‘Our Man in Havana’, Graham Greene’s classic “entertainment” poking fun at the British secret service abroad was published just before the Revolution changed Cuba forever. When I visited the Havana I was fascinated to find a city that lives up to its nostalgic reputation but demands to be engaged with in the present.
I climbed out of the airport taxi and carried my bag past the huge cannons upended into the pavement and through the plaza beside the Convento de San Francisco de Asis. I looked around for a street sign that might help me find my accommodation. Lamparilla. There was no sign of any vacuum cleaner shop down the quiet, sunny street but I’d not been in Havana five minutes before being transported into the world of Graham Greene.
Our Man in Havana was published over 50 years ago. By the end of the month in which it came out, Fidel Castro and his forces had entered Havana and a very different period in the country’s history began.
Walking down Lamparilla, I was half listening for the wolf whistles accompanying Milly as she returned from school down Avenida de Belgica. And looking out for Captain Segura’s bright red 1950s American classic car.
Before the revolution Havana was all about greed and the desire for a comfortable life. Natural human desires that led a humble vacuum cleaner salesman to become an agent for the British secret-service. Really he falls in the spying business because he doesn’t have the fortitude to resist other people dictating his life to him.
I wasn’t quite ready for a daiquiri at ten thirty like the protagonist Jim Wormald but I was ready for a mojito with lunch. Anytime is cocktail time in Havana. Sadly, the Wonder Bar – the daily rendezvous of Wormold and Dr Hasselbacher – is long gone. As is Sloppy Joes. But happily many bars that Greene, Hemingway and Wormald (if he were real) frequented are still in fine form.
By midday I was sitting with a cold beer outside the Taberna de la Muralla in Plaza Vieja. Having come straight from the UK winter, it felt wonderfully decadent to be sitting outside sipping an iced alcoholic drink and wearing summer clothes.
A centipede-like line of small children emerged from the school across the square, following their teacher. In Cuba primary school children wear red uniforms with white shirts, middle school is blue and the older ones wear mustard yellow or brown.
Each shiny faced, smiling child wore his or her pioneer’s scarf tied securely around their neck. As they passed our table a young lad threw a quick salsa move to the music of the ensemble entertaining us.
A former MI6 agent, Greene was inspired to write this story after observing certain members of the German Abwehr in Portugal during the Second World War. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, Wormald fabricates reports about mysterious installations being built by insurgents in the mountains of Oriente province in eastern Cuba. Greene writes in his autobiography of agents who diligently sent home false reports based on intelligence received from fictional agents.
Greene himself admitted he enjoyed the atmosphere of Fulgencio Batista’s city and “never stayed long enough to be aware of the sad political background of arbitrary imprisonment and torture”. He describes Batista’s Havana as a city “where every vice was permissible and every trade possible”.
The decadent nightlife and sex shows that Greene describes enjoying in the 50s were all rooted out after the revolution and relatively few prostitutes have crept back. Unfortunately so are people like the limping, step-counting street beggar.
Outside the Museo de la Cuidad on Sunday morning, a bent old man moves so slowly he can’t get whatever it is he has to sell out of his bag quickly enough before the tourist passes by. After a few attempts he sits on the pavement in the shade cast by the tall columns of the façade and rests his forehead on his knees.
Walk two steps away from the tourist quarter of Havana Vieja and the level of dereliction increases rapidly. Ramshackle shadows live beside immaculately restored grandeur. Ribbons of peeling paint and climbing vines decorate the facades. Children play simple stick and ball games on the street.
The faces we meet are of every hue from pale to dark. Greene would not recognise this Havana. Martha Gellhorn, sometime wife of Ernest Hemingway, wrote about a post-revolution return to Havana long after her years here with the iconic writer. She recalls that she never even saw a black person during her time in Cuba in the 1930s apart from their “palest mulatto” driver.
Walking through Plaza Vieja in the twilight a crash of falling masonry about ten feet away startled me. A child’s laughter – we could hear him scuttling along a balcony and inside. As it has always been in Havana, the doors of every house are open and people sit on the doorstep or on chairs inside passing the time of evening.
The Malecon, or the Avenida de Macea, is my most enduring sensory memory of the city. Once the glory of the colonial aristocrats, it is now unremittingly broken-down. A gap-toothed smile from the El Morro castle to the Hotel Nacional.
Wormald and Beatrice walk along this wild shore after a lobster supper. That romance has crept into their professional relationship is clear to everyone except Wormald himself. That evening it was wet and blustery; for me it was calm but still the occasional roller crashed and sprayed over the sea wall, leaving puddles that pinkly reflected a sun that was setting somewhere.
The sun sinks tropically fast here and the equestrian statue of Antonio Maceo reared against a burnished gold sky, silhouetted between the tall curling lampposts along the boulevard.
Looking back, all the way along to El Morro, the evening light brought this crumbling curve of masonry to life. If you look too closely you will see the washing strung up from once grand balconies.
Walking up the sweeping drive to the Nacional Hotel, the first thing I noticed was the banner draped along the side of the building. “Viva La Patria” proclaims a silhouetted man with a big rucksack, the Cuban flag flying behind him.
The royal palms are tall here, nearly as tall as the hotel where Wormald was the keynote speaker at the European Traders Association lunch in a private dining room. He closely avoided being poisoned by the rival CleanEasy man, the head waiter’s dog was less fortunate.
We caught the very last of the light sitting in the garden bar looking out to sea. Lights were pricking into life along the Malecon.
On the way to the Tropicana nightclub, the taxi took us through the once comfortable quarter of Vedado. The gracious cream and white villas symbolised the wealth of their owners; and they are starting to do so again. Every so often you’ll see one that has been reconditioned.
Pink searchlights still sweep the floor and dancers still step down from their platforms high in the trees at the Tropicana. If it wasn’t for the thousand-odd European tourists packing the tables, I could almost see how the young and 17th-birthday-excited Milly compared it to the Forest of Arden. I wished I had a soda dispenser like Beatrice to squirt the chain-smoking German tourists sharing our table.
The show is straight out of the 50s: showgirls, acrobatic balancing acts, crooners, dreadful balletic interludes. The audience didn’t quite know what to make of it and the waiting staff looked tired and harassed as they rushed around dumping bottles of rum and plates of limp cheese and ham on the tables.
Only a couple of years after the Suez crisis, Greene highlighted Britain’s diminishing influence in the world. His novel was written on the edge of a turning point in history. Despite my desire to indulge in nostalgia for his fictional Havana I found myself more impacted by a city on the cusp of a new turning point.
What nostalgia they have is not the louche city of Greene’s Our Man in Havana. In the taxi on the way to the airport, the driver played us a tape of what he said was his favourite album. Listening to George Harrison sing about his guitar gently weeping, I was reminded of musicians in a Havana bar singing Carlos Puebla’s 1965 hit “Hasta siempre, Comandante”.
We shall go on
As together we follow you
And as Fidel we say
Till forever commandante
Since Columbus first stepped ashore in 1492 and called it “Juana” Cuba has been influenced by international powers – Spain, America, the USSR – and apart from the magnificent architectural heritage of the Spaniards, influenced to the detriment of its people.
The banners in Havana wish Fidel 80 more years. That seems unlikely but fifty plus years of the revolution have given Habaneros a sense of identity and pride. The challenge will be to step out into the world and retain those.
By Natasha von Geldern
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