Equivocation

“These doubtful speeches were used much in the old times by their false prophets, as appeareth by the oracles of Delphos and of the Sybil’s prophecies devised by the religious persons of those days to abuse the superstitious people, and to encumber their busy brains with vain hope or vain fear.”

The Art of English Poesy   

George Puttenham (16th century).

Equivocation: The art of saying one thing but meaning another.

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George Puttenham was writing about equivocation, an art he considered historical. He also considered it dangerous and wicked, a way of telling lies (sinful) while appearing not to. Shakespeare used much equivocation in his plays, although the word hardly existed then. Shakespeare portrayed equivocation as entertainment, as a way of providing information about the world and its people; while no angel Shakespeare was certainly not wicked. At that time equivocation had fiercely anti-Catholic connotations; the authorities were worried about the way Catholics used equivocation to deny their beliefs or that they were hiding priests. You could tell the authorities, for example, that you were taking dinner at a friend’s house while not mentioning that you were attending a Catholic mass. You were not lying but you were concealing the truth.

Equivocation was a rare and scholarly term, appearing in only a few books in the sixteenth century, mostly religious works and never in a play, poem or story. Because Shakespeare was such a gifted writer, wonderful words seemingly just flowing from him without thought, equivocation came naturally to him and his characters. All actors equivocate; it is entertaining, it is human, it can be clever, it can be wicked. We would be bored into slumber if all actors spoke honestly and always spoke the truth. The first time that Shakespeare used the actual word (although he many times used the deed) was in Hamlet, at the turn of the century, during the grave scene with Yoric’s skull. In answer to the Gravedigger’s clever but maddening replies, Hamlet tells Horatio:

How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

Hamlet means that they must speak literally or the Gravedigger will continue with his evasive replies. Shakespeare is being humorous here; later he would use the word in a more sinister fashion. Most people thought that equivocation meant ambiguous; as late as 1605 Francis Bacon defined it as such in his Advancement of Learning. But by 1606, familiarity with the word was almost universal. It was no longer a neutral word, it was now commonly thought to mean concealing the truth by saying one thing while deceptively thinking another. Shakespeare used equivocation as an action and a word to great effect in Macbeth, of the same year.

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Although the Earl of Salisbury wrote of “that most strange and gross doctrine of equivocation” which would “tear in sunder all the bonds of human conversation”, and should be rooted out from society, Shakespeare would have understood that efforts to eliminate equivocation were hopeless and naive. Salisbury, the King – everybody – equivocated whether they were conscious of it or not. Equivocation was life’s most common sin – lying.

Shakespeare was subtle with his use of words, and equivocation was not always obvious. Though the word originated in its present use with Catholics using it to deny their beliefs, it soon became much more common with writers. One could say a King equivocated without actually accusing him of lying. Equivocation is a sophisticated word, suitable for a King and his courtiers to use.  Today a politician can say “I may have used slight equivocation on that point” and most people will not even understand that he/she has actually admitted to lying.

The action of equivocating had been in common use for as long as humans have had language. Augustus convinced the Romans that they were living in a free and fair democracy, although they lived under a ruthless dictatorship. Now, in the UK people are told that they live in a democracy, but they are presented with a choice between two almost identical parties who will merely preserve the status quo, likewise the USA. and many other countries. I live in Cuba where daily the TV convinces the people that they live in a wonderful free and fair society, but it’s a dictatorship with some good points. It’s not free and fair. Today politicians and advertisers (the main culprits) use it constantly. I can mostly ignore politicians but advertising is ubiquitous, stupid and wicked; it is impossible to ignore. Equivocation, even if it was once an art, is now the “gross doctrine” that Salisbury feared.

There is no advertising in Cuba, apart from the Cubans advertising themselves: their revolution, their system, their sportsmen and women – everything Cuban; they do not advertise commercial products. The only other place I know of where TV doesn’t advertise is Britain, with the BBC, but a significant section of the population would like to destroy it, as that section worldwide would destroy anything precious.

 

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Even in Cuba I cannot escape advertising. We have satellite TV, where my woman watches the telenovelas and I watch the football. I thought advertising in England was extremely stupid but the US satellite channels are much more obviously dumb, just a medium for advertising, rather than a medium for entertainment. Programmes are interrupted every ten minutes with the dimmest adverts imaginable, merely a method for repeating names hundreds, thousands of times so that you will be unable to forget them; there is no humour, not very much thought – just the repetition of brand names and phone numbers – and in many, many hours of programming there is not even one minute of intelligence on show. Coke now transposes its logo over the crowd during the football matches – distracting and mind-numbing – as it is supposed to be.

I have found similar programming in East Asia but particularly the United States, the country that has been bombarded more than any other. It has affected even many of their decent writers, whom write of drinking a coke when they really mean something else. Coke has been so ruthlessly advertised for over a century, that taking a drink now means taking a coke to many, many people, such is the effect of constant brainwashing. I don’t even like Coke. I think it’s horrible, but am prepared to believe that some people like it and are not just influenced by the advertising. Hoover became an actual adjective thanks to that company’s successful promotions.

During a long life I have refused to believe that people can be affected by advertising because it is so simple-minded, but of course they are. They believe soap characters are real, and they believe advertising even more if an actor or celebrity equivocates and pretends that he/she uses a particular product (for a large amount of money). One must assume from this that at least seventy per cent of world’s population (particularly the USA’s) is irredeemably stupid; they buy cars, labour saving devices, clothes, tablets and phones that they do not need, and will  soon be persuaded to replace them.

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Graham Greene said that “In any government there grows a hideous establishment of stupid men”. That is true, but unfortunately those stupid men represent a very large mass of even stupider people whose “busy brains they encumber with vain hope or vain fear.” These stupid men, big swinging dicks (an apt phrase) rule the world. While once harbouring vague thoughts that human beings will eventually sort themselves out, I tend to agree now with Voltaire, that “men are mad, and anyone who thinks they can be cured is even madder.

The consumer society does not work; it will destroy itself sooner than you think. Who will stop it? Not the public. One cannot underestimate the stupidity of the public. The public is a big fat idiot. Being naturally non-violent, I would not go quite so far as Bill Hicks, who requested that all those in the public relations/advertising industry kill themselves, but I would like to put them all on an island where they can sell each other junk, and not pollute the world.

Drink Coke. You know it makes sense.

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Who’s happy?

masks-001I began this blog a week ago, intending to write about happiness and how, generally, I believe the upper-classes to be less happy than the lower. I thought I had loads of quotes to use: stuff read over the years – but finding them was a different matter; buried in hundreds of books. However, after nearly abandoning the idea through lack of material, I decided to press on anyway.

A controversial theory perhaps but interesting all the same. Of course the classes as I imagine them mainly existed in the past, nevertheless, there are probably three groups of people everywhere: those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top. There are of course major differences in ambition among these categories, some being more-or-less happy where they are, while others’ aspirations and desires know no bounds.

I generalise shamelessly, but I have never understood sentiments such as Vita Sackville-West’s, below:

No thinking man can be happy, all that we can hope for is to get through life with as much suppression of misery as possible.”

I’m sure Sackville-West was immensely talented. I don’t know. I haven’t read her. The above quote is from West’s novel, The Easter Party, quoted in a review of the latest biography of West in the Spectator, written by Mary Keen. She preceded the quote with a comment on Sissinghurst and the gardens created by West, and on which were based her Observer gardening columns. She writes:

Isn’t that what imaginative people do? Make somewhere they can call their own world? Reality, both of the real and of the modern, manufactured sort, is often pretty unbearable and most of us wear masks and adopt strategies for dealing with life in whatever way we can.

Keen goes on to quote Myles Hildyard, who questioned in his letters the right of those who expect to be happy.

So, we have:

…as much suppression of misery as possible’

Reality…is pretty unbearable’

and Hildyard questions those who

expect to be happy’.

All three statements are alien to me. I can’t speak for others, because people are rarely honest about this, but I have been mainly happy throughout my life, at worst content and occasionally miserable. I have no idea why West had to suppress misery. She was well-born, wanted for nothing, lived in splendid surroundings, had a successful career as an artist and two lovely children. What was there to be miserable about?

Now, I do not hide from reality. I am well aware of all the suffering in the world, but thankfully it hasn’t reached me. The unnecessary suffering of others can haunt and anger me; it does not affect my own happiness though – why should it? Making oneself miserable about the suffering of others does no good to the sufferers and no good to oneself. I think in many cases it is merely an excuse to be miserable. I am amazed at the number of young people I meet who declare life a trial, who didn’t ask to be here and don’t appreciate that life is a gift. To be enjoyed. You are here once for a comparatively short time. Be happy.

As you may have gathered, I am working-class.

I suppose what Sackville-West is suggesting is that no thinking person can be happy because the very act of thinking reveals how horrible the world is. But the world isn’t horrible, some human beings are. I don’t see that as a reason to be miserable, especially one as privileged as Vita Sackville-West. It seems to me that many of her class were, and are, just plain miserable. A misery, through their actions, they often end up inflicting on the rest of us, who are not miserable.

Steven King is most certainly working class, straight-talking, no-nonsense and honest. Norman Mailer was always a happy soul, and he was far from well-born. He was at home in – and wrote about – all levels of society. Chekov was descended from peasants, and wrote about them honestly. Tolstoy wanted to be a peasant, learnt their ways but couldn’t be one; he wrote about them sentimentally, but his motives and his heart were in the right place. Graham Greene was happy, although he said he made himself sad by doing too much with his life. Not a writer, but a genius just the same, Charlie Chaplin was born poor, but still thought:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Of course there is another side, many examples will prove me wrong. Ernest Hemingway said:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

I don’t agree with him. Hemingway was never a happy man and projected his feelings on to others. Kafka, born into the middle-classes, was just plain miserable (and unreadable, in my opinion):

People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as nauseatingly miserable beyond repair.

Beyond repair; good-grief. I’m glad I never met him.

I believe that if you’ve never struggled to pay a bill, never wondered where the next penny is coming from, never been close to homelessness through no fault of your own, then you don’t really fully understand life. Many of the rich and well-off consider the poor to be to blame for their own predicament. This is an easy way to think (or not think); some of the poor are to blame, many lack great ambition (no sin), most are just not greedy, and the majority are not to blame for where they happen to be. They were born there. As were most of the rich. Being born with money means (through no fault of your own) you never have to really deal with life. And I’m not sure you really know happiness either.

Most of the poor I have met are a damn sight happier than the rich. Markedly so. Especially in India, Bali and Cuba, to name just a few of the places I have experience of. Cuba, where 90% of the people are very poor, has the happiest people I’ve ever met. I believe the poor, or not rich more accurately, are happier because, as Epictetus put it:

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

And Aristotle:

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

Charles Darwin, who understood much, and was not of the poor said:

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

Our institutions cause not only poverty but people in body bags. Of this, Barbara Bush said:

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

This does show how some people deal with reality. They ignore it. I’m not at all sure that Bush has a beautiful mind, but she believes that she has, and the fact that her son caused those body bags to be used does not seem to trouble her, or indeed even occur to her. This is a fine example of how someone, born to riches, lives in a sort of dream-world, a strange world that doesn’t exist, except in the imaginations of very rich, stupid people.

Sadly, I have generalised and simplified outrageously, but at least I have raised a subject for discussion. I will end on a positive note, from perhaps the greatest optimist of all time, Anne Frank, whose happiness in the most horrible of circumstances is an example I wish everybody would follow:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.

Whoever is happy will make others happy.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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Writing Heroes – Ernest Hemingway

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I have a strange relationship with Ernest Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, and loved it. I was completely caught up in the story of the Cuban fisherman who caught a giant marlin while way out to sea and…well I won’t spoil the story for those who may want to read it. Then I didn’t read anything else by Hemingway for 30 years, picking him up again when I first visited Cuba.

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Probably as much has been written about Hemingway as any other writer. As with many writers, even Nobel prize winners, the critics at first loved him, perhaps over praised him, and then turned against him, sometimes with justification. But the critics turn against almost everyone eventually and: Who are they but people who can’t write, people who can’t tell stories?

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I haven’t even read all his books, but he did change the way many people write, so he’s endlessly interesting, his incredible life apart. When I returned to Hemingway I read his short stories and turned first to Big Two Hearted River, which I’d heard was special. It was. By this time I thought much more about writing; I couldn’t be pulled along by a narrative as I had been by the Old Man and the Sea, and had not been much impressed by any new writing. The story hit home. I understood Hemingway and what he did and what he meant to people. When Samuel Putnam asked Hemingway what his aims were in the twenties, his answer was:

Put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.

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Well, he did that in 1925 with Big Two Hearted River. I found some of the writing moved me (a rare experience); it sounds corny but reading it was like being there. You felt it. I don’t know if it will have the same effect here, in isolation, but here goes. Nick has just set up camp, alone, by the river:

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It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in a good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.

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This passage reminded me immediately of my hitch hiking days in Europe. After a day on the road, find a site, pitch your tent and you were done for the day. But it didn’t just remind me – it made me feel it. Hemingway has captured that sense of achievement, of creating your home, being comfortable and being all set for the evening, perfectly. It is a wonderful, simple piece of writing. It looks easy – anybody could write that – but they couldn’t. I liked most of the other short stories too.

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I also read Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I enjoyed it but not so much. Already his macho tendencies were creeping in. Later I disliked A Farewell to Arms. It seemed to me thoroughly sentimental, not really an experience of war but a man imagining the part he would like to play in it. Hemingway was intensely competitive: the great white hunter, the fearless war correspondent, the champion fisherman, the boxer, the drinker. I felt it tainted most of his writing after the short stories.

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I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; I didn’t like Islands in the Stream. A Moveable Feast is an entertaining, but not entirely true account of Hemingway’s early days in Paris. The Garden of Eden is very strange, an erotic ménage a trois, again based on his early days in France. But with success came obsessions: to hunt, to own a boat and catch the biggest fish, to be present, though not necessarily involved in, war. Ultimately it felt that Hemingway was in constant competition with everybody, even poor Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile psyche he messed with.

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The story that did for me occurred long after he had lost a lot of friends because of his behaviour. He was on his boat, Pilar, in Cuban waters with a good and old friend, Mike Strater. Strater had hooked a really big fish, the biggest he’d ever caught and bigger than anything Hemingway had ever caught. He was slowly reeling it in to the boat. It was being followed by sharks but they only really go for blood; he would have got it on board. Hemingway grabbed his machine gun (he loved shooting sharks) and sprayed the water. Strater’s fish was attacked. By the time they landed it the bottom half had been eaten away. It weighed in at 500 pounds, but would have weighed double that whole. It was pure jealousy, stopping a friend from beating him. He then lied about the event in an article for Esquire. Friends don’t do that.

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Of course his whole life was tragic. There were five suicides in his family. It is thought his father had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, where the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway’s hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961. Hemingway’s father, siblings Ursula and Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all died by their own hand. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria. Several books could be written on Hemingway’s life, but here I’m just concentrating on the writing.

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I returned to The Old Man and the Sea a few years back and didn’t like it much. Was that just the result of me becoming older and more cynical? Partly, but not wholly. Although it showed flashes of the old Hemingway, I thought it was overly sentimental and contrived.

In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012), Paul Hendrickson spends over 700 pages trying to rescue Hemingway’s reputation. I don’t think he does it. In many ways he was an awful man. His writing remains though, and many of his early observations have stayed with me. Carlos Baker:

Hemingway always wrote slowly and revised carefully, cutting, eliding, substituting, experimenting with syntax to see what a sentence could most economically carry, and then throwing out all the words that could be spared.

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The actual, he wrote in 1949, is ‘made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks…cock grouse drumming on a basswood log, the smell of sweetgrass and fresh-smoked leather and Sicily.’

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Perhaps not so awful.

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Happy Idleness

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Idleness is a word that encompasses a great deal of human activity. I suppose in today’s society it is a dirty word. We’re all supposed to be rushing around being proactive, inspiring change, making things happen – why we should do that is rarely questioned. Idleness is associated with those on benefits, people who don’t want to work, loafers, scroungers, drains on society.

But I don’t think of idleness as meaning that. Idleness can merely mean stopping to think. How many people actually stop to think about anything, free from the distractions of TV, the Internet, their phones, games – the constant babble of civilisation?

 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the essay An Apology For Idlers in 1876. He could not imagine the ways one can be idle today; just the welfare state and technology would have been unimaginable to him. But his points remain as true today as they were then; many, many things have changed, some things remain the same.

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Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formalities of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

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Ah, the mad pursuit of money for its own sake. I read today that Tony Blair insists that he is ONLY worth twenty million, not the one hundred million that some claim. Why does he want that much? What will he do with it? Apart from other obvious acts of his, isn’t it a little disturbing that a man who chases after money with such enthusiasm ran the country for ten years? Do the people who run after more and more money all their lives ever stop to think: What did I do with my life? Well, Tony Blair is a ‘Middle East peace envoy’. But that’s a joke, isn’t it?

Stevenson again:

Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last.

He continues:

While others (at school) are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week is out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or so to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.

I learnt very little at school. My education began while I was playing truant, but mostly after I left. I chose what I needed to learn. I don’t think anybody does learn much at school, apart from perhaps how to read and write, if they didn’t know how already. Most real learning comes from life. An uneducated person can be very wise, an educated person very stupid. But there is no place for the wise today.

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I suppose the best universities and some private schools provide something better for people. But our government was, and is, full of these people: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al – born privileged, they seem to be magnificently ignorant, have worked nowhere, apart from perhaps PR or the Law, have never fought, have never had to worry about paying a bill. No knowledge of history (unimportant), can’t do simple multiplication, completely out-of-touch with ordinary people – hardly a good advertisement for the education which produced them.

Stevenson continues:

Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the businessman some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living? Nay, and the idler has another and more important quality than these. I mean wisdom. He will have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions. If he finds no out-of-the-way truths, he identifies himself with no very burning falsehood.

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Politicians, leaders generally (not all), never stop to think; they are too busy. As are many in the mad rush for money, the only true gauge of worth today:

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Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.

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They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.

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Stevenson’s essay reminds me of my travels. The sheer happiness and joy of living one often witnesses in poor countries. I can vouch for the happiness of children in Cuba, India, Indonesia and parts of Africa. I have read about the amazing resilience of the untouchables in Bangladesh and Bhopal. I am not suggesting that we should copy their economies and become poor, but we have lost something here. Something is very wrong with our lives.

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There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. The other day, a ragged, barefoot boy ran down the street after a marble, with so jolly an air that he set everyone he passed into a good humour. A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.

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I’ll remember this on my next trip to Cuba, a poor country that has much wrong with it. But one of those wrongs is not the happiness of the children (or most of the adults, come to that). I have heard young Cubans crying very few times in years of visiting and staying (they laugh all the time). It is impossible in England to visit a supermarket or a cafe without hearing some spoilt child screaming its head off, its parents having no idea what to do with it, apart from perhaps buy it something else. The children have no shame; they don’t care who they disturb or who sees them. I would never have cried in front of other people when I was a child. I rarely cried at all. Today there are dozens of them, every day, everywhere.

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But back to idling and a last warning from Stevenson:

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They have dwarfed and narrowed their souls by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material amusement, and not one thought to rub together with another, while they wait for the train. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

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A marvellous essay, as true now as when it was written, 138 years ago.

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Honking in Havana

 

Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee in Israel, a Saturday about twenty years ago; the Sabbath. Everything stops in Israel on the Sabbath (actually, it doesn’t, but that’s another story); there was nothing to do in Tiberius. With another Englishman I’d met along the way, fed up, wanting to be somewhere else and unable to get there we found nothing open: no bars or shops – nothing. Sitting on a wall by some traffic lights near the centre of town after spending most of the day, first trying to leave and then find something to do, this Sabbath caught us out, surprised us. We ended up at the harbour, found some old bits of discarded fishing line and made a hook from a piece of wire and put some stale bread on the hook. You could see fish in the clear water of the harbour. After much ingenuity and patience we caught a fish, the highlight of the day.

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But back to the traffic lights, fascinated by the impatience of many Israelis, supposedly enjoying their day of rest, we watched their actions as they queued. The traffic lights were free flowing; there were no delays beyond what the lights required, a few seconds to allow the crossroads traffic to move in the other direction. Used to the apparent irritability of the drivers everywhere here, now we could observe it scientifically. Hands did not stay off the horn for very long; a constant cacophony of horn blowing, for no reason. We watched a queue of traffic from our side of the lights, never more than seven or eight cars; you didn’t have to wait long before the lights changed. As soon as the lights changed to green, the absolute split second, all those waiting behind the first car started honking their horns for it  to move. They didn’t give the car a chance, waited less than a second before they started blaring away as soon as the lights changed, shaking their heads, talking to themselves and the driver in front, hunched over the steering wheel in their anxiety to be somewhere else. Not many of the drivers could have been going far.

 

We decided to count how long the silences lasted (remember, there was no need to use the horn at all – the traffic was free flowing). Seven seconds was the longest period of silence while we were there, and we were there for a long time. I don’t think a car horn is a very pleasant sound; it’s supposed to be a warning, and it’s quite irritating to listen to, especially when it’s constant, doubly so when there’s no need for it.

 

Seven seconds. That was not a good day. Until we caught the fish.

 

Cubans honk all the time but it’s mainly a form of exuberance, a need for noise. Horns are honked partly to warn other traffic or pedestrians, but such is the driving skill, from bicycle taxis to lorries and buses, that tooting as a caution is rarely required. Parts of Havana and Cuba are fairly advanced in terms of traffic signs and lights, but many parts are practically free-for-alls; take into account that many cars don’t have lights, indicators or cannot get above thirty miles per hour, and one realises that Cubans have developed a sixth sense when negotiating traffic. Nevertheless, they honk pretty often.

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Musical, novelty, multi-sound horns are a boon to Cubans and a curse to the very few (me) who can’t stand them. I am used to general noise in Havana and normal honking sounds punctuate the day. They are nothing like as relentless as in Israel and nowhere near as annoying, but I find the multi-sound horn irritating. It rises above the usual hustle to impose a strange, loud and unique sound; it suddenly disturbs. Cubans absolutely love them. There is an unconscious need for noise in Cuba; they are comfortable with noise; they like to be talking, shouting, laughing, and extraneous noise not only does not bother them, they welcome it. It seems to be part of the Cuban psyche. Freud once said that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis – I don’t think he ever visited Cuba – for the same almost certainly applies to them.

 

At night when Havana is almost quiet, when silence almost reigns, say three or four o’clock in the morning, perhaps a Tuesday, you can guarantee that a Cuban with his new la cucaracha musical air horn will give it full blast and break the silence. There will be no concern for waking anybody. I have never seen Cubans give the slightest thought to neighbours in terms of noise; it is as though noise is preferable to silence. Nobody notices it; nobody complains about it.

 

I have grown fairly used to the noise over the years. I only notice it here because I am often writing, and have had that perfect sentence dashed quite a few times by La Bamba, Wedding March or Cavalry Charge musical, super loud air horns. I can swear loudly, curse my own impatience, accept that I’m in Cuba and that it’s just inevitable – and just get on with it. And however one handles it, it is certainly better than the impatient all-day honking in Tiberius.

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Crime in Havana

vivaI heard a sudden noise from the street, rather an increase in noise – there is always noise in central Havana, always. This was high pitched shouting and screaming. At first I thought it was kids in the corridor, not unknown, boisterous, echoing, but it was far too loud for that, so I moved to the balcony. Yuri had returned; she’d been out and gone straight to the other balcony. The disturbance must have begun right after she entered the building. I looked down, four floors; it was hard to figure out what was gong on; there seemed to be maybe a dozen people involved, nearly all women. There were two or three separate swirls of action, involving much shouting, angry, high-pitched and out of control, mostly female. I saw a few punches and kicks being aimed, but each swirl of action had another dozen people trying to break it up, and the whole thing was being watched by an almost instant crowd of about one hundred. Every balcony was full, traffic came to a standstill.

 

The police quickly arrived on foot and began to separate the warring parties. It was difficult though, because there were about ten women attacking two men; the men tried to take refuge in the flats or get into their white car. Every time the police moved one or two of the women, another one or two would come in from another side. And the women began screaming at the police, so more separate arguments began. The street was blocked with people by now. One of the men managed to get into the white car; a policeman stood guard at the door. A woman began screaming at him and while his attention was on her another woman opened the door and aimed a kick at the man inside. The police managed to separate the crowd from the fighting parties; one of the men was in the doorway to the flats, the other in the car. The man in the car was short and white; the one in the doorway was big, tall, probably mulatto.

 

The crowd watching swelled; it left just a small circle for the action, like a cock fight. The women were now screaming; at the police mostly, but also the men beyond. They were very, very loud, very angry, gesticulating wildly with their arms, jerky violent movements, explaining themselves to the police, but, I suspected, explaining nothing. I had seen this happen before in Bayamo one night. A friend and I had smashed up a hire car; we were in the police station to report the accident. It was quite a serious accident; my friend (he had no licence) had turned the car over, but we were more or less unscathed. A policewoman commented on this: why aren’t you more seriously hurt? José, my friend, indicated that we were wearing seat belts. She shook her head and wondered at the novelty. Anyway, suddenly about twenty women, mostly quite young, burst into the station. The noise was absolutely tremendous. Everything else had to stop. They were all shouting at once, waving their arms; it was hard to tell whom was arguing with whom, or what the problem was. Nothing else could be done while this was going on: the police woman excused herself. For about an hour they listened to various stories and (I think) pretended to take notes. The women talked (shouted) at the same time. Various officers listened to them. Slowly, very slowly, they calmed down a bit, perhaps talked among each other; it was hard to tell. Gradually everything went quiet and they were sent on their way. I don’t believe the police did anything. They just sighed with relief and went back to work.

 

This altercation reminded me of that, although three or four of the women didn’t calm down at all. The police though, calmly separated everybody and the watching crowd slipped away. Traffic started to move again. Two, then three police cars arrived. The white man stayed in the car, but the mulatto explained himself to the police. Some of the women tried to get at him, but couldn’t, so argued with the police. Eventually, the women departed. People left their balconies. The white man got out of the car. The two men left. The police stayed for about an hour, not doing anything, just talking.

 

Two hours later, three separate police on bicycles arrived; then a policeman on foot, then a motorcycle cop, then three police cars. The women then arrived; they came from another street, so I think did the men. The women had bought a bigger woman with them. She carried a can of beer and was built like a heavyweight boxer. She was shouting when she arrived and the whole time she was there. Two or three of the other women, the ones who’d been there before were also shouting. It was quite a performance but lacked the energy of the previous row. The police sort of listened, but really just ignored them. The men were nowhere to be seen. The car was still there. After fifteen minutes the women left. The heavyweight boxer kept stopping and shouting all the way up the street. She still held the can of beer, was probably drunk and perhaps trying to make up for not having been there. She had obviously been brought along as a reinforcement and was trying to make up for having nothing to do. The police ignored her.

 

The three bicycle police and the man on foot left after about thirty minutes. The three police cars, each with two police, and the motorcycle cop stayed for about another ninety minutes. They talked. One of them cleaned his car. They all had a look at the motorcycle; it was new. A trailer arrived, backed up to the white car and took it away. The police chatted briefly and left. I have no idea what it was all about. Neither did Yuri, but she lost interest after about five minutes.

 

I wondered about crime in Havana…

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Santeria – part three

 

I don’t really understand santeria. I have experienced it possibly four times; I go with the flow and do what I’m told but I don’t understand. I have discovered though, that very few people do. Joel James Figarola asks:

‘Is there in Cuban culture, specifically in popular tradition, any sort of practice which, consciously or not, is meant to diminish the fear of death? If it were so, does such practice imply that sort of feeble religiosity or limited capacity for abstract thinking which some authors have attributed to the Cuban individual?’

I think I know what he means by ‘the limited capacity for abstract thinking’; the Cubans that I know live very much in the present moment; history, which is yesterday, or one hour ago, is just forgotten, and one moves on with whomever happens to be around at that time. The only permanence seems to be family, perhaps some friends, but friends are quickly forgotten when they disappear (which is very common here), but they are remembered if and when they reappear. Figarola continues:

‘…that thick syncretic interweave which the ordinary Cuban individual is. The magical-religious systems created among us, are an attempt to achieve conciliation and serenity, to subdue chaos by integrating death as a domestic, everyday presence.’

Figarola believes that aspects of santeria

‘…are most probably acting as channels between transcendental aboriginal conceptions and those derived in the past century, from African populations brought into the Island as slave force, or from Antillean immigrant labourers…both black and white, in various ways and from different places, bring to the Island a traumatic experience interwoven with broken memories, projects and nostalgia: a broken inner world to be inserted in a new world in a perennial state of rupture.’

‘Transcendental aboriginal conceptions’ – I have often wondered about this. The native Indian population was quickly wiped out by the Spanish. Apparently the Indians were incredibly innocent, naive (and small); they did not know how to fight and apparently were extinguished quickly and completely. I would like to discover more about them but that will have to wait for another time. Were they all wiped out; every single one of them? I suppose if some survived, there is very little or no influence from them now. Then came the slaves, from all parts of Africa, and with them came their beliefs and stories and rituals. Cuba has also (apart from the last fifty years) been in a constant state of revolution:

‘…in a perennial state of rupture’;

this, in very simple terms, must be the basis for santeria – Where are we from? What are our stories? Who are we?

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Santeria makes Cubans unique:

‘… a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die -, where the dead are not expelled from the everyday world of the living nor ostracised from the family.’

Most black people here are descended from slaves and many, many in-betweens too.

‘Slavery is collective death. The newly arrived African slave loses his own environment, his emotional references, his memory; on the other hand, the criollo slave, born without an environment of his own, surrounded by emotional references inimical to him, inherits no memory at all.’

‘…the barracks, the whip, and the stocks, in the sense of cultural projection; and the wealth resulting from such efforts is contained in the foundations of each one of our major magical-religious systems.’

‘A certain detachment prevails in the social mind, disrupting the citizen’s accommodation in the general body and generating a diffuse yet exact there is no place for me sort of feeling.’

‘In the last fifty years the Island has been immersed in the urgent task of drawing new circumstantial limits; hence, death has recovered the sympathetic and fertile connotations it possessed when the nation was born in la manigua (the wilderness). Death in revolutionary Cuba is not an act of solitude but a unanimous communion of hopes; and in face of the usual enemies and occasional hardships, the words of the Gospel come to us: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?”’

‘Even if much has been written on the subject, I do not think that we Cubans have yet been able to fully comprehend the extent to which slavery and the plantation system conditioned social behaviour and values, either in material or spiritual matters, either in immediate or prospective terms.’

I was quite relieved to read the above. My first experience of santeria, several years ago, involved, basically: ‘nobody really understands it’. I believe that is still the case. Santeria involves countless rituals. They are not made up; every one is recorded from previous experience, written down and referred to. Also involved is percussion, lots of it and for very long periods, chanting, singing and dancing. It always involves at least two people and the subject (usually many more than two, sometimes as many as will fit into a space). I will explain no more.

For what it is worth, I believe that santeria is a response to chaos, the chaos of many centuries of Cuban life, followed by the revolution, hope, brief comparative prosperity, hardship again and now perhaps hope – although none of that is acknowledged – Cubans live for the moment, don’t worry about much else and express themselves through santeria.

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Cuban magical religious systems cannot be analysed as independent structures; not one of them, despite their isolation or liturgical complexity, exists without a functional reference to the others.

Rómulo Lachañtarés believes that santeria is a system of local cults. In relation to santeria there are five fundamental reglas (cults). If we were to go any deeper inside any of them, we would run, like it or not, into the others. Each system, thus, inhabits its own recognisable space, while it steps into the territories of the others.

The orisha cult or Regla de Ocha is expressed in a total subduing of the dead in favour of the orishas (Yoruban deities).

Other systems include Oggunismo, Espirito de Cordón, Regla Muetera and Regla de Palo Monte. We are concerned here only with Regla de Ocha or santeria: Yoruban origin.

1 – Ridden by orishas: The repertory of gestures is quite conventional. Theatricality and stereotypes are the obvious frame for a wavering personality.

2 – Ridden by anonymous or unknown muertos:  Possession is weak and superficial. There is no prearranges code for gesture except for closed eyes. No sounds are produced and no attempt is made to establish communication.

3 – Ridden by orishas as mortal spirits: Strong, violent states offering no possible communication. The orisha rides following the mortal, earthly avatar he enjoyed before death and ulterior deification. Possession acquires a tragic mood, as if the orisha was intuitively and wildly searching for whatever has been lost. This is specially so in the case of warrior gods.

None of the above sufficiently explains any of my experiences. This was just the best, short explanation I could find. Joel James Figarola believes that:

‘trance or possession is a quality, talent or capability of human psychic nature, regulated by cultural determinations which are closer to ethnic – not to mistake for racial – heritage rather than to immediate social or educational circumstances. Trance and possession are thus part of the reservoir of human potentialities, and much as, for example, feelings and emotions, they are tones of the mnemonic range of the species. Mystic crises of communication involving forces believed to be transcendental are part of the foundations of every religion and are easily traceable throughout the planet. Both the Old and the New Testament, to name but two instances, contain clear references to this matter.’

Although he believes that ‘fraudulent imitation is far from rare’, he finds that the most convincing example of possession is the third in santeria: orishas in their avatar as dead individuals:

‘in santeria they attempt to achieve a fair enough communion with the orishas’.

I found the examples of possession fairly convincing.

DSC00554Santeria – part one

Santeria – part two

Santeria – part two

In Yuri’s eight day absence, her mother will come to the flat and cook for me. Tomorrow I go the santeria myself. At the flat I make do against the heat (33˚), which is not too bad; there is a mostly constant breeze and it rains on many days, mostly the evening. I can look after myself but Yuri has taken care of everything; my Spanish is awful, I can’t protest, so I’m happy to let things be as they are. I am considered useless and happy to be so.

 

Tomorrow at ten in the morning Yuri’s mother and sister will call for me.

 

They came at ten on the dot and we walked the half-mile or so to the place of santeria. Yuri had been there for two days. Her head had been shaved and she wore a white dress. The room was full of every type of paraphernalia to do with santeria: fruit, herbs, crusts of bread, myriad objects, tassels and objects of clothing. She sat in one corner of the room on a mat, above her a triangular canopy of yellow. We were soon joined by about eight other people, some to do with Yuri, others about their own business. For an hour they just talked and laughed. Three of the women were the same as we had seen the week before, but in a different place. This was the real thing.

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After about an hour and a half I was taken aside. My hair was washed with something strange, doused with coconut juice and dried slightly, while the woman chanted in Yoruba. Then I was taken to a separate room where desiccated coconut was placed on my feet, knees hands, chest, neck and finally the top of my head, all the while as chanting took place. Then the largest pile of coconut (on my head) was covered with a cap, and left.

 

The santeria man has a nice house, a very wide screen TV and several women working for him. He’s very sociable and everybody likes him.

 

I went to see Yuri on Sunday, still dressed in white although there are yellow dresses she changes into at other times. She is tired. She sits on a mat in the corner of the room. She must sleep there too. I drank a coffee and talked for a while, but soon exhausted my limited Spanish and what I had been doing (very little) and left after about an hour. I hated the time Yuri was away. Although my Spanish is extremely limited and her English almost non-existent, we seem to communicate well. Much of the time she isn’t here, but I know she will be back and that makes all the difference. The eight days she was away, apart from writing and the occasional film, I did not know what to do. I have been to Havana so many times that walking held little attraction, and it is over 30˚. A woman comes to clean every few days, Yuri’s mother and sister come to cook, but I find I’m rarely hungry. I go and collect cash when I need it. I went to watch the beginning of the English football season on Sunday, but it appears that ESPN have lost the English games to BT, so I just waited until I knew the score and left.

 

After eight days, Yuri returned. Her head has been shaved. She wears a quite substantial pair of drawers, tights, socks, a white dress and a white head dress. She must wear this stuff every time she goes out, and she must go out and walk around every day. She must not have the sun on her, so she carries a white umbrella. In the house she can wear a white shift and remove the tights but everything else remains. She must eat while sitting on a mat and somebody else must wash her empty plate. She must wear this stuff and behave like this for three months, all the time remaining in Havana. After three months she can return to Bahia Honda, but must continue to wear the outfit for a year.

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I had noticed people wearing all white, but it was not until Yuri had her treatment that I realised why. Walking around Havana, one day you might see two or three people all in white, their hair at various stages of growth; on another day you might see ten or more. This is not scientific, but of the people I saw, perhaps 30% or 40% were white. Whatever Yuri had done, it is very popular (for those who can afford it). I have been to perhaps four places that practice santeria. There are many, many other places and hundreds of shops supplying trinkets and many secret places providing animals for sacrifice. I would imagine that Cubans do get conned, but not often; tourists are fair game and I would expect the gullible to be fleeced. This eight day treatment is the first time I’ve spent any substantial amount on santeria – and it does involve a lot of expense.

 

The first Friday after Yuri had completed she returned for a final ritual on her Padrino’s birthday. Free food, loads of it was available for everybody. Some people were drinking, but not many. Yuri’s ritual lasted an hour or two, involved lots of percussion and people dancing and chanting around her. Two or three others had similar rituals; one black man seemed to be possessed and was taken into another room, where he continued to speak in a voice of possession for a couple of hours. The Padrino listened to every word. If there is anything suspect about santeria, it is still very, very hard work.

 

I’m not disillusioned with santeria; I’m just a bit bored with it all. Not understanding the language doesn’t help. But this is something that means a great deal to Yuri and I’m happy to provide it. In future though, I won’t have much to do with it. It can be fun, it can be a spectacle – but I’ve just about seen enough….

 

 

The third and final installment of my Santeria experience will be posted on Monday.

 Santeria – part one

Santeria – part one

On arrival in Cuba, Yuri, my woman, asked if I remembered that I would consider paying quite a lot of money for a massive santeria campaign for her, involving over one week’s intensive treatment: clothes, occupation and all the paraphernalia that went with it. I remembered the email conversation of six months before but there had been no discussion since, and I had forgotten about it. Yuri hadn’t. I quickly calculated the reliability of the request, the chances of her staying faithful to me and agreed to finance the santeria. It would mean less money to spend on whatever, but I hadn’t intended much in the way of entertainment anyway.

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The santeria involved two afternoon preparatory sessions. I was persuaded to attend the first one. I was not a stranger to santeria, having undergone sessions in 2001, 2009 and 2012. I was not a believer – well, certainly a sceptic – but as my experience grew I realised just how firmly entrenched the religion was in Cuban culture. My 2001 experience, though extensive, paled in comparison to late experiences. In 2009 I encountered, more closely, the thoroughness of operations, undergoing a two hour session involving the sacrifice of a young goat, a chicken and a goose. Although the sacrifices took up only a small part of the operation, most of which involved two santeria practitioners repeating from the book of Yoruba, a series of litanies. I had no idea what was being said; I was ordered to bow, touch, speak, perform strange rituals, and touch objects, symbols, dust, powders and liquids. I kissed the severed neck of the young goat. At the end I was told that I was capricious and would need to be careful of my health. I didn’t need santeria to tell me that. Yuri could have told them that. But one of the practitioners told me several times that I was crazy, which may or may not be true, and also I didn’t understand ninety per cent of what they told me. My Spanish is very, very basic. Yuri speaks little English. Despite both of us taking lessons in each other’s language we have so far failed to learn much beyond the absolute basics, although we communicate between each other pretty well, mainly using my rudimentary Spanish.

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The next occasion entailed santeria for Yuri. We visited a spacious and airy building where a man began preparations for her ritual. He was impressed by my book on Cuba, Caliente; at least he appeared to be. He was accompanied by at least two women who seemed to be there permanently. While we were there he was visited by several other people; there seemed to be a constant flow of people, mainly white Cuban, during the time I was there. Some spoke English, some did not; the age and occupation varied but I was left with the impression that santeria was not a minority interest, but that practically all Cubans followed it to some extent.

123We took two bicycle taxis, first to a nondescript building where a few people waited outside. The man knocked several times and we waited several minutes before someone opened the double-doors. A very sleepy, attractive young woman opened the doors, very reluctantly allowed us access. The interior was completely dark with three walls lined with cages. The cages contained goats, chickens, cockerels, geese, and other varieties of bird. For reasons of which I know not, perhaps price, we didn’t stay long, and rejected what was on offer. Off in the two bicycle taxis again, for about a mile where Yuri, the main man and an assistant, much older, found another place. I was told to wait in the taxi. After about thirty minutes they arrived back with two chickens and a goose. A motor taxi was hailed, the animals, tied by the feet were thrust into the boot and we set off elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be about fifteen miles away, on a beach, although not facing the sea. A small lake adjoining the beach was chosen and preparations made. One of the chickens immediately escaped. I thought this funny, but just watched with amusement as they tried to catch it. They didn’t. I was secretly pleased. I have no particular fondness for chickens but I was happy to see it make its burst for freedom. Perhaps it’s still there or thereabouts. I hope so. No such luck for the remaining chicken and goose, both had their heads removed, the blood sprayed over Yuri’s legs among the usual chants and exhortations. The ceremony lasted about thirty minutes. I have no idea what it was about or what it was supposed to achieve.

We later stopped at one of the several little shops or holes in the wall (one at least on every street) to renew my bracelet, a yellow and green beaded effort that I had been wearing for three years, to protect me from I know not what.  The shop contained every trinket imaginable. We also visited, by taking the harbour ferry to its other side, the Catholic Church where Yuri lit candles for my book and briefly prayed at the altar. The santeria religion is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs that countless slaves bought with them from Africa. As far as I can tell the religion is perhaps twenty percent Catholicism and eighty per cent an unfathomable mixture of African beliefs, but be sure, it is widespread and inseparable from the rest of Cuban culture.

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Fast forward to today and the preparation for Yuri’s week long santeria initiation. I hadn’t intended to go, not knowing what to expect. First we visited the top flat of an overweight young woman, her Madrina. I was given coffee and there was much talk about what was to come. After about thirty minutes we moved to another top floor flat, the stairs to which would have been condemned anywhere else, wooden and rickety and only vaguely attached to whatever they were supposed to be attached to. The last leg of the journey upwards involved a spiral staircase covering three floors. We finally settled into a small room where the young woman and one female, very attractive assistant, prepared for whatever was to come. Although the size of the room made it impossible, I sat as far away from the action as I could. The two women were later joined by two others – so four practitioners and one subject, with me sitting in the corner with my book and cigarettes trying to pretend that nothing was happening.

What followed was three to four hours of intense chanting and activity. The overweight woman seemed to go into a trance of some sort for at least two hours. Whether she became people from the past (the dead), one person or several people, I don’t know. I was trying to avoid involvement. The other three women and Yuri followed many of the chants and vague suggestions. They all knew exactly what was going on and how to respond. The overweight woman inhabited other personalities. She shouted, screamed, had minor fits and seemed very much to be genuine. If it was at all fraudulent then it was exhaustingly so. She involved me a couple of times but I tried to remain invisible and take no part at all.

Three days later at twelve o’clock, Yuri left. Eight days were to follow of intensive treatment. She left on Tuesday. I was to join, reluctantly, on Thursday. Alone in the flat was both pleasant and unpleasant. I missed Yuri but I also enjoy being alone. Every provision had been made. I had food to last. Yuri’s mother, who had come from Bahia Honda to assist with the santeria, would come in every day and cook.

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Santeria – part two

Being Gay in Cuba

When I first came to Cuba, Gayness wasn’t discussed. It was disapproved of and people rarely talked about it. Yamilia whispered to me in 2001 that Raul (Castro) was gay; José asked me if I could find him a book on gayness, but beyond that it was never mentioned, acknowledged – it just didn’t exist (openly). Prostitution existed, but to me it was never that open or that common. Sure there are women who will sell themselves, some, a few, to anybody, while others are more fussy, more opportunist. The rest of the world makes a big deal about Cubans selling sex, but in reality, I would bet that any English, European, American town or city – worldwide probably – has more prostitutes per square mile than Cuba. Cuban attitudes to sex are different too. It is not very important; it is fun but they do not mistake it for love or take it too seriously. They take it seriously while they’re doing it, but it’s just a bodily function, quickly forgotten.

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I noticed things were changing in 2006. Mine and Yuri’s room had been double booked, so we were temporarily sent to another house. It was run by three gay men and populated mostly with gay travellers. The main man of the house spoke English and for the few days that we were there he spoke to us frequently. He was jovial and friendly, but afterwards Yuri always gave me a look, a isn’t he strange look; she wasn’t comfortable with it. If we stopped in the street to talk to someone (always male), she would afterwards say

‘he’s gay’

and give me that look.

 

It’s different now. Gays are everywhere.  And Yuri never mentions anyone’s gayness. It’s so common she has just accepted it. About gay prostitution I’m not sure. Yuri did set up a meeting with a gay friend but it fell through. I know they congregate around the Capitol building (which is being restored) and in Vedado. Beyond that I know little about it. Actually, I take little interest. To me it’s just a sexual preference. If that’s the way you are – fair enough – do what you like. I don’t agree with Gay Pride marches or advertising yourself too much, but I dare say that will settle down.

 

If you’re not gay, then there is little to notice. You may notice an apparently obvious gay person wandering around, but that’s about it. As far as I can see, whatever gay community there is, keeps itself to itself. If I hadn’t been told about the gay culture, I would certainly barely notice it. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it is more overt and I just don’t see it, but I don’t think so. In ten years Cuba has gone from not even acknowledging gayness, in fact persecuting open gayness, to accepting it quite openly. Not bad going.

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