Monday, May 27, 2013

The Motorcycle Diaries and the Cult of Che Guevara

In atheist Cuba Che occupies the place of Jesus Christ. I was struck from the moment I arrived there by the ubiquitous Che souvenirs and the small icons of the revolutionary leader that hang on dashboard shrines inside taxis.

While people spoke of Che in revered tones, nobody praised Fidel Castro, who had headed up the Communist government for more than 40 years at this time.

In Revolution Square in the heart of Havana the iconic face of Che stares out from a concrete building. It's one of the largest plazas in the world but I have seldom felt more hemmed in. For a few moments I felt the claustrophobia of millions of Cubans who are anchored down by these concrete monstrosities of a former age and unable to leave.

I hadn't thought about Che for a long time but finally watched a DVD of The Motorcycle Diaries that had been hanging around for a few months.

The movie is the dramatization of a motorcycle road trip Che went on in his youth that took him out of his native Argentina and gave him his life's calling as a revolutionary.

In 1952, the 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna - Fuser to his friends and later better known as 'Ernesto Che Guevara' - postponed his graduation to go on a grand tour of South America with his old biochemist friend 'Alberto Granado.'

Che in the Motorcycle Diaries

They mount the Mighty One and fell off it a number of times while passing some breathtaking scenery into Chile. When they are in Chile the motorcycle dies and they head north on foot. It feels like a coming of age movie or Jack Kerouac's On the Road, but as they walk through the Atacama Desert, they meet a poverty stricken couple who are seeking work at a mine.

They witnessed at first hand the exploitation by the mine owners of the workers. As they head north up the Andes exploitation of the masses rears its head in many forms.

In Peru they visit Cusco, the Old Inca capital and conclude the Incas were superior to their Spanish conquerors in so many ways, apart from weaponry.

Che's conviction to fight for the oppressed grows when he volunteers at the San Pablo Leper Colony in the Perúvian Amazon Basin. He balks at the fact the river separates the staff from the lepers and the nuns make them wear rubber gloves and won't serve food to anyone who hasn't attended Mass.

The scene where the asthmatic Che swims the river because he thinks he should be spending his leaving party with the lepers, forms the climax of the movie.

Che with Fidel Castro

Seeing Che depicted in such humanitarian terms made research more a man who was vilified in the west.

Che formed the view of the United States as an Imperialistic bully when he saw it overthrow the government of Guatemala. As a guerrilla leader in Cuba in the 1959 war he gained a reputation for brilliance and ruthlessness. Che was even known to personally shot defectors in the head. Heavily outnumbered at the Battle of Santa Clara, Che's victory paved the way for the Communists to take control of Cuba.

Much of what Che did when occupying high positions in the Cuban dictatorship, mirrors some of the experiments seen in countries such as Russia and China.

He saw capitalism as a "contest among wolves" where "one can only win at the cost of others" and sought to bring about the creation of a "new man and woman". He stressed that a socialist economy in itself is not "worth the effort, sacrifice, and risks of war and destruction" if it ends up leading to"greed and individual ambition at the expense of collective spirit."

Predictably these experiments in collectivism proved to be a miserable failure. Facing isolation, he sought economic ties with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Che was instrumental in bringing Soviet made nuclear armed ballistic missiles to Cuba in 1962, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the planet has been to nuclear war to date.

Facing the threat of nuclear war, the Soviets dismantled their missiles. The episode soured Che's relationship with the Soviets. He later told a journalist if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off. He later explained the cause of socialist liberation against global "imperialist aggression" would ultimately have been worth the possibility of "millions of atomic war victims.

It's hard to square such frightening callousness with the character in The Motorcycle Diaries who gives his coat to outcasts and swims a river for lepers.

Che fought in the Congo and Bolivia where he tried to export the Cuban revolution. In Bolivia special forces along with the CIA captured him. He was executed on October 9, 1967.

Revolution Square, Havana

He remains an enigma and a figure whose actions seem incompatible with his iconic status.

Che, writes Paul Berman, "was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice."

The Motorcycle Diaries is still worth watching. But we should bear in mind it's just a first step along the road. Maybe Che's idealism was pure back then. But life has this unpleasant habit of muddying the waters.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rainy Lunch Hours at the Tropical Smoothie Cafe

It’s a Thursday but it feels like it should be a Wednesday. I decide to punish myself by going to the Tropical Smoothie Café.

If you’ve ever been there you will know the scene; colorful jungle leaf tables, hard faux wooden tiles, a plastic palm tree that looks as if it was the school project of a middle school student high on correction fluid, enough bamboo to get a panda frisky and Caribbean Carrot Smoothie at 380 calories and almost as many dollars, not to mention no Wi-Fi connection.

This place is curiously unlike a rainforest in that it’s always so cold and bare as opposed to being humid and crowded with trees. I feel like going up to the counter to ask how many endangered naked people with Frisbees rammed in their earlobes have actually showed up to demand a smoothie. I decide better of it.

In my present job it’s not unusual to spend whole days almost alone with my projects. Paradoxically this appeals to the introvert in me but appalls the extrovert in me.

On rainy days like this it’s easy to feel a long way from anyone and anywhere. But then I don’t miss the whispered intrigue and backroom dealings of the newsroom. Recently I went to lunch with another member of the escape committee who was clearly more traumatized than me by what he experienced

“They eat their children. They chew you up and spit you out,” he told me.

The offered him a pay raise to stay when he handed in his notice. Then when they realized it wouldn't work they made sure he told nobody he was leaving so as he could just be erased from the scene like Trotsky in those photos.

His comments make me think. Hey they didn’t offer me a pay raise. They gave me a nice cake, though, even if someone had rather badly iced “Fuck Off” on it. I assumed they hired the middle school kid high on correction fluid.

So for now I’m trying my luck with Miss Vickie’s All Natural Kettle Cooked jalapeno chips idly watching some woman unload her car outside Farm Fresh wearing age inappropriate white hose.

Got any plans for Memorial Day? I’m home alone because my family (minus me) has been invited to my wife’s sister’s place in Charleston, so am spared the joy of eight hours of infighting and dirty diaper fights on the gridlocked I-95 surrounded by brash shouty people with Pennsylvania plates.

Already I have one hot date lined up in the form of a hike with a group of grizzled war veterans – why do I always think of the wheelchair fight in Born on the Fourth of July?

At least this will give me a couple of days to ponder the meaning of life, work on Novel Number 2 and to think long and hard about why on earth anyone would want to go to Tropical Smoothie Café.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Making Every Day My Masterpiece at the Y

I always feel smug for a couple of hours when I make it to the Saturday morning spin class at the YMCA. I tend to refer to it as extreme cycling because it sounds more impressive  like I've spent half of the morning hanging off the north face of the Eiger, and while an hour of intensive workout felt extreme for the first few sessions it doesn't feel so extreme now.

It also feels less cutting edge when I look to my left and see the 82-year-old man who shows up here far more regularly than me.

Nevertheless, the Y can still freak me out on a Saturday morning. There are too many kids and parents, too many cars in the parking lot and too much noise, Today a photo session with kids had been moved from the outdoor pool area to the gym which was full of parents jostling for position and looking angrily around for a member of staff to shout at.

At such times I sometimes feel the urge to become Sanctimonious World View Man (SWVM) - a sort of superhero without portfolio or bright blue underpants, and to go up to them and yell: "Look Soccer Mom. There are kids now facing bullets in Syria, and you are about to go postal over waiting 20 minutes for a photo which won't be much better than one you could have taken on your smart phone."

I didn't.

The other thing that bothers me about the Y is all the slogans and references to "Judeo-Christian values."

What the heck does that mean? In layman's terms you either believe Jesus was the main man or just some beardy dude who was great at parties because he could turn water into wine so as you didn't have to go out and pick up a crate at Total Wine.

As I slogged up imaginary hills to Mumford and Sons I allowed my mind to wander as to the meaning of the slogan on the wall "Make Every Day your Masterpiece."

It got me back to thinking about Jesus again and the fact most of my days look more like this...

In 2012 an elderly woman who considered herself an artist took it upon herself to restore a crumbling fresco of Jesus with his crown of thorns at the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borjanos in southern Spain.

The result was quite unlovely, although ironically it brought worldwide media attention to a little known and inconsequential fresco.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Iron Man, the Donald Trump of 1963?

I was persuaded to see Iron Man 3 this week by an eight-year-old. I knew very little about the whole Iron Man concept, but was dragged along grudgingly.

I was thinking about super heroes and Marvel comics, but as a kid I had singularly missed out on this quintessential slice of boy's own nerdism. So my Iron Man education has been retroactive.

In the film Robert Downey Jr. rather amusingly plays Tony Stark, aptly assisted by Gwyneth Paltrow his love interest. Already this idea engaged me - fortysomethings are the heroes and heroines of this movie. We are not over the hill; we are fighting people who turn into lava and blow up.

The bad guy is rather effectively played by Guy Pearce, the Australian actor who was born in Cambridge, England just a couple of weeks after me. Pearce is the only character I am aware of who successfully escaped from the straightjacket of the Aussie soap opera Neighbors with the exception of Kylie Minogue.

I read a piece in Wired which explained how Iron Man 3 is an empowerment movie for women; to my mind it's an empowement movie for middle aged people. Life is sure to begin at 40, as soon as I have thrown off this nasty cough.

In reality Iron Man is rooted in another era.

In 1963 story plotter Stan Lee had been toying creating a businessman superhero. It's a matter of some relief he wasn't around doing the same sort of thing today or we may have ended up with Trump Man, a portly, obnoxious super hero who does battle with his enemies by unleashing the power of his terrible comb over.

Back in the 1960s Stark was depicted as a character who suffers a severe chest injury during a kidnapper in which his captors tried to make him build a weapon of mass destruction (not to mention planting it in the deserts of Iraq).

Instead Stark used the suit to protect the world as Iron Man. Through his corporation Stark Industries he produces weapons to fight crime. Iron Man was apparently a vehicle for Lee to explore Cold War themes.

He explained: "I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military ... so I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him..."

So there's the irony for all those people who love Tony Stark. You were meant to hate him dudes. He represented the arms race, Nikita Khruschev and all that malarky.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Newspaper Intern

With my half-hearted efforts at finding an agent for Red Savanna going nowhere, (more on that when I feel growly enough) I have embarked on novel number 2.

Reportage is about the newspaper industry at the time of the decline of the industry when the egos of the reporters has failed to keep pace with the general fall in influence of once great publications. People often ask where I am going with a novel and I have few clues. I just write and see where it takes me, an approach that those who meticulously plan, treat with a  good deal of suspicion.

In this extract from Chapter 1, vain star reporter Charles Matthews is horrified to learn he has been assigned the intern for a week. Matthews has just blown the lid on his investigation into City Hall corruption and is basking in the glory of the exclusive. Even Peter Carlos-Clarke, the notorious published of the Globe, seems to be impressed. He is meeting his news editor Tom Watson. Yet a meeting with the intern quickly undermines Matthews' day of triumph.

Watson pulled up a news budget. “You have follow-ups to that story today Charles and don’t forget you have the intern in tow this week.”

“Oh fuck no,” Tom.

“Oh fuck yes,” said Tom chewing a wad of tobacco. “Just don’t pull that Pulitzer winner line on me again. It’s a great thing Charles but you were part of a big team. Team is important on the Globe. And that includes letting Penny  shadow you this week. You’re not too grand for that yet.”

Matthews’ pale blue eyes met those of his news editor. He didn’t need Watson to tell him he was the Globe’s star reporter. He saw it in Watson’s eyes. On an oblique level  Matthews knew Watson saw something  of his young self in his protegee, although Matthews could never imagine this thick set man, sporting his style of  insouciance or his wispy blond locks. Matthews knew Watson could have had any job he wanted at one time. Instead he became stuck in management, leaving him subject to the mercurial whims of Peter Carlos-Clarke.

Matthews was about to take his leave when there was a powerful nudge at the door and Carlos-Clarke pushed his way in, looking left and right like a prize fighter spoiling for a fight.

“Matthews, my man,” grunted the publisher and stuck a robust hairy hand out, gripping the reporter so hard he almost winched. Matthews wanted to pull away. There was something repugnant about the olive green hand covered in hairs that stuck out of the pin striped jacket. Matthews thought of a gorilla being fitted up by the best tailor in town. Carlos-Clarke had done everything he could to distance himself from the Barrios, down to tacking on his wife’s last name to his own, but Matthews could see through it. Sometimes when Carlos-Clarke got angry, his carefully cultivated Mid Western accent fell away and the guttural tones of the burrito street vendor, returned.

Now he was grinning heartily and back slapping Matthews and the reticent Watson.

“That’ll shake em up at City Hall eh? Investigative reporting at its finest.” Then his caterpillar brows knitted for a few seconds. “We don’t expect to hear from the lawyers, do we Watson?”

It was typical of the publisher to cut the reporter out of such deliberations, even though he was the best one to give an answer.

“No,” said Watson quietly.

“Then great job guys. When’s the next awards ceremony?”

And before either of them could answer his squat form was out of the door and barreling down to another department. Matthews moved to leave too.

“Oh Charles,” said Watson. “I meant to say. Penny Harris is in the lunch room. I told her you’d go and see her.”

“Who is Penny Harris?”

“The intern, of course.”

“Oh God. Yes.”

“It’s only a week Charles and try to get her involved a bit.”

Matthews’s reporter instinct was suddenly aroused. “You don’t normally take this much interest in an intern."

Watson cleared his throat in the manner of a man who wanted it known he was clearing his throat. “I should mention her father plays golf with him upstairs, which is why your name was mentioned in relation to shadowing. I’m very sorry about that. Thought it was only polite to mention.”

“Yeah thank a lot Tom. I’ll try not to get your ass chewed by Carlos-Clarke; just no weather stories right.”

“You know I don’t strike deals with reporters Charles. But in this case I am prepared to grant you that,” said Watson with a low laugh. “Now get out of here.”

The Globe building with its art deco façade and chilly polished hallways occupied an imposing position on Jefferson Square.  From the boardroom at the top it afforded an unparalleled view of eight lanes of traffic as it slammed up to the square before being diverted away on an ugly concrete highway to the west.  The building had whole floors now that were occupied by forlorn huddles of people who looked nervously at the open spaces around them as they became vaster by the month. The place was built in a different era; one in which newspapers were powerhouses that vied with City Hall for preeminence.

Even Matthews felt a chill pass over him as he walked the polished floors of the 8th floor hallway. The light was refracted here and a cold blue hue that made the reporter think of a thin waterfall in the shadow of a mountain, fell on the floors from the windows at head height. This was a high concrete bridge that was a back way to the print works. Matthews liked to take it to get to the dining room when he wanted to avoid colleagues. But it was always empty. You would never encounter anyone here. The macabre side of his personality was thinking it was a place where nobody would hear him scream.

Then he went through a heavy fire door, went down some iron steps and was in the busy thoroughfare that led to the lunch room. It was empty apart from the small black bob of a girl who was looking intently into a book. Matthews tried to suppress a scornful leer coming over his face. The college girl was looking at the AP style guide.

He marched over to her and demanded: “Are you Penny?”

She half rose. He saw her face was white as porcelain, pale green eyes. She blinked nervously and replied in a tiny voice. “I was when I looked this morning.”

Matthews coughed. It wasn’t the sort of response he expected from an intern.

“Um OK. I’m Charles Matthews. I assume you are expecting me.”

The girl just blinked. Matthews saw her skirt was short and he caught an interesting glimpse of black stocking.  He looked away.

The girl was taking her time, making Matthews impatient and somewhat fragile. This wasn’t what he expected, either.

“I have a list of people I’m supposed to be meeting and some type of reporter I’m meant to be shadowing. You are he perhaps.”
Although her voice was reed-like there was a firmness to it. Matthews was reevaluating fast.

Matthews drew himself up inside his tweed jacket. The urge to shake his head and walk calmly away came over him. Then an image of Carlos-Clarke appeared to him. Small; pugnacious and less than pleased. Being a star reporter meant little to Carlos-Clarke. As the old cliché went you were only as good as your last story and if the publisher didn’t like your last story, you weren’t even as good as that.

“Come with me,” Matthews snapped, more curtly than he intended. He had already come to the conclusion making small talk was an unwise course with this girl.

She said nothing, picked up her shoulder bag and walked silently beside him. To Matthews’ discomfort, Penny seemed to have no interest in him whatsoever. She looked from side to side at the framed front pages on the walls but paid little attention. The urge to explain the story behind one of his exclusives came over Matthews as they walked past it but he resisted, feeling he was likely to be stung by her disdain.

He decided Penny was either nervous or a cold fish. Matthews could not grapple with a third explanation that lay below his subconscious. The idea that she was supremely self-confident and really had better things to do than to care about the Globe.

Finally he slowed down and turned to her. “Penny. Have you ever reported on local government?”

“I’ve sat through city council meetings on my journalism course,” she replied steadily.

“At Madison?”

“Yes Madison.”

“Did you like it?”

The girl gave an almost imperceptible shrug. “It had its moments. When they weren’t spending two hours talking about something that would be dispensed with in 10 minutes in the boardroom.”

“Ah but the subtlety is in those long winded exchanges. The real business slips by in code when they think they have bored everyone into submission.”

The girl’s mouth furrowed. He noticed the small translucent hairs on her lip. “Not when they are discussing whether they should have one or two tea breaks at meetings for two hours.”

By now they were in the parking lot in the windswept lee of the heavy building. Matthews jammed his fists hard into his jacket.

“My car’s this way,” he said.

“I can drive,” she responded. He saw the distinctive blue and white shield on her key fob. Across the parking lot the lights of a BMW flickered on and off.



Saturday, May 4, 2013

Reese Witherspoon stands her ground as an American - and is arrested in Atlanta

This week's Lindsay Lohan award for best supporting actress to a DUI goes to Reese Witherspoon for her little performance in Atlanta.

It was a genuine honor to bestow this award because Witherspoon likes to portray herself as the goody two shoes golden girl of the silver screen even though we can't think of any film she's been in since Legally Blonde, which was legally bad anyhow. Or at least legally annoying

Reese Witherspoon shocks onlookers by showing up sober at the White House

Video footage doing the rounds this week showed a police officer arresting Reese's husband Jim Toth for DUI in the early morning hours of April 19.

Witherspoon - who since admitted she was drunk at the time -- decided to butt in during the arrest inserting the infamous don't you know who I am line, or at least a variation of it.

Comically southern police officers are clearly not made of the same stuff as their starstruck LA counterparts and the actress was arrested and charged with Actions Consistent with Being a Pain in the Ass.

Witherspoon also went on repeatedly about being pregnant and wanting to have a pee. This would make her intoxicated state more alarming, but we now know it was made up anyhow.

There were also rather a lot of bizarre references to her rights as an American citizen.

"I'm a U.S. citizen and I'm allowed to stand on America ground," she maintains, which makes me wonder if I was actually allowed to stand on American ground when I was the mere possessor of a green card.

The trooper responded: "Actually, you're not allowed to do anything."

Then when the American thing didn't work Witherspoon tried the actress thing on.

Reese: "Do you know my name sir?"
Officer: "Don't need to know."
Reese "You don't NEED to know my name?"
Officer: "Not quite yet."

Oddly enough even after her arrest in the cop car Witherspoon continued to audition for perhaps her greatest role yet. Pregnant woman who needed to pee. 

The police officer finally was worn down and apologetic telling her: "If you do pee on my seat I won't hold it against you," - an offer I can't imagine he makes to intoxicated drug addicts he arrests in the ghettos of Atlanta.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

My Crazy Life Post A-Z Challenge

A few people have asked me how I am coping post A - Z Challenge. It can be hard without the obligation and the knowledge that you are just hours away from the blog police coming over and kicking your metaphorical door in and throwing you off the challenge, out to languish in a pit where generally there is no challenge and you can't hop anyone's blog. You are officially a no hopper.

There's a perception doing the rounds out there that the challenge can leave you unhinged. You hang out with all these fellow bloggers for 26 days and when it's all over you are like the old guy in Shawshank Redemption who is so institutionalized once he comes out of jail he hangs himself from the bedroom of his seedy digs.

I don't hold with the unhinged notion at all. Just yesterday I was taking my pet snail Cedric down to the snail race meet, when some of the punters started asking me how I was coping post challenge. One of them proceeded to tell me Cedric was actually a slug. I told him he was a snail but his shell had been pulled off by an over zealous child. More racers crowded in, gibbering at me and holding their mollusks in my face. They proceeded to inform me under the General Snail Racing Code (Subsection 11a) a shell is an important prerequisite to racing and to be divested of the aforementioned shell is to be given an unfair advantage. The fight that ensued was most unpleasant and ended with Cedric being snatched by a Frenchman.

Other than the unfortunate scene at the snail race, I have been suffering the ill effects of a cold this week. My boss seems to be a germaphobe so every time I see him I growl in a low voice, get my nostrils to twitch, splutter and make jokes about why it was prudent to wear a green pullover. I am pleased to say I have been left to my own devices for much of the week.

I think I got off topic which was did the challenge leave me deranged? I believe not but can only question whether the advent of the Tungsten Carbide drill is responsible for the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Poncing off with your fancy friends in Barnsley indeed...

In other news I am wondering if Sue has finished the challenge yet and how come the A-Z police didn't apprehend her and march her down to Blogging Room 101 for a meeting with a hungry little rodent. Here's to hoping your post A to Z existence is better than mine.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...