USA (Habana 53)

You can’t really consider Cuba as a country without considering the role of Uncle Sam; their intervention in the war for independence from Spain was a turning point, the consideration of Cuba become part of the Union, the influx of American investment (much of it from organised crime), their support for the Batista dictatorship until it was overthrown by Castro, the missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Guantanamo…

All in all the US hasn’t been a quiet and unobtrusive neighbour, though the recent rapprochement confirms that their value as a trading partner outweighs this.

Diplomatic relations were broken off in the early sixties, so for some time there was no direct representation for American interests in the country, or for Cuban interests in the U.S. although Switzerland and Czechoslovakia respectively took on some of the workload.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter’s administration took steps to improving relations with the result that US diplomats took over  from the Swiss in running what was known as the United States Interests Section in Havana.  (It was finally recognised as an embassy in August 2015)

Of course with the two nations still at odds politically and ideologically the building inevitably became a flashpoint.  With a complete lack of diplomacy the Americans began displaying propaganda messages on the building, even installing an electronic billboard in 2006 specifically for the purpose.

Havana’s response?  They’d already built the José Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, a public space for political rallies, in front of the US Special Interests Building, so they used it to build a wall of flags, initially each with a white star on a black background to represent Cuban victims of terrorism.  The flags’ role was to obscure sight-lines to the billboard.

In 2009 the billboard was removed, and the flags now fluttering are the Cuban national flag.  How ironic that it should now be a wall of stars and stripes.

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España (Habana 18)

Cuba’s independence from Spain came after years of bloody conflict; though the extent of that bloodshed is a matter of debate.  Tales of atrocities reported in American newspapers of the time may well have been exaggerated or completely fabricated with the intention of drawing the US into the conflict on the side of those who sought to throw off Spanish control.

Whilst that might be seen as a natural echo of America’s own fight for independence from a distant ruler, the motivation was probably less idealistic.  Many saw Cuba becoming part of the US as a key strategic element in gaining control of the Gulf of Mexico and for a brief period after independence the Stars and Stripes flew over Havana.

Of course all of that happened in the 19th Century so it’s hardly relevant today.  Is it?

Well despite the 1959 revolution the US still has a strategic foothold on Cuba.  Originally agreed under the terms of a lease signed in the years immediately after independence, and then strongly objected to Castro as an illegal occupation, the US maintains a naval base on Cuba, in much the same way as the UK maintains Gibraltar on mainland Spain.  That base is Guantanamo Bay.

And over a century since the Spanish were defeated, what role do they have in modern Cuba?  There is still evidence of cultural influence, though to be fair an impressive statue of Cervantes may well be a pre-independence relic.  The same is true of architecture, a historic influence.  Food?  Difficult to say, Cuba’s poverty has limited the development of any strong food culture; if you can’t guarantee the supply of any ingredients you tend to work with whatever’s available rather than pursuing any particular style.

You do still see Spanish flags dotted about in Havana and there is one Spanish artefact that is highly prized.  A passport.  Most Cubans don’t have freedom of movement, but with dual nationality you can travel.

Which is why the place with the most orderly queues I saw in Havana wasn’t the national telephone provider with a limited supply of sim cards that everyone wants.  Nor was it the ice cream retailer Coppelia, which allows tourists to jump the line but employs security guards to manage the flow of locals.

It was the Spanish Embassy.

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Stand off & Deliver

Arriving in Thatcham this evening I had just enough time to capture some interesting Rorschach-like images of the sun going down with the crystal clear reflections of Taffy’s pond.  I wish I could have stayed longer to give the sky more of a chance to develop its colour range, but it was not to be, and in any event I wasn’t here on the common looking for reflections.  At least not of that sort.APW_8774

Taffy’s pond lies at one end of a long stretch of open land that is reminiscent of Windsor (but without the parrots).  There is natural beauty aplenty, but the patches of coppiced trees serve as a screen to what lies beyond.

Approaching the open space from the south there is a sprawling business park, many of whose buildings have a utilitarian look that hints at the former residents of this site.

The occasional piece of public art does little to soften the impression given by some of the objects here that there is more to the place than meets the eye.

Yes there are some typical business park residents; business specialising in food distribution for example, yet it was a different type of logistics and distribution that gave this place its notoriety.  I’ve written about the place before, but this was my first visit to Greenham Common, a place synonymous with the cold war and an era when Frankie’s Two Tribes was a guaranteed number one.  From here, American cruise missiles with nuclear warheads would have been deployed to counter any Russian attack.  My friend Annette was one of the protesters of the women’s peace camp.  The wide open space was once Europe’s longest aircraft runway.

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It seemed strange being here today (4th March) when a group of unarmed men were faced off by soldiers in Sevastopol.  The attempt by Ukrainian forces to enter the base where their armaments were stored being prevented by Russian soldiers on a “humanitarian mission” by firing live rounds over their heads.  West and East tell different versions of what is really happening out there, and I am in no position to suggest where the truth lies, but the implications for the world should either side lose control are in many ways more chilling than the constant threat that many of us lived through in Greenham days.

That base may well have been the same one visited for one by the inane clowns of Top Gear in their recent attempt to cross Ukraine in small economical cars, culminating in trying not to run out of fuel whilst within the contaminated zone of Chernobyl.  The tasteless stunt which made no reference to the massive human cost of the tragedy has now acquired the added irony of having used a former Soviet submarine base for a bit of fun, just days before Russia is exerting its power in the Ukraine for real.

Perhaps they should stick to the knitting and just focus on the cars and related items.  Perhaps I could help them out with this line-up that I spotted when working for a different client this morning.  These are the tractor units that distribute tyres to the teams during the European races of the Formula One season.  Going by the amount of rubber that Clarkson and co burn each week, perhaps they could do with one of their own.

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A Question Of Belief

Spinning away on my turbo trainer on Sunday morning I caught most of a short radio programme in which political philosopher John Gray was reflecting on the power of human beings to eschew all rational thought, burying inconvenient truths that are discordant with our preferred view of the world.  We cling to beliefs in direct contravention of the evidence, “choosing” not to know any better.  The lack of evidence between Saddam Hussein and terrorism, which Donald Rumsfeld refused to comment upon as it didn’t support the need to invade Iraq, or humanity’s ability never to learn from the financial crashes of the past, preferring instead to believe that we will be the ones who make a killing until the next financial crisis comes along amply demonstrate his point.

I’ve seen evidence of this in my own life, sublimating my own distrust of financial mis-selling when persuaded to attend a property sales event by my former spouse.  We’re both still paying for that one!

To some extent this failing contributes to the volatility of markets.  Market theory on share pricing expects that the price of an investment will reflect all of the information available about that particular stock (excuse me if I’m a little woolly on Efficient-market hypothesis, it’s a few years since I studied it!).  That may be all well and good, but it’s people who trade in those

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investments, and their beliefs come into play.  Consequently stocks are traded by those who may “choose” not to know the full picture because it doesn’t fit with their original beliefs about the investment.

We see this in debates about religion.  Richard Dawkins may write perfectly argued books as to why there is no god and pointing to the lack of evidence but in return he is faced with the argument “Of course there is none, religion is a matter of faith”  We’re back to belief again.

_MG_0633-Edit The tendency extends to so many walks of life.  The debate between those on either side of the climate change agenda, has been damaged by those who might dismiss scientific data that doesn’t fully support them as a blip or statistical aberration, whilst those with vested interests choose find logical ways to dismiss the findings of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.

We decide not to think about the unnerving, the uncomfortable, the embarrassing etc.

I argued with a friend recently over her belief that men don’t look for the same degree of love in a relationship as women, partly outraged that a woman could make such a generalisation from a male perspective.  She was completely wrong.  Or so I believe.sadhu-Edit

 

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You Only Bake Twice

Britain has taken baking to its heart again, a fact due in no small part to the phenomenal success of The Great British Bake Off presented by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.  Mary Berry has been synonymous  with baking for decades but Hollywood has come from seemingly from nowhere to become a TV “personality”; granted his own series on bread making here, and fronting the US version of Bake Off in the states.  Dubbed the George Clooney of TV chefs he and Mary have inspired many to reach for the flour again.  Including me.

I’m not a bad cook.  At times I can be very good, but bread in particular has always been my Achilles heel.  The few loaves I have produced over the years (including one baked in a plant pot!) have been heavy, stodgy, and completed unrelated to bread as we know it.  With time and space at my disposal now it was inevitable that I should give it another go to see if Mr Hollywood knew what he was talking about.  (As former Head Baker at Cliveden and The Dorchester, he should)

My first attempt was pretty decent.  The trouble was I started it one evening, and so didn’t have enough time for the proving and rushed it a little.  Colour and taste were good, excellent crust, but the crumb was just a little reminiscent of cake.  No matter, I enjoyed every slice.

With my second attempt, I went out during the second proving, and mistakenly had slashed the loaf too soon.  I returned to find a much larger loaf, though one that had grown laterally rather than vertically.  It just about stayed on the baking tray so I slipped it into the oven before it made its escape.  Half an hour later and we have a first; a crusty Stottie!  Still delicious though.

Think it’s going to be third time lucky?

Food photography is a very specialised art and one in some demand.  Books, magazines and websites call out for food that makes us salivate the moment our eyes fall upon it.  The trouble is that the food in those pictures is likely to be completely inedible.  Read any book on the techniques used and you will learn that the food is often skewered together to aid composition and garnished with oils, paints and detergents to give it shine and colour.  It’s not just inedible, it may even be toxic!

For any visitors I may want to impress this week, I baked something safer yesterday; chocolate and almond biscotti.  Biscotti is the source of our word biscuit, and means twice (bis) cooked (cotti).  Twice as many opportunities for error?  Not a chance and no additives for the photographs?  My younger daughter Holly is coming to stay this week which is why I made a chocolate version.  Eat anything with a chocolate flavour?  Holly would.  (See what I did there 😉 )

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Look out Tank Girl!

I’ve spent the whole day training others to deliver presentations, part of which required me to listen to short presentations by each of the delegates on a topic of their choosing.  The subjects were certainly varied; learning to play a keyboard, the seven wastes, scuba diving at the Farne Islands and the Movember moustache challenge among them, but by far the most intriguing title, and as it turned out the most entertaining presentation was Panzer Mice!

In this we were treated to the story of how a brilliant wartime manoeuvre saw the Russians parachuting crates of mice over German lines, so that the highly trained plucky rodents would seek out the innards of Panzer tanks, nibble through cables and halt the German armoured advance towards Moscow.  This lead to the deployment of cats as an SS countermeasure, only to be thwarted when subsequent Russian crates contained dogs in an escalation of this mammalian arms race.

Of course the story is a fiction, but it does have basis in fact for the 22nd Panzer Division was indeed halted by the intervention of mice, but mice inadvertently introduced by the Germans themselves after straw used in the insulation of the tanks against frost, proved an attractive nesting spot for the rodents.

In confessing to his subterfuge, the presenter did speculate as to whether this story had inspired the American development of incendiary bats for use against Japan.  This time the story is true as you will see if you follow this link.

Anyway, all this entertainment meant that I was late getting home, and although the skies were already darkening I was without a portrait for today.  A quick trip to the beach and I thought I had my subject, but he scuppered my plans by wading away from me into the sea!

Luckily I met Natalie shortly afterwards, and although the light meant that her portrait is not as sharp as I would have liked, there is enough light in her eyes to produce a pleasing picture I think.  Her dog was kind enough to pose too.

By the time I got home again the light had gone completely.  Must be better prepared tomorrow!.