Farewell then, Fidel. You used to matter to us

So long in coming, the Cuban leader's departure did not even have the power to divide opinion here

"Hurry to Cuba," urged a short piece in the Sunday Times. If you want to see it before the US embargo is lifted and the Americans pour in, then "you'd better go soon". In the Independent, the travel writer, Simon Calder, was of a similar mind, warning grimly that McDonald's and Starbucks were probably already scouting for locations on "the Caribbean's most seductive island". A two-page spread alerted us to the best hotels, museums and beaches, all beneath the message: "Go now".

Long ago, after his first attempt at revolution in Cuba ended in failure, Fidel Castro stood before a court and declared, Blair-like, that history would be his judge. Very few imagined then that he might go on to enjoy almost half a century in power, and it is a safe bet that no one could have dreamt that the ending of his epic reign would be recorded not as a milestone for revolutionary socialism, but as a tourism opportunity.

It was a big story in our papers for sure, but there was no great clash of ideologies, none of the confrontation that Castro loved to provoke - indeed, almost no debate. He went, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Only Simon Heffer tried to pick a quarrel over it. "I wish the unhappy people of that island an early liberation from this vile family with its self-serving Leninist doctrines," he wrote in his Telegraph column. "How amusing, though, to read the thoughts of our own leftists on this historic moment, what with their having to deal with the abundant evidence of Castro's savagery and failure."

Heffer was tilting at windmills, for so blurred were the old battle lines that it was often hard to tell from the words alone which newspaper you were reading.

It was the Mail and not the Guardian, for example, which introduced a stirring two-page spread about the Bay of Pigs invasion with the words "How Castro humbled Uncle Sam".

And it was the Independent on Sunday and not, say, the Sunday Times that carried a piece by Chris Walker beneath the line "Let's get real about Cuba". In modern Havana, Walker wrote bitterly, doctors beg tourists for aspirins and people are locked up for the crime of "lending books".

The Telegraph pointed out that it was the Americans rather than any ideological enthusiasm that drove Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union. The Independent's Mark Steel, meanwhile, poignantly observed that a leader who inherited a country where black people weren't allowed on the beaches was leaving to his successor a country where the poor of all colours were barred from anywhere they might spoil the view for foreign tourists.

And yet, for all that, the departing Castro was not reviled as another Saddam or Franco, and the reasons had nothing to do with leftists turning a blind eye to the sins of a socialist dictator. The old autocrat won credit pretty well across the board because of the way he stood up to the United States.

The Mail had that Bay of Pigs spread, while the Mirror report of the resignation began: "He's seen off nine US presidents and survived 638 assassination attempts, but yesterday Fidel Castro stepped down as Cuba's president."

The Sun noted: "He survived more than 600 US-led plots to kill him - including bids to hand him an exploding CIGAR and jab him with a poison pen." The Telegraph called him one of the great political survivors and in the Times an academic critic of the regime, Mark Falcoff, said: "Fidel Castro was the first leader from a small, vulnerable country - one very much in America's historic sphere of interest - to confront Washington and live to tell the tale."

Some of this, no doubt, is the respect given to any David who sees off a Goliath, and some is a response to Castro's flamboyance and PR talents. But some of it, there can be no doubt, reflects a satisfaction to be found right across the political spectrum at this living proof of the limitations of US power.

The goldfish effect

BBC Television news bulletins on Sunday evening led with very full reports of the suicide bomb in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, in which no fewer than 56 Shia pilgrims died. The next morning no newspaper, not even the broadsheets that have the space, mentioned it on the front page, though several reported it inside.

In a similar way, Turkey's military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, while it has certainly received more coverage than the Iskandariya bomb, does not hold our attention as you might think it should, given its implications for the stability of the region.

Soon it will be five years since British and American forces invaded Iraq, and it looks as though we care less and less about the place as the months, good and bad, roll by. Perhaps five years is the limit of our attention span.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis