Monday, 26 July 2010

The Tuesday Poem: Katherine Mansfield

Sleeping Together

Sleeping together... how tired you were...
How warm our room... how the firelight spread
On walls and ceiling and great white bed!
We spoke in whispers as children do,
And now it was I--and then it was you
Slept a moment, to wake--"My dear,
I'm not at all sleepy," one of us said....

Was it a thousand years ago?
I woke in your arms--you were sound asleep--
And heard the pattering sound of sheep.
Softly I slipped to the floor and crept
To the curtained window, then, while you slept,
I watched the sheep pass by in the snow.

O flock of thoughts with their shepherd Fear
Shivering, desolate, out in the cold,
That entered into my heart to fold!

A thousand years... was it yesterday
When we two children of far away,
Clinging close in the darkness, lay
Sleeping together?... How tired you were....

Katherine Mansfield isn't well known as a poet, but she wrote some good poems. So I thought it might be nice to put one of them up on the blog to celebrate National Poetry Day in New Zealand. This poem is about her disastrous teenage love affair with a young musician called Garnett Trowell who came - as she did - from Wellington. They were both living in London. Katherine became pregnant and the romance was broken up by Garnett's parents. The poem seems to refer to a visit she made to Glasgow where Garnett was playing with a touring opera company. She was hoping that their relationship could be mended, but she hadn't told him about the desperate, spur of the moment marriage she had made in order to provide a legal father for her child ....... The break with Garnett was permanent, but he kept her love letters until he died.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Goodbye to Cuba

So, we have finally managed to get out of Cuba - the chaos of Havana airport can’t even be imagined! This is where 3rd world communist regime meets 1st world capitalist tourist industry - and it doesn’t work. It took more than 3 hours just to check everyone in for the flight (yes, we queued!!!) which - if it had been on time - would have left before everyone got through security and passport control. (They photograph you going out was well as coming in.) The flight finally took off 2hrs and 20mins late and many, like Neil, missed their connections at the other end.

There are a lot of images that have stayed with me. The poverty has made a big impression, as well as the amount of control exercised by the state over the Cuban people. This, of course, is the reason why Art and Literature only flourish underground - freedom of thought and expression are disallowed. Every street has its policeman sitting on the corner twenty four hours a day, and every street has its government representative to keep an eye on the residents and make sure they conform. Political dissidents go to jail.  What impresses me most of all, is the friendliness and good humour of the Cuban people - I’m not sure I could be so cheerful and welcoming in those circumstances.

These are a few of the images I’ve brought back.

In Havana a lot of people have erected shacks on the roofs of buildings. This man had pigeons in a cage.

Public transport in Trinidad - this is how the locals go to work. Taxis are only for tourists.

St Francis of Assisi - one of the most beautiful churches in Havana.

Dereliction - the other face of Cuba.

The image of Chez Guevara is everywhere - here it’s aptly juxtaposed with a police car.

Sunset over the sea from the old fort in Havana.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Cuba: Havana

We travelled from Trinidad to Havana by bus, on Cuba’s empty highways. They’re pot-holed and bumpy, but there isn’t any traffic. We booked the bus that left at 7am, hoping to get to Havana by lunch, but the bus didn’t turn up until 9.15. But, hey! this is Cuba.

Havana is a mixture of the breathtakingly beautiful, like this wedding cake building, recently restored

 and the gut-wrenchingly awful. There are beautiful old buildings - Spanish, colonial, art-deco - but many of them are falling down.

There are gaps in the streets where some buildings have vanished and people are living in condemned tenements with cracked walls and dodgy roofs. Water pipes and electricity cables swarm up the front, snaking through windows providing supplies that can’t possibly be safe.

But there is also World Heritage money filtering in, and some of the more important buildings are being restored, like this beautiful building off the Vieja Square.

We hadn’t booked a hotel, as it’s low season here, but found that if you walk through the door you’re asked to pay double the prices quoted on the internet. The doorman at one hotel said, no problem, he had a friend called Pepe who has a casa familiares. Good room, air-conditioned, 25 CUC. Pepe came to collect us and here we are in a tiny room which has a shower cubicle in one corner, a noisy AC unit and a view out into a very real Havana street.

 Pepe speaks no English and the notices pinned up have obviously been translated by Google. ‘Attention! Oily Staircase’ And ‘Please take care to dress in case of balcony’.

We checked out the Hemingway connection at the Ambros Mundo hotel, which has a beautiful roof garden with views over the city, but didn’t drink in the blatantly tourist-rip-off Hemingway bar. I found the Moderna Poesia bookshop, with lots of local authors, but no imported books at all. The best experience we had here was in the newly built Museum of Contemporary Cuban Art, opposite the Museum of the Revolution. It has ‘Granma’ - the boat that ferried Castro to Cuba - parked outside in a glass case. The paintings and sculptures in the galleries were stunning, but most of them date before 1956. Cuba used to have a vibrant artistic culture. Why do Communism and Art and Literature not go together?

Many Cubans are descended from African Slaves brought in to work the sugar and tobacco plantations. The fort at the entrance to the harbour still has the entrance used by the slavers and the guns that were used to defend against pirates. It is a grim place, once used by Che Guevara as his training camp.

The best experience was to sit in one of the squares, drinking the obligatory Mojito (they don’t do anything but rum and beer) listening to music. All the cafes have live bands. And often there was a Santeria consultant sitting at a table waiting for customers. Santeria is big here and seems to co-exist with Christianity very well. This woman was sitting right outside the cathedral.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Tuesday Poem: José Martí

José Martí is one of Cuba’s greatest poets and, next to Che Guevara, their greatest revolutionary hero. He was born in Havana in 1853, was imprisoned by the Spanish as a political dissident at the age of 16 and transported to Spain. When he was released he published pamphlets on the injustices suffered by political prisoners, travelled to Mexico and began to campaign again for Cuban independence. He spent a great deal of time in Venezuela and New York, working with other dissidents, returning to Cuba with them to fight against the Spanish in the first War of Independence. He fought on horseback in a tuxedo, making him an easy target for the Spanish troops. He was killed in battle in 1895 aged 42. His most famous collection is the Versos Sencillos, published in 1891.

Versos Sencillos XLI

Cuando me vino el honor
De la tierra generosa,
No pensé en Blanca ni en Rosa
Ni en lo grande del favor

Pensé en el pobre artillero
Que está en la tumba, callado:
Pensé en mi padre, el soldado:
Pensé en mi padre, el obrero.

Cuando llegó la pomposa
Carta, en su noble cubierta,
Pensé en la tumba desierta,
No pensé en Blanca ni en Rosa.

When they brought me wine of honour
From the generous earth,
I didn’t think of Bianca or Rosa
Nor of the great honour.

I thought of the poor gunner
Who is silent, buried in the tomb:
I thought of my father the workman:
I thought of my father the soldier.

When the important, pompous
Letter arrives at your house
Think of the empty tomb,
Don’t think of Bianca or Rosa.

This is a loose translation - not literal. Marti is playing with Bianca and Rosa, the white and the red, which have political associations - the white for the flag of peace, the red for the blood of war. There’s also a play on red and white wine, though ‘vino’ means ‘I came’, it also means ‘wine’. Blanca and Rosa are also girls’ names, so there’s another association. Difficult to convey all this in English. The last stanza is literally ‘When the pompous card arrived at the noble roof, I thought of the deserted tomb, I didn’t think of Bianca or Rosa.’ But the intention seems to be to make the reader think, when the honour arrives for them, about the emptiness of earthly rewards, when the reality of the gaping tomb is waiting for them. So I’ve translated it as an admonishment. The other problem for a translator is the form - Marti used mainly four line stanzas with an ABBA rhyme scheme. This is almost impossible to replicate without losing the sense, so I’ve settled for rhyming (or half-rhyming) only the first and fourth lines.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Retail Therapy in Cuba

It’s a bit difficult to get any RT in Cuba. There are shops, but not as we know them. Cuba has a dual economy. There is tourist currency (the CUC or Cuban peso) to use in restaurants, hotels, shops (if you can find them) and local currency available only to Cubans to purchase things. Tourist shops are visible around the main tourist areas in Havana, but in the smaller towns they are often non-existent. Trinidad has a small supermarket which has a limited choice of imported tins and packets, but it would be difficult to feed yourself well from its contents and Cubans can’t afford to shop in it anyway.

I was very puzzled when I first arrived because I couldn’t see where Cubans could possibly buy food and clothes and domestic necessities. There are no obvious shops and there didn’t seem to be any of the markets or stalls I’m used to seeing in poorer countries. When I started looking I realised that Cuban shops were concealed by the queues outside - often just holes in the wall, or dark cellars where ration coupons could be presented to get an inadequate supply of meat, bread and vegetables. In Trinidad, racks of clothes and a small choice of household goods were housed in a large shed - you could only find it if you knew which door to knock on. It reminded me of Russia in 1990.

This is a pharmacy with empty shelves. The polyclinic looked like a derelict tenement, though the nurses' uniforms were impeccably white. Cuba has more doctors per head of population than any other country in the northern hemisphere, but what they treat their patients with I’m at a loss to know.
This queue was for a butchers and at one point it stretched all the way down the street. Queueing is a way of life for Cubans. We also found a vegetable shop (Cubans only) that contained only some rather sad looking pawpaws, mangos and a few green beans.

There isn’t always enough food to go round. When my daughter was pregnant and eating for two while visiting Cuba she asked some young women what they did when they were hungry and they told her that they spooned sugar into hot water and drank that. If you go into one of the tourist supermarkets you will be asked to buy food by Cubans hanging round the door. It’s impossible to refuse.

Once off the main Tourist Highway, food in restaurants and cafes isn’t always plentiful either. There’s good fish, caught locally, and it’s often accompanied by black beans and rice. Chicken is a dubious choice - often thin and stringy - of corn-fed European chooks there are none. Lunch is particularly difficult to get. Out of the main centres, the cafes display menus several pages long, but whatever you ask for is likely to be ‘temporarily unavailable’. You will be offered the ubiquitous cheese and ham sandwich - Cuba’s unofficial national dish! There are also a lot of eggs, which Cubans buy in specialist egg shops. Egg on rice is another staple meal.

But above all food is expensive - expect London restaurant prices everywhere. I don’t begrudge the Cuban economy my dollars, but I wish I knew where the money was going, because the lives of ordinary people don’t seem to be improving.
The Egg Shop:

We are staying with a Cuban family who are feeding us really well - mango and pineapple for breakfast with bread rolls and coffee, and some fantastic fried fish and rice for dinner. I haven’t asked, but I suspect that they get extra rations for feeding tourists and so it helps them.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Adventures in Cuba: Trinidad

Cuba is hot - the temperature here in the little town of Trinidad is around the 40 degree mark with humidity in the nineties. It’s the hurricane season and, although the mornings start bright and clear, by mid afternoon the thunderstorms start drifting in from the Atlantic. The vultures circle overhead riding the thermals. Often, later in the evening it rains - hot tropical rain that finds its way into everything. There’s no point in trying to stay dry because the humidity is so high that you’re already wet.

We travelled from Havana to Trinidad by bus, fortunately air conditioned. The buses are all imported from China, like the wheat for the bread and a lot of other goods. There aren’t many vehicles in Trinidad, a few tourist cars, one or two vintage American limos, but mainly horses and carts, rickshaws and taxis.

The small town is about 200 miles - a five or six hour drive - from Havana, on the opposite coast, facing the americas. It has brightly painted single story houses with rough cobbled streets. They sometimes look like a stage set for a spaghetti western - tumbleweed and a lone cowboy riding out of town. Except in this case the cowboys are Cuban. The town in very Spanish, with a backdrop of mountains. We were surprised by how far it is from the sea, but it was deliberately built like that to prevent the town from being sacked by pirates (particularly the notorious Welshman, Henry Martin). The road to the beach meanders like a labyrinth.

We’re staying with a Cuban family and have a tiny bedroom and shower and our own small roof terrace (though it’s too hot to sit on it for long). Not all of them are so nice, but this was found for us by one of my daughter’s Cuban friends.   IT has been a problem in Cuba - we're staying in places where it doesn't exist and the odd internet cafes we've found had download times so slow it was a struggle just to read email.  So my apologies for the big gap since I was last in touch. 

It’s too hot to do much during the day except wander a little and flop into a bar, but in the evening we go dancing. It’s the low season, so there are very few tourists here, but the musicians still play and there are a number of professional dancers who visit the bars and will dance with the tourists and teach them the steps. Contact is strictly controlled. The guy in white is only a week out of jail after being convicted of going out with tourists, but didn’t seem to be reformed! Apparently it’s forbidden to date more than 3 in a year.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Tuesday Poem


Alone now in the old house
I lock doors, fasten windows
and close the curtains to keep out fear.

There is nothing outside but sheep
standing patiently in dark fields
keeping watch for winter foxes.

The trees toss restlessly in the garth
talking amongst themselves.
There is nothing outside but the dark.

Inside the fire burns optimistically;
it's flame a brand to thrust
in the eyes of ravening wolves.

I am not used to silence,
the quiet conversations of sheep
the breath of trees, fox cry.

Sometimes in the night
I wake and feel the silence and the dark
filling the sockets of my skull.

This poem was written quite a few years ago, after I returned to the north of England on my own to stay in the isolated farmhouse I had been brought up in. I realised during the night, that it was the first time I had been alone without either a partner or my children since I left home at the age of 18. I've always been afraid of the dark - a fear no rational debate can cure!!

* a garth is an old norse word - northern dialect for a belt of trees grown as a wind-break around houses.