Saturday, 28 May 2016

In praise of ELO

Recently I realised the important part that ELO (originally the Electric Light Orchestra) has in the Soundtrack of My Life.

I have never bought or knowingly listened to any single or album by this band. Yet so so prolific was its output of airplay-friendly singles, that during my peak radio-listening days (early 1970s to early 1980s) ELO songs were always there in the background, unavoidable.

No one would that I associated with would for one second express a liking for ELO. Especially during the exciting days when punk rock ruled. Here was a band that still wearing flared trousers, with a bearded lead singer with big hair - no. Unacceptable. 1977 was the year of the Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Damned, Stranglers etc - not a year in which one could profess to liking songs like Telephone Line or Turn to Stone and remain fashionable. Yet tune into daytime listening on National Radio 1 (275 and 285 on the medium wave band) and you were far more likely to hear ELO than something to which one could pogo.

No one that would say to me "You know, I really like ELO". Yet today, in retrospect, I can see that the band had crafted some outstanding tunes that were catchy while not banal - and - Most importantly - had stood the test of time. Take Mr Blue Sky. How many of you who grew up in the 1970s have it in your record collection (as a single, or as a track on the album Out of the Blue, on vinyl, cassette or CD)? Yet how many of you can conjure the song up in your heads now, effects and all, from the beginning right through to the last words, sung through a vocoder - "please turn me over"?

The first two singles were still from a band it was hip to like. 10538 Overture and Roll Over Beethoven - arguably better than Chuck Berry's original. But then trends moved on, fashions changed, and ELO was spectacularly uncool. Song after song entered the charts and my (sub)consciousness. Well-crafted pop tunes that stood head and shoulder among the here-today-gone-tomorrow stuff.

But hey, these guys were from Birmingham. Not Liverpool, not London. Britain's second city had a thriving but disparate music scene that had neither the glamour of the capital nor the right-place-at-the-right-time cachet of Liverpool. ELO was formed by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, both of The Move, a reasonably successful band. The idea was to add electronically-amplified strings to the rock music, cellos and violins, to create a cross between a Phil Spector-style wall of sound and the intricate production that George Martin gave to the Beatles. Roy Wood left after 10538 Overture to form Wizzard, consigned to the railway sidings of pop history for I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. (Well that and Ball Park Incident and See My Baby Jive).

ELO tunes figure strongly among those that Remind Me Of Where I Was When They Were Hits. Livin' Thing, for example, along with Joan Armatrading's Love and Affection and Chicago's If You Leave Me Now were played to death on Radio 1 during my first weeks at university, October 1976. ELO's Livin' Thing was also played incessantly on the jukebox at the Port O' Call, Earlsdon, Coventry, where I'd pop by for a pint of mild and a bag of pork scratchings of an evening.

And when Disco arrived, ELO's singles output subtly embraced the genre, with a danceable beat which any DJ could fade in and out of a Donna Summer or Chic twelve-incher. The hits continued. Until 1983, when the hits petered out and I grew out of listening to daytime radio.

I can say that I've always liked David Bowie, James Brown, early Roxy Music; I can say that certain albums hold a special place in my affections - Trick of the Tail by Genesis, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother and Meddle by Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen's bleak Nebraska. Plus much of the punk canon. But ELO - it was just there. Today, it can be appreciated for what it is - extremely good pop that wormed its way into the library of my consciousness.

Here's a YouTube playlist of 18 ELO songs. [Some may be blocked for copyright reasons in some countries.] If, like me, you lived in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, they will come flooding back to you.

This time last year:
Making sense of Andrzej Duda

This time four years ago:
Work starts on ul. Gogolińska

This time four years ago:
Waiting for The Man

This time six years ago:
The Flavour of Parallel reviewed

This time eight years ago:
Twilight in the garden

This time nine years ago:
Late May reflections

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Birds, Jeziorki, late-May sunshine

Left: grey heron on the edges of the southern pond. There is a resident pair of herons here full-time now. Graceful wading birds that live on aquatic creatures, the herons have a five-year lifespan and their young, born and raised in nests high in trees, have a lower survival rate than the swan.

Below: a characteristic of the heron is the way its neck bends into an 'S' shape when in flight, giving it an ungainly appearance in the air, which belies its grace when wading.

Left: a northern lapwing (czajka) at the southern end of the southern pond, where the waters are already receding. Another drought year ahead? The lapwings are more usually seen on the other side of the tracks, in the fields between the railway line and Dawidy Bankowe. This is the first time I've seen them around the ponds between ul. Trombity and ul. Dumki. Note the plume on the back of the head.

Below: the same individual, believe it or not, in flight. Note the plume, which has been tucked away so as to be completely unnoticeable from the ground.

Below: a pair of northern lapwings in flight - the birds are also known as 'peewits' because of their characteristic call. The name 'lapwing' refers to the irregular way they flap their wings. I could see four individuals at the southern end of the southern pond. Quite a rare sight!

On my walk today, I also saw pheasants, coots, black-headed gulls, magpies, jackdaws, sparrows - and of course a pair of swans and their brood of seven cygnets.

This time two years ago:
Call it what it is - Okęcie!

This time This time last year:
Three stations in need of repair

This time four years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time five years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time seven years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time eight years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Swans' ways

Time for a longer post about our Jeziorki swans, a permanent addition to the local wildlife. The first pair flew in towards the end of March 2008, so this is the swans' ninth season in Jeziorki (as far as I know - having only lived in the vicinity since 1997).

Below, photo taken on 5 May 2016. The mother swan is on the nest, waiting for her eggs to hatch. The nest is massive. The female broods for an average of 36 days.

Below: photo from Sunday, 22 May. Hatchlings can be observed. How many? At least four distinct heads were visible in the shots I took that day.

Below: photo from this morning. The cygnets are on open water, paddling ahead of their parents. Standing between parents and children, a grey heron.

Below: as many as seven cygnets! Count them! A marvellous sight. The average clutch of eggs laid by a female swan is four, so this one is particularly fecund.

Below: from last year - photo taken on 21 June 2015. Parents and six cygnets. Note one of the cygnets is whiter than the rest, carrying the gene for leucism.

This photo, taken on 19 August 2015 five of the cygnets - including the whiter one - quite unafraid of me, and their parents to the rear.

The two adult swans who conceived this year's clutch of hatchlings are likely to be the same two adults that did likewise last year. Swans do not reach sexual maturity until they are four, and can live to the age of 20. Below: four swans around the last hole in the ice, 31 December.

Below: parents and six young, photo taken on 25 February. Note three of the young are white, the remaining three still have the juvenile plumage. Now it looks like the parents (the two with their heads in the water) have remained, while the young ones have flown off to find new homes.

Large flocks of juvenile swans of pre-mating age fly around together before settling down in pairs in a pond of their own.

I am delighted that this pair has brought another seven cygnets into the world, and that they will spend the summer in Jeziorki, feeding, swimming - and come the autumn - learning to fly.

This time last year:
Sam Smith, Shepherd Neame and the Routemaster bus

This time three years agor:
Rainy night in Jeziorki - no flood this time!

This time
This time four years ago:
Wide-angle under Pl. Wilsona

This time five years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time six years ago:
Questions about our biology and spirituality

This time seven years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time eight years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The eyes... THE EYES!!!

Twelve years ago or so I met a British businessman at our offices, who had come up by train to Warsaw. He'd flown to Kraków - his first ever visit to Poland - had a few meetings, then travelled to Katowice, then to Warsaw.

I sat him down and made him a coffee, and he began recounting his business trip. "Do you know what I found strangest about Poland?" he asked. "The way people in the street stare at you, but when you get close to buy a ticket, they avoid eye contact."

Wow. Big cultural difference! (This was 2003 or '04, you understand.) I said that I hadn't noticed, but by then I'd already been living in Poland for six or seven years, and being Polish myself , I might well have been guilty of these traits without even being aware of them.

Of late I have been thinking about human eyes. (In fact the eyes of all animals - cats, dogs, horses...)

The eyes are the windows to the soul. Some are said to have 'kind eyes', 'cruel eyes', 'hypnotic eyes'; some are said to be 'wide-eyed', 'misty-eyed'... We can tell a lot about our interlocutors by their eyes. Instinctively. It's not something taught or discussed, but subconsciously we tend to judge people by what their eyes are saying.

Yesterday I was talking to the Polish general manager of a very big British investor here in Poland. I was struck by the way he maintained steady eye contact - his eyes conveyed an unshakable air of trust and responsibility. Impressions. Maintaining eye contact - not a rude stare, but then not coming across as shifty-eyed, eyes darting hither and yon - is important in building relations with others.

Yet some of us find it uncomfortable to do this, finding it rude or intimidating.

This is a biology thing. The same way that humans can impose their alpha-ness on dogs with eye contact, thus establishing themselves as leaders of the pack, so it works between humans themselves.

Great actors are good at this. Using eyes to convey mood, atmosphere.

Eye-contact is important. But there's something else about the human eyes that I find really difficult to pin down. Some people have 'those eyes', and others - just don't. Human eyes are remarkably similar size-wise, with (according to Wikipedia) a 2mm variation on an average 24mm diameter, which is around 8%. Given that human height can vary by 50% and weight by 100%, this is not much. Is it that some heads are big, some round, some long - the eyes are framed differently? By the face? By the eyelids? I don't think it's just that. Some eyes are startling, some are wild, some are warm... but how do we assess this?

And why is it instinctive? Is there a spiritual dimension - the window to the soul indeed. We look at faces and make judgments - and the eyes are the point from which we start judging.

Please - accept the mystery?

Or is there something science and scientists have yet to unravel in the complex area of human biology?

This time last year:
New old terminal open at Okęcie airport

This time three years ago:
Arrogance vs. humility

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

This time seven years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Monday, 23 May 2016

Billboard spirituality

This billboard, on ul. Widok (just off ul. Marszałkowska, near the Rotunda) intrigued me to the extent that I returned to photograph it. The slogan Odróżniaj radość od przyjemności i raduj się też w cierpieniu means "Distinguish joy from pleasure and rejoice too in suffering".

What does it mean? Is this a tease-and-reveal advertising campaign? After two weeks, we learn it's for a beer, a mobile phone network, a life insurance company or a chocolate-coated snack bar?

But no - this is for real. A genuine individual, reaching out with a genuine message - and...?

Not a whole lot.

Googling the slogan I found a Facebook page with five photos of this billboard, one video and four likes. The person who paid (a billboard in this location is not cheap) for this has also previously put up three more in the same convention. One, with the words Nie denerwuj się, Masz kontrolę nad sobą ("Don't get angry, you control over yourself"), appeared on Al. Jerozolimskie near Blue City retail centre in February 2014. And one bearing the anti-consumptionist message Zwiększając dochód, nie zwiększaj swoich potrzeb ("Increase income, don't increase your needs"), appeared in July 2015.  One month later, a further billboard appeared. This one said Przygotuj listę różnych, codziennych intencji. Módl się i obserwuj efekty ("Prepare a list of different, everyday intentions. Pray and observe the effects").

So - four billboards, four Facebook pages. What have we learnt?

Well, I must say I like all four messages. They do tend to square with my personal spirituality. I was rather hoping that a reclusive billionaire from another planet, living in a room in the Novotel Centrum, is buying billboards with cash to promote a more mindful, ascetic and spiritual way of life among Varsovians.

The truth is less exotic - the author, on their Facebook page, mentions the Catholic Church and the Ten Commandments, so a traditional religious approach lies behind this mini-campaign.

The edict to distinguish joy from pleasure is Most sound. Short-term gratification as a substitute for moments of genuine spiritual uplifting - yes. Joy comes from pleasure well earned, truly deserved. A great human truth to ponder. Thank you, whosoever you be, for this message - it has stayed with me.

This time four years ago:
A post about a book about a film about a journey to a room

This time six years ago:
Mr Pheasant trumpets his presence

This time seven years ago:
Balancing on the Edge of Chaos

This time eight years ago:
Zamienie and the encroaching tide of Development

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Beautiful May Sunday in Jeziorki

Hot! 25C this afternoon, marvellous weather, caught the sun (research shows that moderate amounts of sunlight are better for health than smothering oneself in sunblock) and walked over 16,000 paces.
The ballast mountain has become a local attraction, if only temporary, it will disappear when the work on the railway line's done. Nothing much new to report, hardly any activity today. A good vantage point, six metres up, to observe trains. Below: a Siemens Vectron engine hauls a full load of coal along the electrified main line past W-wa Jeziorki...

...and through W-wa Dawidy on its way to the Okęcie sidings, from where a diesel loco will haul the train back down the non-electrified line running parallel to the main line to Nowa Iwiczna, from where it swings off towards Konstancin-Jeziorna sidings and Siekierki power station. Below: note the Warsaw skyline, Warsaw Spire (just) visible on the extreme left of the phone and the Palace of Culture to the right. It's only a 20-minute walk from the Spire to the Palace, but the foreshortening effect of a 300mm lens makes them look equidistant from my vantage point. It would take three hours to walk from here to the city centre.

Below: the new 'down' platform at W-wa Jeziorki slowly taking shape - about a quarter of its length is now paved. I can see this work taking a long time to complete. Once this platform's ready and the 'down' line is complete, the whole process will have to be repeated for the 'up' line and 'up' platform.

Below: a town-bound train at W-wa Dawidy, where no fewer than six cyclists got ofp. The level crossing is totally sealed off. No vehicle (except perhaps scooters or light motorcycles) can make it over. Beneath the red-and-white barriers is an temporary earthwork bridge connecting the old and new platforms; this is the only way from one side of Baletowa to the other. For all other traffic - it's an 8.5km detour. Am I right in suspecting that a bus loop is being prepared by W-wa Dawidy station? And that a new bus route will run down ul. Baletowa once the new junction at Puławska is ready?

Ul. Karczunkowska, the famously unpavemented thoroughfare, is getting fenced in. Below: A new concrete fence appears on the eastern corner with ul. Pozytywki, facing the PWPW printing works. Aesthetically questionable, it will no doubt make walking past cars inconsiderately parked across the road from PWPW more difficult on dark and wet winter nights.

Another fence, below, on the stretch past the eastern corner of ul. Trombity. A new building, probably commercial or industrial, will be built here, so fencing - uglier even than concrete - has been erected. But at least it is temporary.

Below: I mentioned the golf course a few weeks ago - the land beyond Biedronka and scrapyard was fenced off, now it looks like a driving range will shortly open. Still much tidying up needed, but at least this nieużytek is now being put to good use.

Finally - some heartwarming news. The female swan nesting in the wetlands has raised a fine clutch of cygnets! I took a number of snaps, and looking carefully at the enlargements, it looks like at least four cygnets are visible. As I moved into position to take this shot, I startled a pair of grey herons who were wading between me and the swans. As the took off and flew low over the nest, the mother swan gave them a loud warning not to fly too close!

This time last year:
Three days - three Polish cities

This time four years ago:
Part two of short story The Devil Is In Doubt

This time five years ago:
"A helpful, friendly people"

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

This time seven years ago:
Feel like going home

This time eight years ago:
Mr Hare comes to call