Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Making sense of Duda

The pundits, the pollsters, Warsaw's chattering classes (to which by definition I belong) got it wrong. The first-round shock victory of Andrzej Duda in the first round of the presidential elections on 10 May were merely to serve as a wake-up call to the idle PO-voting elite who couldn't be bothered to get back from their działki to vote because in any case, Komorowski would win the second round.

And why not? In the first round Mr Duda might have beaten the incumbent by less than one percentage point on a turnout of less than half of Poland's registered voters. In other words, less than one in six of all Poles voted for Mr Duda in the first round. Clearly, thought President Komorowski's advisors and supporters, in the second round, as long as enough of the remaining five-sixths who didn't vote Duda in round one turned up to vote rationally, the right result would be assured.

Bearing in mind that third place in the first round was taken by some pop singer, and the supporters of pop singers tend not to see eye-to-eye with religious conservatives, it was assumed [by whom? by the chattering classes] that this element of the disgruntled youth would see sense and support the status quo.

But it was not to be. As we now know, Mr Duda beat President Komorowski by two percentage points, the closest result in the history of post-1989 presidential elections.


On the part of Bronisław Komorowski and his team - complacency. The pollsters got it wrong. Far more wrong than the British pollsters telling the nation that Labour would beat the Tories on 7 May.

Not a single poll - not one - expected Mr Duda to win the first round. The last week's polling showed a comfortable eight to 12 points lead for Mr Komorowski from most pollsters, with only one outlier predicting a dead heat. [Yet on a ride in southern Mazowsze, between Białobrzegi and Warka, the weekend between the first and second round, I could only see posters for Duda. Not a single one for Komorowski.]

What could possibly go wrong? Back in February, pollsters were showing 65% support for the incumbent and a 40+ percentage point lead over the second-placed Mr Duda.

So what did go wrong? Too few PO activists and supporters considered the possibility than in a second round run-off (which was looking increasingly likely from late-March onwards, since when pollsters began suggesting that the president was unlikely to win in the first round), the young and disgruntled would cast their votes for a religious conservative candidate.

Why did they do so?

They took the bait, so sweetly laid. It was explained to them that the reason they were jobless or poorly-paid was because a callous, greedy elite was doing them down. The answer, suggested candidate Duda, is to redistribute. But not from rich to poor.

Reducing retirement age from 67 (for men and women) to 60 (for women) and 65 (for men). Despite the fact that Poles on average live six years longer than they did in 1989. Who's going to pay for this? Those Poles who are still working. And now they complain about low wages and high taxes.

In all honesty, the Polish state pension system will be unable to pay its obligations, and if the whole thing were to stick together, we'd need to be working to 72, not 67. So Mr Duda's promises are a case of kicking the can down the street, for our children's generation to pick up the tab. Big time.

No mention among Mr Duda's shiny promises of slimming down a bloated and inefficient public administration (which lazy, complacent PO have failed to do over the past seven and half year in offices).

No mention of spurring on Polish innovation by getting universities to focus on commercialising the brilliant ideas of their talented students (who have been tending to commercialise them abroad).

No mention of streamlining the red tape that holds back entrepreneurs from growing their businesses by taking on more employees.

So, to my shame, last Sunday Polish voters have followed those in Greece and Spain who've believed the Pied Piper politicians who promise them a painless road to a brighter tomorrow.

OK - let's step back. What does this really mean? What did last year's European Parliamentary elections mean to the UK? The largest party representing British voters, with one-third of all UK seats in Brussels, is UKIP. Which was slaughtered in the general election earlier this month. Why did Brits vote for UKIP in the Euro-elections? Because 'it's a protest vote'. And because 'the European Parliamentary elections don't matter'.

Do the Polish presidential elections matter? In terms of how the outcome affects the nation, nowhere near the same extent as the American or French presidential elections. More akin to the German or Italian ones.

Does this election mean that PiS can win an outright victory in the parliamentary election this autumn? PO has suddenly and violently been woken up from its lethargic complacency. For years it has been winning elections by saying 'if not us - that lot', pointing at Messrs Kaczyński, Macierewicz and Ziobro. This worked as long as Jarosław Kaczyński was the public face of PiS. But by fielding a man one generation younger, the spell was broken.

Mr Duda's victory is a like a window opening and letting in a sharp, icy gust of wind into a stuffy, airless room full of the same stale breath.

The big unknown unknown between now and the autumn is whether a new party, akin to the now largely defunct Ruch Palikota, will emerge to occupy the economic and socially liberal quarter. (We must learn to stop talking about 'left' and 'right' and look at politics in a two-axis way).

Mr Duda and PiS occupy the socially conservative but economically socialist quarter. The old communists, the SLD, socially liberal but economically socialist, were annihilated in this election. PSL, the 'peasants' party' is an old-school jobs-for-the-boys who'd join any coalition just to keep its placemen in jobs.

PO have held the centre ground, with a large measure of success compared to other countries in the EU, none of which can boast the same economic record from 2008 to today.

So - there's a vacancy in the top-right quadrant. Will Mr Pop-singer be in time to set up a party to occupy this ground? Or will former finance minister and reformation hero, Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz and economist Ryszard Petru ride to the rescue of fiscal prudence and financial rectitude?

The next six months will be extremely interesting - not to say fraught. Everything is at stake. The progress that Poland has made in rebuilding its economy can come spluttering to a halt if a redistributionist government pull all the wrong macroeconomic levers.

If there's one thing worse than outright liars at the helm, it's amateurs.

This time last year:
Call it what it is: Okęcie

This time two years ago:
Three stations in need of repair

This time three years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time foure years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time sixe years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time seven years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Okęcie airport opens 'new' 'old' terminal

In my 18 years in Poland, Okęcie airport has always been the portal to the 'Old Country'. The end of the runway is less than 4,500m from our house. When flying back Kingdomside for work or holiday or family reasons, it's almost always through Okęcie. I fly through the airport eight times a year on average, and over the years I've seen the place improve and improve.

The latest improvement involves the re-opening earlier this week of the 'old' 'new' terminal, built in 1992. So many changes over the years - the new and the newly-refurbished old, now joined together seamlessly. The modernisation took the best part of three years to complete. In good time for the summer holiday rush.

So now Okęcie has it all - a rail link to the city centre, a motorway link to the outside world, two bright, modern terminals, plenty of shops and bars, gates where you can sit and wait in comfort, an excellent website that no longer takes hours to load and a Twitter feed lauded as the best in Poland. The S2/S79 link means that in a taxi at 5am I can get to Okęcie from home in 12 minutes.

The important thing to remember in what Sector your check-in desk is located. All desks in Sector A are to be found in the 'new' old terminal. Once you've passed through security, the gates (45 of them) are all accessible from one long corridor spanning both terminals

Below: do you remember when this was all in a rather disgusting shade of magenta? All that's missing is the glider, suspended from the ceiling...

Something entirely new is Sector B (below), to be found between the 'new' old terminal and the old 'new' terminal. Architecturally this reminds me of the drabber bits of Heathrow and Gatwick. Ah - sectors C, D and E are still to be found in the 'old' new terminal.

There are plenty of new shops, now offering greater choice than the old Aelia/Keraniss duopoly. And more bars and restaurants. What's this? A Scottish restaurant! Located on the ground floor level of the 'new' old terminal, under Sector A.

From the 'new' old terminal, there's an underground passageway linking directly the train station (W-wa Lotnisko Chopina) and the long-distance bus terminus. Today, this looks like part of a nuclear bomb shelter, but in time I'm sure the grey walls will carry advertising.

Once back out at street level by the train station, you can take a lift up three flights to the all-weather observation deck (taras widokowy). Equipped with reverse-sloping windows to cut glare and reflection, this is an improvement over the old, open-air one (closed seven years ago). Not only is entry completely free of charge, there's also a cafe and an aviation gift-shop, and it's open from 6am to 10pm. And there's a gallery of truly stunning photographs of planes at or around Okęcie.

The airport gets better and better. Long gone are the days of Etiuda terminal (2004-2009), cattle-shed for those travelling with low-cost carriers. Being shut in there with two small children for seven hours because our Christmas flight to London was delayed must rank among my most dismal air travel experiences.

Okęcie is on target to carry 11 million passengers this year, breaking all records, while to the north of Warsaw, Modlin continues to prosper as Ryanair's principle airport after a shaky start.

I fly to London in two weeks' time, so I'll be able to report on how the extended airport looks like from airside.

This time two years ago:
Arrogance vs. humility

This time three years ago:
Warsaw looking good ahead of the football-fan influx

This time six years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Friday, 22 May 2015

Three days - three Polish cities

Back to Lublin - second visit within one month. Great! And two hours between the end of the event and my train, so lots of time to wander through an Athens of the er... north. Below: this is a reverse view of this photo taken a month ago.

Back to the Old Town. Here's the entrance to ul. Rybna, below. this time taken from back in the square. Compare to pic taken last month.

Below: I had a burger and a Spitfire ale (from Kent's Shepherds Neame brewery) at U szewca ('at the cobbler's')' and here is the view from outside the pub, looking across at Pl. Po Farze.

Below: time to make my way down the hill to the station, to catch the night train to Wrocław. On one side of the street, the splendour of the Old Town, on the other, early industry and workers' tenements.

All aboard the night train! I love Poland's night trains - I get into my berth in Lublin at quarter past eight in the evening and wake up nine hours later in Wrocław's beautifully restored station. Interestingly, looking at a map of Poland, I notice that Wrocław's only a teeny bit further south than Lublin. The two cities are 385 km apart as the crow flies, but the train does it 660 km in a giant serpentine route going as far north as Warsaw and as far south as Katowice. Still, nine hours from station to station means there's plenty of time for a good night's sleep.

Are you ready for the Night Train?

Puławy Miasto... Warszawa Wschodnia... Opoczno Południe... Dąbrowa Górnicza... Sosnowiec Główny... Kędzierzyn Koźle... Opole Główne... NIGHT... TRAIN!

Below: quarter past five in the morning, looking up from the passage linking the platforms.

Below: looking at the original platforms, now the booking hall (the tracks are to the left). I'm picked up by car and driven to Oleśnica for an excellent manufacturing event at GKN Driveline's factory.

Below: heading back to Wrocław along the S8 expressway, over the Odra river. A vast amount of new infrastructure has emerged in an around the city.

Below: back at Wrocław station to catch the evening Pendolino service to Warsaw. Third time I've caught this train since the Warsaw-Wrocław service was launched. And each journey was on time.

Back in Warsaw, meetings, preparing more meetings. E-mails by the score. An intensive week's work. Nighttime skyline below shows Poland's progress. Just before the cisza wyborcza, let me make an appeal to vote to secure stability and predictability on Sunday.

Morning, Jeziorki. Below: On my way to the station, dandelions in seed. Less than eight miles from the scene above, Warsaw is a compact capital compared to London. I much prefer living in Warsaw to London!

Half an hour by train from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Śródmieście and I'm walking past the Palace of Culture again on my way to the office. A long week made all the more interesting by the change of scenery.

This time three years ago:
Part two of short story The Devil Is In Doubt
This time four years ago:
"A helpful, friendly people"

This time five years ago:
A familiar shape in the skies

This time six years ago:
Feel like going home

This time seven years ago:
Mr Hare comes to call

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A book that explains so much - Poles in post-war Britain

Every now and then a book comes along that changes the way I look at the world. But here, rather, is a book that moved me for another reason. It consolidates many of my thoughts and memories. I feel has been written for me, and for every Andrzej and Rysiek and Basia and Ewa born in Britain in the 1950s and '60s.

Nothing written - in English or Polish - to date has come so close to capturing our generation's unique experience, the children born to Poles washed up on Albion's shores, having survived the horrors of WWII - be it deportation to Siberia by Stalin or living through the Nazi occupation of Poland.

With Blood and Scars, by B.E. Andre, is a story is told in two intermeshing plots. One, is narrated by a ten-year old girl growing up in 'Polskaland' in 1960s Manchester, the other, by the same person, now a middle-aged woman in contemporary Manchester, watching her father, a wartime survivor, dying of cancer.

Before going into the novel's Polishness, there's the 50-year timeshift, from Opportunity Knocks and wrestling on black-and-white TV to SMSs and Facebook, from typewriters to laptops. The way 1960s Britain - all Green Shield stamps, Pick of the Pops, thruppenny bits, ten-bob notes, Kensitas and Woodbines, Morris Minors and Ford Corsairs - is portrayed by the author with attention to detail worthy of a Dutch Master. No item of everyday life goes unnoticed.

Like West London, 1960s Manchester was already experiencing mass migration - the ten year-old narrator's best friends were the children of migrants from Ireland, Jamaica, Italy and Cyprus. And of course Polish. 'Polskaland' in Manchester in those days was quite specific, with social life centred around 'Kombo's' (Dom Kombatantów or kombatanci) and the Polish church. Poles worked in handbag factories, sent their children on kolonia to Penrhos and lived in the near-past, of a Poland overrun first by Nazis, then the Soviets, betrayed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.

Reading With Blood and Scars, I feel that my generation - Poles born in the UK in the post-war decades - finally have a voice. To date the nearest approximation has been A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, touching on many of the inter-generational issues that UK-born post-war Poles face in common with others from the same part of the world. With Blood and Scars has the bonus of a being wonderful journey down memory lane of childhood in a country beginning to emerge from post-war austerity, as colour came into the drabness in the form of the impending 1970s. But compared to post-war Poland, Britain was paradise.

With Blood and Scars treads with commendable sensitivity in the area of wartime Polish-Jewish relations.

This is clearly a book that deserves to be translated into Polish. It is a testament to the 200,000 Poles - and their children - who lived in Britain while Poland was enduring 45 years of communism. It explains why we UK-born Poles are as we are - shaped by an upbringing in the shadow of Yalta, Saturdays at Polish school in the mornings, Polish scouts in the afternoon, Sunday mornings at Polish church - while our British contemporaries had the weekend off.

What was the point of being brought up Polish? asks the ten year-old protagonist of her father, who bellows at her: "You will go to Polish school! And you will be proud of your legacy!"

It is also a book to any Brit who grew up alongside Polish children - at school, at university. With Blood and Scars explains why we were - why we still are - the way we are. And it is a book for the next generation - the grandchildren of those political refugees who sought shelter and a new life in Britain after the war. It deserves a massive readership of anyone touched by Polishness in the UK.

Youthful memories inspire great art. I am minded of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, dwelling on their Jewish-American upbringing in Minnesota, the action set around the same time. First alcohol, first smoke, first snog - rights of passage are just as critical in the process of winkling out the essence of our existence as is facing the death of loved ones. Delving into memories, funny, sad, from one's formative years is a great source of truth about our human lives.

Above all this is the story of what war does to people. And to their children.

You can buy it from Amazon (click here).

This time last year:
We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can't we?

This time two years ago:
Ethereal and transient

This time three years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time four years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

This time six years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop, rural USA or Poland

This time eight years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Saturday, 16 May 2015

More classic cars from London's streets

An old car is more than a means of getting about - it is a moving, working piece of industrial and artistic heritage that should be preserved, fussed over and passed on for The Ages. It is good to see so many lovely classic cars still in use on London's streets. Cars made in Britain, on the Continent, in the USA. Here are a few I captured on recent trips to London.

Below: A late-production Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. These are still relatively available and affordable (there's a shop in Hanwell that sells nothing but second-hand Rollers).

Below: another Silver Shadow of similar vintage though the personalised number plate obscures the date of manufacture. This stately classic was in production from 1965 to 1976; the Silver Shadow II with cheaper bumpers was built from 1977 to 1980.

Below: rarer, sportier and far more exclusive than the Silver Shadow, more the vehicle of the cognoscenti - the Bristol 410. Dating back to 1969, so concurrent with the Shadow, the Bristol 410 is the gentleman's sporting carriage par excellence. One of just 82 built; I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority have survived to this day.

Below: also from 1969, an early Porsche 911 parked outside the British Museum shows a different approach to sporting cars. The emphasis is on performance rather than prestige.

Below: utilitarian and built for the masses, a 1978 Renault 4 captured on the leafy streets of Ealing. One of eight million (!) built between 1961 and 1992. The Renault 4 has a shorter wheelbase on the left side than on the right because of the staggered torsion bars used in the rear suspension.

Below: a Scandinavian classic, also spotted in Ealing. A Volvo 144 dating  back to 1971, this side view shows the purity of the design, which was in production from 1966 to 1974.

Below: although American car manufacturers didn't bother selling their oversized behemoths to Britain with its quaint mediaeval streets, many enthusiasts of Detroit steel imported them privately. Here in Soho we see a 1967 Dodge Dart. "I got my AM radio on".

Below: Hanwell W7 is the setting for this late-70s muscle car - a Pontiac Firebird. Note that all three American cars have British registration numbers (from which you can date the vehicle), but they have been stamped in the US style for authenticity.

Below: "You traded the microphone for a Caddy?" Jake would not have approved. This 1978 Cadillac Coupe de Ville parked on Russell Square was not in the best of health, with rust bubbling through all over its flanks. But from the front, the massive grille still looks impressive.

I hope in years to come, the streets of Warsaw will be also be full of beautiful old cars, well cared for by their owners. If you want to impress, a stand-out classic does the job so much better than a brand new black SUV.

This time three years ago:
Photography and the Law of Diminishing Returns

This time four years ago:
A night at the Filters (Museum Night 2011)

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night

This time six years ago:
Exploring my anomalous memory events