPhone, incidentally, and processed in Lightroom.

Hiatus

For the rest of this week I will be working on a big project proposal; next week I will be attending a course at Ryerson, run by the Canadian Evaluation Society. Then back to the proposal, which is due in mid-October but will absorb a good deal of time from a team scattered across Spain and South Africa, not to mention yours truly in Canada.

It is likely, therefore, that normal blog service will be interrupted.

By way of apology (may the picture speak louder than words) here is a winter image from Prince Edward County. There will be more when I return.

winter-prince-edward-county-1

Second High Park capybara recaptured

A couple of enterprising capybara made headlines a few weeks ago, here in Toronto, by escaping from the High Park zoo and disappearing into the surrounding greenery. My theory is that they simply dressed up as tourists and mingled with the crowd, and ambled out of the zoo enclosure unchallenged and unspotted.

One of the capybara – we shall call him Stupid – was recaptured a while later, but capybara number two has remained on the lam – until now, that is. Clever Boy was picked up this morning – according to the authorities, near Grenadier Pond. But that is a cover up, I know: Clever Boy was really caught lurking incognito on a patio on Roncies, smoking a cigar and reading the newspaper.

I know, ‘cos I saw him.