I’m not a blogger anymore — not that I ever really claimed to be. But I still hang onto this blog — just for times when I might need it to say something that a tweet couldn’t quite cover. Now is one of those times.
Our Woman in Havana
The elegantly faded Cuban capital is on the cusp of a defining moment
By Nadine O’Regan Apr 10, 2016
It’s a cloudless day in Havana. The sun beats down. People mill about the place, laughing and chatting. Nearby, a group of entertainers teeter past on stilts, wearing belly-tops and singing, while their accomplice holds out a pouch for tourists’ contributions. Gaiety is in the air. We’re meandering through the sloping streets, when I’m stopped by my guide and prevented from walking on the pavement. “In Havana, people avoid footpaths,” Lillian says. She points up to a balcony over which a line of washing sways. “The balconies are old and dangerous. They may collapse.” As she speaks, I can’t help but think of the Berkeley tragedy, and shudder.
The Cuban capital is a city of colour, vibrancy, warmth and hustle – but also one that feels like the clock stopped decades ago, leaving its inhabitants to live on, but with little in the way of technology, architectural upgrading or safety mechanisms to protect and enhance their lives.
Walking around it is an experience that’s bewildering, discomfiting and fascinating. Short of a Marty McFly-style DeLorean ride, a trip to Cuba may be the closest thing to time travel you’ll ever experience. Fly into Havana and you will find a riot of colourful houses and hotels in the grandly colonial, Moorish and baroque styles, but also full with a lingering air of squalor. The paint on the buildings is frequently chipped and peeling, and there’s a sense that things are slowly coming apart at the seams.
It’s incredibly difficult to get new materials into the country. At the airport, I get a tough introduction to Cuba as we wait for hours while the baggage carousel unleashes flatscreen TVs, bicycles, computers and everything that every relative has begged their cousins living abroad to bring them.
In the city, kids play football on once-grand pitches that have lost half of their grass to seed.
As my guide Lillian and I chat, we narrowly avoid getting a bucket of dirty washing water hurled onto our heads from a nearby window. The whirl and colour of local life is ever palpable. A few brands are here – Adidas and Benetton among them – but they sell solely to rich tourists.
Change is afoot. Since 1965, the country has been governed by the Communist Party. But in recent years, with Fidel Castro taking a back seat to his brother, president Raúl Castro, restrictions have begun to be lifted.
Although Fidel continues to live quietly in an unknown area just outside Havana, and his influence is felt everywhere, it’s Raúl – who, locals note, is not the charismatic speech-maker his brother was – who is gradually effecting change. For many, there is a feeling that a way of life is about to end.
US president Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 21 marked the first time a US head of state had set foot in the land since 1928. Four days later, the Rolling Stones performed to a crowd of 1.2 million people here, saying they were happy to play in a country that had once banned them. US cruise ships will begin docking in Havana next month for the first time in five decades.
If, as Obama said in his speech, “the future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people”, then that future is currently being decided. “Everyone is rushing to see Cuba now before it changes,” says another of my guides, the briskly efficient Sergio. (A tour guide is advisable; expect to pay about €100 a day for the privilege.) “There has been change in the past couple of years, but it hasn’t filtered down the ordinary person yet,” he adds, with a touch of bitterness, as we fly through the streets in his tiny blue car. “A whole country was changed for one man’s vision.”
Right now, Cuba remains a country of extremes. Proud locals make much of the fact that their health service and education system is extraordinarily good. But their doctors and teachers often moonlight as tour guides or taxi drivers because they need the money. Everyone in Havana hustles for cash.
From a culinary perspective, Havana is a place with no familiar landmarks: no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no Eddie Rockets. If you want to buy food here as a local, you go along to a state-designated grocer, where a basic foodstuff like flour is weighed out for you on an old-fashioned set of scales.
There are restaurants and bars in the capital, but little in the way of what we might think of as corner shops. In preparation for my three-day visit, I stocked up on food as though I was going camping: I brought nuts, crisps and cereal bars, and was glad of all of them. (Be careful of the ice and fresh fruit; you need a strong stomach for Havana.)
What can seem alienating can also be joyous, however. A car fanatic could spend weeks in Havana just admiring the ancient automobile spectacles motoring thrillingly past them, with their drivers coming off like Toad of Toad Hall, sweeping his scarf over his neck and donning driving goggles.
I take a trip in a purple Buick 55 convertible and, even though the leather seat burns my thighs to a crisp in the hot glare of the sun, it’s still a perfect ride, a thrilling experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
As we drive along the Malecón, the seafront promenade that stretches for eight kilometres along the northern coast of Havana, we hear a noise: one of our hubcaps has fallen off the car. Unruffled, our driver retrieves it and we continue on our glamorous way, to the tree-lined Fifth Avenue, which was created in imitation of New York’s finest, and where Cuba’s wealthiest once lived, but which is now inhabited mainly by embassies.
Although that lifestyle may be gone, certain customs have remained. Ernest Hemingway – who famously loved Cuba and lived in Havana – is something of a hero to the city, and his image is everywhere. Kick back with a mojito or a margarita in La Bodeguita, one of the many watering-holes frequented by the writer, and soak up the feeling of faded glamour and vivacity.
It’s also an enjoyable experience to try cigar-rolling: at the hotel Conde Villanueva, I proved rubbish at rolling the perfect Cuban cigar, but it was fun to watch the house’s master roller at work, and sip on a glass of Cuban rum. Sun-loving locals also often like to take the bus (tourists rarely use buses) to the pretty beaches, which are a half-hour’s taxi-ride from Havana.
Throughout my time in Havana, it was never possible to do something I’d take for granted in Dublin: check my internet on my phone to see how the rest of the world was getting on. And Cubans don’t know much about the outside world. Tourists can get internet in the fancier hotel lobbies for eight Cuban convertible peso (CUC) an hour, the equivalent of €1, but the rest of the country barely has access.
My taxi driver waxes lyrical about Air Supply, U2 and Bon Jovi, but is blank-faced when Spotify is mentioned; and my tour guide misidentifies John Lennon in one of the placards we find in Book Square, a lovely space where wares are sold to the chirruping of birds and the smells of bougainvillea.
There’s a palpable sense of frustration from my young guide Lillian, who loves Havana but would like more opportunities. “All my friends want to leave,” she says. As she sees it, the younger generation are deeply frustrated, the middle generation are divided, and the old generation, her grandparents, are fiercely loyal to Fidel and his vision.
Although Havana is not dangerous as such, a certain amount of street harassment is inevitable if you’re pale-skinned, blonde-haired, obviously a tourist and travelling alone, as I was. “Chance never sleeps,” warns my taxi driver (also a lawyer) on the 30-minute drive from the airport to Havana. On my second day, I hide my jewellery in my bag, wary of the attention it attracts.
But there’s much beauty to make up for the downside. We visit the Hotel Nacional, where pictures of bands including Fleetwood Mac adorn the walls of the grand old bar and where, I’m told, the US Mafia used to gather until Castro sent them packing.
There’s an informal, even slightly chaotic quality to Havana that is fascinating. Everyone sings in the city: at times you feel like you’re in a musical, where, at any moment, the waiter might take flight into song.
Where I stayed, in the Mercure Sevilla hotel, the bedrooms were clustered within earshot of the lobby area, and exceptionally gifted musicians would gather daily to perform everything from Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven to old Jamaican folk songs like Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).
“Cubans are like the Irish,” Sergio tells me. “We have a similar history and we like to relax.” You can easily get that feeling about Havana. Once you get over the sense of difference, and become used to the hustle and bustle, there’s an atmosphere of vivacity and warmth that is compelling. Havana can be a discomfiting and tricky experience as a holiday, but it’s also one of the most memorable culture-shocks you’ll ever embrace. For the curious, it’s a wonderful place to visit.
Nadine O’Regan stayed at the Mercure Sevilla hotel in Havana and took part in a private Havana tour, which was organised with thanks to Sunway Holidays. The company offers package holidays to Cuba: see sunway.ie.
Where to stay: Havana accommodation is more basic than the four-star ratings attached to many of the hotels would have you believe. Where it says four-star, expect to get something closer to two-star. I stayed in the Mercure Sevilla hotel in Havana, which was faded but comfortable and served an excellent buffet breakfast. The live music in the hotel was also a delight – singers performed every day in the hotel’s grand lobby area.
How to travel: whether travelling alone or in a group, it’s important in Havana to get a local tour guide. This is not a city easy to navigate by yourself. I booked one tour guide privately and, courtesy of Sunway Holidays, which offer package holidays to Cuba (see sunway.ie), also booked another full-day experience through Havana Tours.
When to go: as soon as possible, before Cuba changes and becomes more modernised.
Top tip: bring dollars if you have them. They are accepted in many places, alongside the local CUC currency.
Useful websites: cubatravel.tur.cu/en is well worth checking out before you travel.
Here’s a thing that won’t surprise any of you to hear: I’m not a perfect person, and that’s particularly the case when it comes to my consumption of the internet. I know it’s wrong, but I’m as guilty as anyone of a spot of Facebook or Instagram stalking of handsome men at times, particularly after a few tipples down the pub. I will also admit to having googled myself (if you tell me you haven’t, I’m unlikely to believe you). And I have a case of internet-related hypochondria: I have a profound ability to diagnose myself with terrible diseases thanks to the availability of the world wide web. Woe betide the poor doctor who encounters me in their surgery: I’ve already got all the answers for them. Basically I’m a curious type and if the internet wants to provide me with answers to my questions, well, I’ll seek those answers out: I’ll do it with relish.
Take the hypochondria issue. The other night, I was investigating online a minor ailment that was concerning me (of course it was). Somehow I ended up on a site that led me to believe I had certain cancer. Fascinated, I read on, correlating my (largely imaginary) symptoms to the site’s authoritative list. The following day, I was doing an interview with Radiohead’s manager, a smart chap in an excellent suit, who looked like he’d never suffered so much as a cold in his life. I’d brought my laptop with me and he asked if he could use it to check something online. We went to Google, but for some reason the latest update on my computer had created a canny improvisation: rather than simply showing me Google, it elected to display, in a joyous montage, the sites I had recently visited. Sites like this one: ‘The top five indicators that you have skin cancer.’ Gulp. We both stared at it, and politely tried to look elsewhere.
My phone is at this shaming lark as well. I bought a new phone recently, the iphone SE, and now, if you flick left on your home screen, Siri will offer you a list of four suggestions as to who you should text that day. This is all well and good if you’re in a committed relationship, but a little dubious if you’re not. Frankly, having spent two weeks with this new phone, I’ve come to the conclusion that Siri is doing its level best to persuade me to text unsuitable men from my phone book. (I think my mother needs to have a word with it.) Facebook is just as bad. These days, it logs your search engine history and actually coughs it all up again immediately, and without you asking, when you go to the search tab. This is basically a list of everything you don’t want to see when you’re searching the site in the company of others.
I try my best to keep my technology in check. I delete my search engine history often. I unpin sites from my home page. And I try to do the simplest thing of all: be a better person and keep my less wise internet searches to a minimum. But human nature being what it is, everyone’s going to make mistakes sometimes — and sometimes they will be embarrassing.
I heard a story recently of a man who wrote to a newspaper to complain about the saucy adverts that kept popping up on his Facebook account. “Disgusting!” he wrote. “Inappropriate.” Alas for him, he hadn’t realised the adverts were linked to his personal preference for online pornography. Facebook had sent him advertising links based on his own search engine. There’s a lesson in this.
In 2016, it’s best to regard your devices with both respect and healthy suspicion, because whatever you might tell your friends, family and lovers about who you are, your computer knows better. Your computer has your secrets — and it may just use them against you.
Artistic Licence by Nadine O’Regan (published 07/02 in the Sunday Business Post)
Last week, a man called Fergus O’Farrell died in West Cork. Lots of people in Ireland – even committed music fans – will never have heard of him.
But for people who knew O’Farrell and his band Interference, they will understand how great a loss to the Irish music community his death represents. Formed in 1984 in Dublin and best known for the track Gold, from the Once soundtrack, Interference did not have much in the way of recorded output. But if you saw them play live, you’d never forget it.
It wasn’t because O’Farrell had muscular dystrophy – he was in a wheelchair, with limited use of his hands, his lungs half wasted away – it was because he and they were brilliant. This was no sympathy vote. Interference were the real thing. Thinking about O’Farrell this week, I couldn’t help but think, he’s not the only brave musician in this country. For many Irish artists, their enemy holding them back and pinning them down may be less visible, but it is no less present.
Every day, Irish musicians are being left hanging by the country that houses them: left stranded by lack of funding, lack of committed support from the arts ministry, lack of willingness by Irish radio stations to play them, as they choose instead to drip-feed the public an anaemic diet of Rihanna and Taylor Swift. Musician and film-maker Myles O’Reilly, an astute observer of the Irish scene, wrote a despairing Facebook post recently, in which he criticised the disenfranchisement of Irish artists and how the government made them ‘beg’ for financial assistance. “Ireland, today I hate you,” O’Reilly said, lamenting his negativity but unable to find any other reasonable response to the circumstances which surround him.
Some weeks ago, there was a social media outcry when the founders of Block T, based in Smithfield in Dublin, revealed that they would not be able to keep up their current premises. Block T is an important cultural space: it houses dozens of writers, artists, video-makers and photographers. But now that the leafy shoots of a new boom are sprouting, the Block T rent is boomeranging back to Celtic Tiger levels and the space has become untenable for the very people who kept Smithfield alive during the recession.
The Block T members aren’t the only ones struggling. In a few weeks’ time, on March 3, the Choice Music Prize – a celebration of the best Irish albums of the year – will take place in Dublin. Founded in 2005, and previously sponsored by Meteor, this year, the Choice Prize is limping along without a title sponsor. In an interview with the Irish Times, founder Dave Reid said he would personally underwrite any losses this year. Contrast the Choice Prize’s precarious situation with, for example, the Mercury Prize in England, which has the support of the BBC, and which represents a major boost and badge of pride for musicians.
Maybe it’s naive to think that we could do better; to dare to hope that our artists and musicians could get more than they’re getting. But it’s galling to see Ireland complimented abroad for its talent, as a nation of writers, musicians and artists, while undercut at home by a lack of funding – the Irish Film Board’s funding has been frozen for years; our national cultural institutions have lost out; writers earn buttons for their novels.
And still artists struggle on, because they understand how vital the arts are for their health and sense of self. In 2011, I interviewed Fergus O’Farrell in West Cork. He didn’t want to talk about illness. He wanted to talk about the importance of music in his life. ‘‘It’d be great if I was able to wave a magic wand, and – bang! – I could walk,” he said. “But, to be honest, if I had the choice between being able to walk again and losing my musicality or artistic nature, I’d keep up the art.”
The arts are not an indulgence. They are central to our wellbeing. Will a new government understand that, and act accordingly?
By Nadine O’Regan, published Jan 31, 2016, in the Sunday Business Post, Ireland
Have you heard of B.o.B? If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. He’s the US rapper who hit the headlines over the past week for his bonkers opinions, including his belief that the Earth is flat.
Last week, the chart-topping rapper wrote numerous tweets to his followers – and he has more than two million of them – expressing his conspiracy views and unveiling pictures of the horizon, which, in his head, back up his theory because, to paraphrase the man himself, cities in the distance would not be visible if the earth was round.
The important thing to note about B.o.B is this: it’s all silly, except for one detail: his media platform is massive. He’s communicating his thoughts to an audience of potentially over two million people. And now that the media has seized hold of the story, his opinions are snaking their way around the (decidedly round) world.
No matter how ridiculous B.o.B’s views are, someone’s going to wind up believing them, right? Oh, and by the way, B.o.B isn’t just a zany rapper who thinks the Earth is flat. He’s also a fan of David Irving, the Holocaust denier. (Asked about B.o.B, Irving approvingly said he will “now take a greater interest in American rap”.) B.o.B. is not just a science-scoffer and anti-intellectual. He’s a dangerous man.
There are quite a few B.o.Bs out there of late. Increasingly, I find myself watching US news and trying to distinguish the caricatures on satirical shows from the real people being mocked. Take the case of Tiny Fey, a brilliant comic who returned to Saturday Night Live to satirise Sarah Palin’s recent speech endorsing Donald Trump.
Fey had a whale of a time delivering her version of the speech, all the while rocking an identical silver tasselled black jacket, with spectacles and pale pink lipstick. But in truth Fey couldn’t hope to compete with the caricature that is Palin herself. With her speech about “holy rollers”, “spinning heads” and “pussy footin’ around”, Palin’s speech was sheer cartoon spectacle. Media outlets rejoiced in delivering Palin and her speech to the public, as they have with the speeches of Donald Trump.
Why wouldn’t they be pleased? Although Trump and Palin claim to provide us with political views, for millions of people out there, they’re just another entertainment. Nobody takes Trump seriously – and so the presidential candidate continues to rise in popularity, even while he tells us he will be responsible for deporting 11 million people and cracking down hard on Muslims.
“Would I approve waterboarding?” he has said. “You bet your ass I would – in a heartbeat.” That’s the kind of rhetoric Trump specialises in: folksy, down-at-home and rabidly anti-intellectual. Forget science, forget empathy, forget facts. Trump is part of a powerful wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping America at present.
But back to B.o.B. In a recent statement, the rapper said that those who disagree with his ‘flat Earth’ theory are “sheep”. “No matter how high in elevation you are,” B.o.B tweeted, posting a picture of some clouds viewed from an aeroplane, “the horizon is always eye level. Sorry cadets. I didn’t wanna believe it either”.
Handily, the rapper has a new song out called Flatline. With all the attention currently on him, thousands of new fans will probably buy it. Actually I’m okay with that. It’s just a song. It’s just your dime. At least B.o.B doesn’t want to be the leader of the free world (or so you hope). Not everyone is as lacking in ambition.
Stupid is on the rise. And yeah, most of the time, it’s all pretty funny. But – as the months wear on and the American presidential campaign gathers pace – if smart people don’t start to take the phenomenon seriously, then they risk being foolish indeed.
*I was so sad to hear of the passing of Fergus O’Farrell of Interference on Tuesday. I didn’t know him well (I interviewed him at his home in West Cork in 2011 and we kept in touch afterwards by email) but I was so struck by his decision to keep making art, music and visual, in the face of such serious illness. He couldn’t walk, he could barely use one of his arms, but he kept going. His music was magnificent — everyone who knows Interference knows that, and I feel so lucky to have seen them perform live — but Ferg’s entire life was an inspiration. If anyone wants to find out a little more about him, here’s the interview I did with him in 2011: may you rest in peace, Ferg. x
Redemption songs, The Sunday Business Post
BY NADINE O’REGAN ON JUNE 4, 2011
Muscular dystrophy robbed Fergus O’Farrell’s muscles of their strength, but it has failed to sap his songs of their power
Just before Christmas, Fergus O’Farrell nearly died.
He developed serious pneumonia – it was the sixth time he’d had pneumonia – and a kidney stone.
He was on a ventilator in hospital for 20 days. But O’Farrell doesn’t have much interest in talking about his near-death experience. He faces down those threats most days of his life.
O’Farrell suffers from muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes his muscles to slowly waste away. Doctors told his parents that he would be in a wheelchair by 14 and dead by 20. At 43,O’Farrell has no interest in talking about death.
Instead he talks about his pneumonia only in the context of what’s really important to him: his music. ‘‘It delayed getting the album finished,” he says. ‘‘I won’t release it if I’m not happy with it. But I definitely want to have it ready soon.”
Small shouldered, clad in a hoody top and sporting a well-trimmed beard, O’Farrell, the frontman of renowned cult Irish band Interference, has blue eyes that have seen pain, but which also radiate a sturdy form of optimism against the odds.
The room he’s sitting in couldn’t help but inspire positivity in a person. Bordered on three sides by windows, it faces directly onto Schull harbour in West Cork, with the east end of Long Island and its Copper Point light beacon just visible.
When I arrive, sunlight is filling the spacious room holding a piano, a large wooden table covered with art created in watercolours, acrylic paint and ink pens, and a leafy potted plant in one corner. It’s beautiful and you feel glad that it’s so.
This room is where O’Farrell spends most of his time. In a wheelchair, O’Farrell’s hands are no longer strong enough to play guitar anymore, so, in the past few years he has learned to express himself through visual art. ‘‘When you’re playing a musical instrument you become one with it,” he says.
‘‘And a song emerges. I use the same process with painting. I start improvising with the colours.”
Right now, he’s sighing over one of his mixed media works. A few nights ago, O’Farrell poured some white paint on it ‘‘and ruined it’’.
He’s cross with himself, thinking of the time he had to spend scraping the white paint off, the work that has been potentially wasted and must be started again.
O’Farrell is a perfectionist – it’s one reason why his band Interference are so revered – and not just by DJs such as RTE’s Dave Fanning and Dan Hegarty, but by musicians, young and old, all around the country.
‘‘I’ll give 150 per cent,” says O’Farrell. ‘‘I always wanted to be so good that it’d never be this [pity thing].” It never has been.
In his salad days, O’Farrell, born in Cork, spent ten years living in Dublin, where, as Glen Hansard, one of his biggest fans, explains in an e-mail, ‘‘they were looked up to by all the biggest bands in town, and yet they were a secret kept from the common music fan’’.
Decades later, owing to O’Farrell’s condition, Interference are rarely in the public eye, but music fans are still in thrall to them. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was on my way to see O’Farrell in West Cork, musicians, including Choice Music Prize winner Jape, got in touch to ask me to pass on their best regards.
There’s a love there for the band that is rooted in a genuine admiration for their artistry. Live, Interference are something to behold.
Their music washes over you, all held together by O’Farrell’s voice, which is a remarkable instrument. His phrasing has an incredible elegance to it and his tone is warm, world-weary and beguiling. Cumulatively the band make you think of two of the most hyped young acts of today, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear.
When Interference performed last year at the Cork X Southwest festival, they were better than both. Next Friday, they will perform at the Temple House festival in Sligo – a rare gig for them that represents quite a coup for the festival.
Every gig O’Farrell travels to costs him far more physically than most musicians – and in a week when Prime Time Investigates exposed the gaping holes in the health care system, it’s easy to imagine how difficult his life – even in such beautiful surroundings – must often be.
O’Farrell rattles off the background details of his diagnosis in a matter-of-fact fashion. ‘‘I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophyat the age of eight,’’ he says. ‘‘Your muscles get worn away. They don’t get replaced. I was cycling until I was 15, on a motorbike until I was 16. I was walking until my early twenties. Then I was in a wheelchair. By the end of the first album I was in an electric wheelchair. ‘‘With some conditions you inherit them in your genes. In my case, it’s not present in the genes of my mother or father.