In Cuba, no news is British news

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The Independent Online
I HAVE been away for a week at the Cuban jazz festival in Havana, and I am back again, a poorer but a happier man. Not very well up with the news, though. This is mostly because when I am away I try to restrict myself to reading local papers and on Cuba there was not a lot of choice. I once caught a distant glimpse of the ever-faithful Herald Tribune but failed to get close enough to effect a capture. The only real alternative was the tortuous reporting of Granma.

Granma is the daily organ of the Cuban Communist Party. The curious title of this publication derives from the name of the second-hand yacht in which Fidel Castro and his merry men made their historic voyage to initiate the Cuban revolution (and which I believe is still on display today behind the Museo de la Revolucion. Amazing how these things get preserved. As they landed on a remote part of the Cuban littoral in 1959 and prepared to scuttle the boat, did Fidel rap out an order: 'No, on second thoughts keep it] If the 40 of us do manage to liberate Cuba, we're going to need something to put in the victory museum, aren't we? So don't throw anything away at all, OK'?).

I was told that whoever had the boat Granma before it came into Castro's hands had named it after his grandmother, which makes sense for a boat. Not so much for a newspaper, though. Big Brother may be watching you, but Big Granny? Still, I bought the paper loyally as often as possible, if only for the reviews of the concerts.

These reviews were unusually fair-minded by our standards in that they mentioned only musicians they liked and omitted any mention of those bands which seem to have left the reviewer cold. The one thing that seemed to infuriate them was any European assumption of superior knowledge about jazz. One review of the Brazilian drummer Airto Moreira got quite steamed up about what the London Evening Standard had previously written about him, which apparently showed that we in the United Kingdom, or at least the musical staff of the Standard, had not the faintest idea of what Latin culture was all about. How anyone on Granma can have seen a copy of the Standard still mystifies me.

That was the only reference to Britain I saw in a week of Granma. Still, that's par for the course. Have you noticed that no British news is ever reported abroad? Have you ever waxed indignant and accused foreign papers of being parochial? Have you ever calmed down and reflected that, in fact, almost all British news is non-news? Despite which, have you, as soon as you arrived back within orbit of Britain, reached for a British paper and tried to work out what has happened in your absence?

I did, I'm afraid. As soon as we landed at Amsterdam to change flights, I reached for the British Sunday papers. Well, I paid for only one. I don't know what you do, but I always scan the sensational headlines in the tabloids, then buy the paper I think will most impress my neighbour.

(My neighbour on the next plane, a silvery-haired Irishman, did not even glance at my paper, but I was much impressed by him. By his diet, actually. First, when he rejected the snack lunch on offer, an open prawn-on-brown sandwich - 'I never touch seafood.' Second, when the stewardess asked him if he would like a drink and he said: 'Give me two small bottles of Tia Maria and two of vodka.' He then mixed all these in his glass with the cream he hadn't used in his coffee, presumably attempting to create yet another profit-making Irish liqueur.)

But I did meet a fellow journalist on the plane who reminded me that I had once written a piece listing all the terrible things that were always bound to happen in your holiday absence.

'Did I?' I asked, much impressed. 'What did I say?'

'You said, inter alia,' she replied, 'that there was always an ongoing child drama with a headline such as: 'Tracey - Police Still Have No Clue', with you being the only person in Britain who had no idea who Tracey was.'

'Did I? Gosh. And what if the Tracey mystery is cleared up before one's return?'

'Then there is a story saying: 'Home Secretary Pledges Swift Action', on the grounds that the Home Secretary never pledges swift action before things go wrong. He only pledges it when it is too late.'

It was then that I opened the paper. There was a headline saying: 'Home Secretary Pledges Swift Action Now'. I wish I hadn't been quite so prescient.