What comes next...
And how to like it
HERE on the Suffolk prairies, the death of Fidel Castro has mostly gone unnoticed. There are no Cuban refugees in Bury St Edmunds, although there are probably some thirdgeneration Cuban-americans stationed at Lakenheath, the American base 45 minutes from here. Still, the news switched on one of those home movies that reside in the back of my mind.
My mental newsreel of the Cuban Missile Crisis is easily retrieved because we had daily drills at my elementary school in case the Russian missiles stationed 200 miles from the American coastline came our way. We had plenty of reason to be scared because any missiles aimed at Washington or New York had to go right over our Mississippi heads.
My main memory of those ‘duck and cover’ exercises was the discovery of crops of chewing gum stuck underneath the desks, grey wads the size of the ticks we pulled from our dogs. I was a squeamish child and my disgust outweighed my fear.
My other memory was the bomb shelter built a year earlier by our neighbours, the Rileys. My parents were scathing about this shelter. My father’s approach to the end of civilisation was to buy a couple of cases of Jim Beam and store them in the gun closet. He made no provision for his children, unlike Mr Riley, who thought of everything.
Visits to the bomb shelter were forbidden, but their son Jim knew where the key was kept. We would sneak down and gaze in wonder at the neat rows of flashlights, lanterns, matches, tins of tunafish, Vienna sausages and pineapple chunks, Cheerios, Graham crackers and powdered milk, a stack of National Geographics, a metal first-aid cabinet and shelves of bottled water and Dr Pepper.
The Rileys were Baptists, so there was no Bourbon, but there were two bunk beds, a crank that would provide ventilation and two buckets with a bag of lime in a corner. ‘That’s the bathroom,’ Jim told me. This was long before I read Anne Frank’s diary, but the shelter had an addictive spookiness.
One day, I noticed a shotgun propped up in the corner. ‘Is that to shoot the Russians?’ ‘Nope,’ came Jim’s solemn reply. ‘It’s to shoot the people who try to get in here. All the folks who don’t have a bomb shelter.’ I must have got the message because I never went back.
The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted only 13 days and the rage for bomb shelters wound down after a couple of years. All the same, it’s pathetic irony that the unrepentant Castro is departing his earthly revolution as President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Castro tried to turn his small island into a continent and Mr Trump wants to turn his hunk of continent into an island. Without Fidel hovering in Havana, however, I’m less worried about Mr Trump’s threats to overturn Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the USA after five decades: ‘Obama got a bad deal! I could’ve got a much better deal!’
The President-elect has already checked out sites for ‘Trump Cubana’ and I suspect he’ll quietly ignore the resentful elderly Cuban-americans who gave him their vote. If I read that Trump buys Guantanamo Bay, bulldozes it to the ground and builds Mar-a Lago II, I won’t think it’s ‘fake news’.
I’ve now had nearly a month to get used to the idea of a President Trump. Thank you for asking, but, no, I’m not feeling better as time passes. I’ve listened to Radio 4’s Letters from America and Points of View and read thousands of words about how Trump heard ‘the voice of forgotten Americans’, but Hillary listened to Beyoncé and Cher; how Trump held mass rallies in the Rust Belt, but Hillary held fundraisers in Hollywood. I feel like an earthquake victim who can hear the radio, but can’t hear the voices of rescuers.
The truth is that neither candidate was good enough. I realised that when the black church in Greenville, Mississippi, was set ablaze and large white letters painted on the side read Vote Trump. I didn’t expect him to show up (he’d appeared in the state a couple of months earlier at an allwhite rally with Nigel Farage), but I wish Hillary had.
‘I’ve had nearly a month to get used to the idea of a President Trump. No, I’m not feeling better ‘Castro tried to turn his small island into a continent and Mr Trump wants to turn his hunk of continent into an island
My friend Raymond emailed from Dublin: ‘Robert Kennedy would have cancelled his schedule, headed south and given the members of the burned-out church and the country the two things missing from this campaign: comfort and eloquence.’ Remembering Kennedy’s words on the campaign trail—‘that human history is shaped each time someone stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice’— makes the absence of grace and ideals in this campaign feel even sadder.
I’m more embarrassed than terrified that this petulant narcissist will have the nuclear code in his pocket. I also realise that my liberal elitist’s bomb shelter—a wine cellar with a few good bottles and the last case of whisky my father-in-law bought before the 1983 Budget—might not get me through the four years ahead. I’ll add to it—two stacks of COUNTRY LIFE and a box of candles— as soon as I finish the book that arrived this morning. Called What Comes Next and How to Like It, it’s a meditation on ageing, family, dogs and life’s woes. I’ll let you know if it works.