Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Scenes from West Ealing and Hanwell

West Ealing has its nicer parts - essentially the higher up the hill you go, more salubrious the street. Below: here's a terrace of solid late-Victorian and early-Edwardian houses on Lynton Avenue as it climbs towards Kingsley Avenue. Tree lined, as a good avenue should be, and plenty of fruit on the rowan tree on the left.

Below: Pitshanger Park, West Ealing, the bowls club's pavilion. Sadly one of the two greens is no longer maintained. Triplets out jogging, or triple exposure?

Down towards Hanwell, a 1964 Morris Minor 1000 stands outside a more modest terrace of houses on Milton Road, part of Hanwell's Poets' Corner, with streets named after famous poets - Shakespeare, Browning, Dryden, Browning and Cowper. My father's first car was just like this, though finished in Smoke Grey. And my first car was the van version, in Trafalgar Blue

Drayton Green station on the Greenford line. The tracks separate West Ealing, London W13, from Hanwell, London W7. Below: on the line is a rubbish train, hauling household waste from Brentford to a landfill site in Lincolnshire. This train runs this way four times a week. The tracks curving off to the left head for West Ealing station.

Left: No.1, Greenford Avenue, under the main line railway bridge between Hanwell and West Ealing stations. A traditional gentlemen's barber, complete with red and white striped barber's pole in the window. This device dates back to the times when barbers also performed surgery; the red denoted the blood, the white denoted a bandage. This shopfront looked like this as long ago as the early 1970s.

Below: signage time. This is the station sign at Hanwell, by the recently re-opened south entrance on Station Approach. The Grade II listed building has several signs in the old style.

Below: a detail of the old Hanwell GPO sorting office, in a similar Office of Works architectural style as the seen in the sorting office in West Ealing. The ER crest on the tympanum within the pediment (just visible) suggests it's an Edwardian rather than Victorian building.

Below: also from the Edwardian era (1901-1910), is this painted door to an electricity junction box just off Cleveland Rd, West Ealing, harking back to the Great Days of the Borough of Ealing, the Queen of the Suburbs, the first to introduce Electroliers to light the streets.

Finally a bonus pic from the City of London, signage from the underground passage linking Monument Station and Eastcheap.

This time last year:
Four years of PiS

This time four years ago:
High Victorian Manchester

This time seven years ago:
The clocks go back - but when should they go forward?

This time eight years ago:
Warsaw's first Metro line is completed

Monday, 24 October 2016

Scenes from the City

[For my cousin Marynka and her husband Jarek, who are visiting London for the first time.]

Last week I was in London and I popped across the Thames for a meeting right byLondon Bridge. The views from the 8th floor were marvellous; having a camera with me at all times gave me the chance to grab some good shots.

Below: moored on the Thames is the WW2 cruiser, HMS Belfast, now a museum ship. In the middle distance is Tower Bridge, a splendid example of Victorian engineering. On the horizon is the Docklands skyline, with One Canada Square, Canary Wharf the tallest building. It was also London's - and indeed Britain's - tallest building from 1991 when it was completed to 2012.

Left: The title of Britain's tallest building (and Europe's fourth-tallest) now belongs to London's newest skyscraper. The Shard was built overlooking London Bridge station, and is seen here against a dramatic sky, backlit by the sun. It stands 95 stories high, it was opened in November 2012. The observation deck on the 74th floor is 245m above the ground. It was opened to the public in April 2013; an adult ticket booked in advance costs £25.95, two pounds cheaper than the London Eye which takes passengers to a maximum height of 145m.
Below: looking westwards onto the tower of Southwark Cathedral; beyond it trains snake in and out of London Bridge Station. In the distance, the skyline of the City of Westminster.

Left: London Bridge station, nestling at the foot of the Shard. One of the oldest railway stations in the world, and the oldest in Central London, it opened to passengers nearly 180 years ago, in December 1836. From here, trains serve south-east London and indeed south-east England To the right of the Shard is Guy's Hospital.
Below: St Paul's Cathedral dominates the skyline in this view, looking north-west across the Thames. In the foreground, Cannon St Railway Bridge, which takes trains across the river to the terminus of Cannon Street. The two towers at the entrance to the station were built 150 years ago in the style of Sir Christopher Wren, to match his cathedral beyond.

Below: 'Erected A.D 1850', this is No.2 London Bridge. The bridge it once overlooked, built in 1825, was replaced by a more modern structure in 1967; the 19th Century bridge was taken down stone by stone and rebuilt in Arizona.

Below: London Bridge is to the left; the City skyline looking north is dominated by two new buildings, familiarly known as the Walkie-Talkie, and behind it, the Cheesegrater.

Across London Bridge, past the Monument, marking the Great Fire of London of 1666, which destroyed most of the City within the original Roman walls. The scale of the fire can be seen by the fact that it destroyed no fewer than 87 parish churches, as well as 13,200 houses. Onward to Bank Station - accessible by underground passage from Monument, or at street level.

Left: the City of London Magistrates' Court.

Below: to the left, the Bank of England, a 20th Century edifice. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is home to Britain's gold reserves, valued at over £150 billion. The neoclassical building to the right is the Royal Exchange, built in the eighth year of Queen Victoria's reign, now a shopping centre. On the skyline - NatWest Tower (1980), the tallest building in Britain until Canary Wharf was built.

Finally, a quiz picture. To which railway station, located on the edge of the City of London, is this Victorian hotel attached?

A more detailed blog post about the City of London here.

This time last year:
Ogórek by the Palace of Culture

This time five years ago:
Autumnal dusk, Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Autumn sun going out

Friday, 21 October 2016

Brexit and the Bigger Picture

On Wednesday I was chairing the 3rd Congress of Polish Entrepreneurs in the UK. Many brilliant speakers - Taz Hossain, Stuart Lotherington, Jordan Fleming to name but three - but one forced me to rethink my long-held assumptions, rather than merely moving my thinking up to a higher level. Izabella Kaminska from the Financial Times talked about Brexit in a historical perspective, harking back to ancient Rome and ancient Greece.

Ms Kaminska mentioned the Grecian historian Polybius, who devised the concept of anacyclosis - a cyclical theory of political evolution. She also pointed to some parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and the current state of the EU.

Now, armed with Wikipedia, all of us with an ounce of curiosity can delve deeper into anacyclosis as an idea, which is at odds with my own world view - the Whig View of History, in which (to generalise) things slowly but surely improve, rather than merely going round in circles.

Ms Kaminska likened Brexit to being an inflexion point between the tendency to centralise and the tendency to decentralise. The centralising tendency, she posited, has reached a natural apogee, and now mankind - voters - yearn for decentralisation. Putting up the borders - against migration and against multinational corporations that benefit most from the scale that centralisation brings.

The historical parallels were indeed compelling; the point of view of a journalist with a historian's training shed light from a different direction to that which has lit my perspective.

Scale brings benefits to humanity than cannot be imagined if you are living closed off in a small, hermetic economy. The US, by virtue of its vast size, is an economy that could very well be self-sufficient. Were that to happen (a Trump-like candidate without the personality flaws, one who merely pushed a strong de-globalisation agenda, for instance) America would suffer from profound wage inflation as basic manufacturing jobs returned home. But America could provide its own economy with jet airliners, oncology drugs and internet infrastructure without having to trade raw materials or know-how with other nations. Estonia, on the other hand, couldn't do this, nor could Poland.

If we're looking at a cycle of human history in which nations up sticks and retreat to within their natural borders, it's evident that in such a scenario the US and China would do best. India is still too chaotic, Russia is big and has natural resources but not the leadership or civil society to build a self-sustaining economy.

Brexiteers' attachment to the old British Empire, manifesting itself today as the Commonwealth, is chimeric. Of the 52 countries still in it (the Maldives left this month), the smallest 25 have a combined population around the size of Greater London. The significant ones - India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand - all appealed to the UK to remain in the EU.

If indeed the world is in a decentralising mode, it will be a world fraught with new dangers, not least that of conflicts arising between countries that had long been at peace with one another, as old alliances break down.

But it is not doomed to go that way. The internet has created completely new networks, new connections, which authoritarian governments are trying to control, but which ultimately allow individuals to bypass institutions and make direct contact with other individuals globally. News spreads instantly, and individuals can trade with one another. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle - the philosophy guiding the creators of the internet was that it should be able to re-route around damaged nodes, like water flowing to find its own level.

History does not repeat, it echoes. Congruent patterns, but not direct fits. History is not bunk; it is a book from which we must learn if we are to move forward along the path from barbarism towards civilisation, from beast to angel.

This time last year:
On the eve of Poland's change of government

This time two years ago:
Bilingualism benefits the brain

This time six years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time seven years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time eight years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time nine years ago:
Last man voting?

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The bacteria that don't kill you will make you stronger

Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, leprosy and tuberculosis are among the diseases spread to humans by bacteria - microorganisms, around 0.001mm in length, pathogens that can kill humans. Better hygiene and antibiotics have saved many billions of lives since the microbe was discovered in the mid-19th Century.

Yet last month, the US Food & Drug Administration banned the sale of antibacterial soaps. This is the result of research conducted since 2013, suggesting that they might affect natural resistance to bacteria. Not just in our own bodies; flushing this stuff down the drain via wastewater treatment plants, it eventually enters the wider environment where it can increase bugs' genetic resistance to antibodies by natural selection.

From childhood, we've had it drummed into us that bacteria, along with viruses, are a danger to our health, yet the reality is that our relationship with bacteria is far more complex. The human microbiome [this Wikipedia page is well worth reading], consists of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea, the last being until recently considered a form of bacteria, now known to be something quite separate. Let's look at the bacteria...

There are between three and ten times as many bacteria living within and on us than there are cells in our bodies. Wow. If you scrape together all the bacteria on this planet, they will weigh in total more than every animal and plant put together. We inhale and exhale, ingest and excrete them in vast numbers; bacteria and us - we symbiose in a general equilibrium with one another.

The hygiene hypothesis suggests that as we evolved into mammals then on into humans, we spent a lot of time in the mud and rotting vegetation, from which we picked up many microorganisms that formed a symbiotic relationship with us, either immunising us, or killing the weaker individuals. But since higher standards of hygiene have spread around the world, our bodies have adapted accordingly. Studies of epidemiological data have shown that various immunological and autoimmune diseases are much less common in the developing world than the industrialised world.

Are we obsessing too much with being germ-free?

An article about former UK minister Michael Heseltine (83) and his garden piqued my interest. Here's a man who had a serious heart attack 23 years ago - and today, this octogenerian seems to be in splendid fettle. The health-giving properties of gardening... yes - I read about this somewhere... Turn to Google... [Short aside - these days, there's no excuse for ignorance other than a lack of curiosity. 'Can't be googled' = intellectual laziness. If you're curious, you can find out more, faster, than ever before in human history. And double-check it. Make sure you're not merely reinforcing your prejudices.]

And I find plentiful articles on the subject. Let's take this one: headline: It’s in the Dirt! Bacteria in soil may make us happier, smarter. "A strain of bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of seratonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. And on top of that, this little bacterium has been found to improve cognitive function and possibly even treat cancer and other diseases." Injecting M. vaccae into cancer patients was found to alleviate symptoms, and improve emotional health, vitality, and even cognitive function. So soil bacteria is good for the samopoczucie (another candidate for a loan-word in English - 'the way your mind and body feel').

It would be hypocritical of me to commend gardening to my readers, as I don't do a hand's turn of it myself, but I do a lot of semi-rural and rural walking, stirring up the biome beneath my muddy boots or breathing the dust kicked up beneath me on dry footpaths in summer.

We need to get the balance right. We shouldn't flood our kitchens and bathrooms with antibacterial sprays and soaps, nor should we live in filth and abnegation. A conscious approach to these matters is all important.

This time four years ago:
Hello, pork pie!

This time This time two years ago:
The meaning of class - in England, in Poland

This time five years ago:
First frost 

This time nine years ago:
First frost 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Mystical experiences at 37,000 ft

I don't like night flights; you might as well be on a tube train two hours from the next station. On night flights I choose an aisle seat. And early morning flights I spend at least half of the time asleep. But flying at noon, with a seat next to the sun - that's the way to fly! Once the plane is above the clouds, and the sun's heat warms the rims of my RayBan aviator shades, and the sublime beauty of being up there puts me in touch with the Eternal.

Today's flight from Warsaw to London Luton was perfect in this regard. Below: somewhere over Germany, a business jet shoots over the top of my WizzAir Airbus A321, which passes under its contrail. Click to enlarge to see the photos in their full glory.

Below: approaching the North Sea from Holland; wispy clouds at stratospheric altitude, then a thin layer at around 20,000 ft, casting a shadow over low-lying clouds

Below: approaching Luton, sandwiched between the low cloud and the high cloud, the sun just about to hide behind the latter.

"Cabin crew, prepare for landing!" Luton not as ghastly today as it usually is - if you fly in on that 6am flight, it arrives as one of about six from across Central and Eastern Europe, and around a thousand people suddenly descend on border control in one go. The midday flight arrives around 2pm in Luton, which is decidedly less busy. For some reason, everyone at the border control was smiling - making the whole process much more civilised.

This time last year:
The staggeringly high cost of tax collection in Poland

This time five years ago
One stop beyond

This time six years ago:
Who am I? (Kim ja jestem?)

This time sevenyears ago:
First snow, 2009. Ghastly!

This time eight years ago:
Train links to town improving

This time nine years ago:
A beautiful Sunday, south of Warsaw

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Rich get richer... and the result is Brexit and Trump

I strongly commend Barack Obama's piece in last week's Economist outlining the economic policy challenges that will face his successor. [Click here for the full article.] He presents an overview of the problems before pointing the finger at the causes.

Two few stand-out sentences:
"I believe that changes in culture and values have also played a major role. In the past, differences in pay between corporate executives and their workers were constrained by a greater degree of social interaction between employees at all levels—at church, at their children’s schools, in civic organisations. That’s why CEOs took home about 20- to 30-times as much as their average worker. The reduction or elimination of this constraining factor is one reason why today’s CEO is now paid over 250-times more."
So your factory worker or bank teller is on $35,000 a year, while the CEO earns $8,750,000 a year.

And percentage-wise, the CEO pays less tax. And then while the factory worker may end the year deeper in debt than the year before, the CEO is unlikely to be able to spend $8,750,000 over the course of a 12 month period. And so, the CEOs' wealth accumulates, their families get richer...
"In 1979, the top 1% of American families received 7% of all after-tax income. By 2007, that share had more than doubled to 17%."
Their money is tied up in fancy real estate, cars and other playthings - but the bulk of it is capital - money that's shifted around the planet by fund managers or (increasingly) by family offices in search of higher yields. Capital can sit around in banks earning scant interest. It can buy treasury bonds earning low yields. It can be invested in businesses - a higher risk, but those who hedge their investments and choose stocks wisely do better than those who merely park their cash in a deposit account. And capital can be gambled on foreign currency exchange movements.

Capital is merciless. Since the EU referendum we've observed the pound falling. By 17% against a basket of major currencies in less than four months.

What you won't here from the politicians or read in the papers is what's going on beneath the surface, capital invested in the UK weighing up the pros and cons of moving elsewhere. Private equity funds, not having to report to shareholders, in particular. They don't need to worry about activists when upping sticks and moving somewhere more profitable, somewhere less uncertain.

Capital has benefited from one-off events such as China's opening up the world, as well as technological advances such as  IT and automation which increase the profitability of many businesses over time. The profits have gone into the pockets of the owners of capital.

The pound's fall from $1.49 on 23 June to $1.21 yesterday shows that the markets can punish British consumers for their vote in a manner that's so relentless, so determined, that no EU leader nor bureaucrat could ever accomplish.

Capital is the master. It pays well the people who keep the system moving - the directors and managers, the politicians, the senior policy-makers in government, the top media commentators who shape public opinion. But when the accumulation of wealth - of capital - at the very top of society starts to accelerate alarmingly, which has been happening since the 1980s, the spinning wheel starts to wobble.

The (uneducated) poor do foolish things. There are many of them, enough to vote in stupid things or stupid people that make no sense. Their lack of education leaves them open to manipulation; the narcissistic, sex-pest son of a billionaire can tell them he's not part of the elite. Newspaper owners who live in offshore tax-havens can tell them that migrants steal their jobs and ponce off the state at the same time*. And they believe, and vote accordingly, and the results of that vote will result in their lives being more miserable than ever - while capital silently moves on, flowing around their isles of misery to more profitable jurisdictions.

Barack Obama:

Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor and growth is broadly based. This is not just a moral argument. Research shows that growth is more fragile and recessions more frequent in countries with greater inequality. Concentrated wealth at the top means less of the broad-based consumer spending that drives market economies.

This makes sense. Question: how to achieve this? By taxing the rich 'until the pips squeak' (to use the quote attributed to British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey in 1974)? To 'eat the rich', as many anarchists claim they'd like to do?

I'm a believer in the theory of nudge - non-proscriptive suggestions, rather than the zakaz and nakaz approach passed down to Poland from the Tsarist Russian prikaz. Taxation would not hurt - higher income taxes for money earned that no longer go towards to the day-to-day upkeep of the salary earners and their families should be taxed at a higher rate. Of course there should be an incentive to strive, to reach for a higher standard of living, but their comes a point when additional improvements become incremental. A bigger yacht, a third holiday home, a million-dollar painting. But in general, the rich, the super-rich, the 1%, should become very aware of their privileges and give back far more, in terms of charitable activities and donations, being less ostentatious about their wealth, living a visibly more austere lifestyle, rather than flaunting it in the mass media.

For anyone having to live from month to month, in a state of stress about their personal finances, such flaunting of wealth is obscene. Couple that state with a poor education, and an inability to distinguish cause-and-effect in politics and in economics, and you can understand why the poorer quintiles vote for any old blarney to the effect of 'vote for x and your life will be better', in the same way that a consumer may reach for a new skin cream or dieting aid that promises better results than what they used before.

Now more than ever, the ultimate recipients of the largesse created by the capitalist system should show their gratitude for the privileges they were born into, and contribute more.

This time last year:
Respect for pedestrians' lives? Not among Polish MPs

This time four years ago:
Autumnal gorgeousness in Warsaw