Friday, 28 August 2009

One of those very rare days

where fortune seems entirely on your side. Friday, the last day of the Tower Poetry summer school I was at in Oxford since Tuesday. Cloistered away in Christ Church, hardly venturing out, the 14 of us (aged 18-23) had intensive workshops, ate at high table, and found a magical space to write.

By Friday, I had work I was more happy with than I have been for a long time. My mind is so over-active at points that I can't get calm enough to write. The workshops reminded me how to do it, how to forget the mad rush we so often are in. I read four poems out this morning, amongst those of the other thirteen people. The other problem I have is that I constantly tell myself I'm not as good as those around me, that I'll never measure up. It's a competitive streak which can be if all writing, or people, are only there to be judged against.

After that, by chance, I met some friends of friends, poet-types I'd heard about before . Had an aimless ramble through London, an aborted trip to the Poetry Cafe, and was exclusively happy. Nothing mattered but these unique, fantastic new people. One of those very rare, very perfect days.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

London again

yesterday, and it was alive in the sun. The fullness of the light gave Trafalgar Square back something of its Imperial glory, and Covent Garden's cobbles might, for a second, have been in Italy. The explosion of sunglasses was strange and uplifting - and gave my Liverpudlian friend a sadly too positive view of the climate. As I got the train back home from Victoria, the sun showed me family-constructed cricket in suburban parks, railings climbing concrete walls. It also showed me 4 kids sitting on swings, on a patch of tarmac in Croydon. I couldn't help but think of The Wire - though I hope their lot is better than that.

I don't think I've mentioned The Wire on here before. I could easily launch into the sort of paean that you'll find in The Guardian or lots of other places, but I don't want to get caught up in that. So I'll just say that it is an extraordinarily impressive, exciting and real TV programme, and that everyone should see it.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Se remettre dans le bain

is how they say it in French, which I have mostly forgotten. Getting back into the swing of things: re-experiencing slow days at home, eating just because I'm bored, summoning the energy to write, watch a film, go to the gym, do something.

I increasingly believe that the most worthwhile things that you can do with your life are 1) help others, and 2) create something. If you can help people by creating something, so much the better. I know that my only vague talent for creation lies in writing, so I then wonder whether that can help people. I genuinely think that it can - there is, after all, a lot of truth in the phrase "we read to know that we are not alone". For me, the best moments when reading are when I find an idea, a phrase or a line that resonates with something within me, be it an experience, a feeling or a belief.

I hope that whatever career I go on to have (and I have made no decisions), I can achieve those two things I mentioned.

Anyway, I am relearning how to pass the time, seeing friends, writing (or trying to write) poems, watching films. Tomorrow I'm going to the theatre, and will take the opportunity to rediscover London beforehand. For now, I have to go pick up my new bike. Another thing which makes Cambridge a bit more real.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Thinking back

Memories, of course, lose something with time. It might not be the facts, but it could be the smells, the colours, the touch of someone's hand. So writing about Cuba now, over a week since I left it, seems like a failure. I will have lost something of the immediacy, the vibrancy which makes the island unique.

It is, above all, an island of colours. This includes the colours of the skin of its inhabitants, the colours of the cracked and peeling paint, of the omnipresent propaganda, the 50s cars, the pure sea and sky. It is beautiful in so many different ways. There is the impossibly white sand of the beaches, the bright turquoise of the sea, the timeless (and overused) look of Havana's old streets.

I am slipping into tourist brochure clichés. They are, in fact, mostly true in what they say about the buildings and the cars and the rum and the cigars. But tourism is where the country's contradictions are at their strongest. Often, we as foreigners are herded into a tightly controlled "version" of Cuba...we use different money, stay in different hotels, even visit resorts which Cubans cannot enter. So much for socialist equality, you might think. Indeed, the inequality is worse in that Cubans working in the tourist industry earn many times more than just about anyone else. The result is that you hear stories about doctors and lawyers becoming taxi drivers and waiters, simply because they earn so much more. I could write paragraphs on the phenomenon of jineteros, people who will approach you on the street offering rum, fake cigars, a place to stay, etc. It is a sad fact that the line between a Cuban being friendly and a Cuban wanting money is often (not always) scarily thin.

And yet, there is a magical sense of community. I could walk back through central Havana and the suburbs at midnight and be totally at ease. Old men were out rocking in their chairs, playing dominoes and smoking. Kids kicked a ragged football round the corner. Women hung washing from aristocratic balconies. What's more, nothing seemed too big a problem. When I struggled with the outdated banking system, the crazy money or anything else, my hosts (staying with families is the way in Cuba) would always be completely relaxed, and ready to sort things out. I guess it's a necessary skill in a country where most things are illegal.

I don't really want to get into a detailed political analysis of the government here, but what I heard from most Cubans was that Raúl has none of the charisma or personal charm of his brother, and that nothing seems to be moving forward or getting better. I don't think much needs to be said about personal freedoms, other than that they don't really exist. All I will say is that after 50 years, I think it's time for a change of some sort, even if it's just a new generation of leaders. I would have thought that the concept of "revolution" would encourage that.

What I do want to talk about, however, is the culture and the arts. These, to my mind, are Cuba's greatest treasure. In every city, there are museums, art galleries, theatres and all types of street music and dance - all of which is easily affordable for Cubans. It is a democracy of culture, in that there seems to be little division between "high-brow" and "low-brow" entertainment. Best of all, the quality is universally very good, because people's hearts are in it.

I will finish this hugely inadequate summary of Cuba with a few images that still stick in my head, even after a week. The first is a bike ride I made from the town of Trinidad to the sea, passing clapped out Chevrolets, horse carts, deserted beaches and roads filled with crabs.

The second, the look on a newspaper seller's face as I gave him the wrong money by accident for the newspaper, and so paid him 25 times too much (about $1). I think I made his week.

Lastly, a disco I went to in the town of Cienfuegos. The young people and kids were dressed just like any others you'd see in the US or the UK (though the dancing was infinitely better), and were dancing to the same music as the rest of Latin America. I spoke to a few kids during my time on the island, and the hatred of the US encouraged by the government doesn't seem to have transmitted - which is not to say that they're not proud of their country. Given that, I feel like Cuba's next "revolution" isn't too far off. I'm not sure it will involve tearing down the ubiquitous Che posters, though.