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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide