Saturday, 28 November 2015

Wojtek the Bear in the heart of Edinburgh

As soon as I'd broken fast at the Scottish Restaurant (they don't do Sausage McMuffin Deluxe in the UK, the one with tomato in place of the egg), I set off to Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens to see the newly-unveiled statue commemorating the legendary Wojtek the Bear. I first heard about the soldier-bear, who fought alongside the Polish II Corps in the Middle East and Italy, in Saturday Polish school (can't remember if it was Pani Wolańska's class or Pani Skąpska's). Did we read about Wojtek in Razem Młodzi Przyjaciele? The story is a lovely one - the orphaned bear cub who is taken along with General Anders' army out of Persia, where he was found, via Monte Cassino (during the battle, Wojtek carried crates of shells for the artillery) to Edinburgh zoo, where he died in 1963.

A symbol of Polish-Scottish relations, Wojtek the warrior bear has now been immortalised in one of the most prestigious parts of Edinburgh; in the shadow of the castle, in the park that separates the Royal Mile from the New Town.

Below: the statue - the bear and a Polish soldier, the castle looming over the Gardens. The orange netting protects newly planted grass (presumably after the official unveiling on 7 November, witnessed by crowds and media from Poland and Scotland, despite the rain).

Front view of the statue, behind it a frieze depicting Wojtek being found as a cub, his adventures with the soldiers, his role as artillery shell carrier at Monte Cassino, through to his post-war years as an attraction at Edinburgh Zoo.

Below: the plaque - short and simple, in both languages. Za Waszą Wolność i Naszą.

Princes Street Gardens has just become an obligatory point for all Poles (and friends of Poland) to come and visit when in the Scottish capital. I felt deep pride at seeing the long-awaited statue in such a highly visible place, and would like to express my profound gratitude to those who came up with the idea, funded it and realised it.

Friday, 27 November 2015

London to Edinburgh by night bus

The challenge was as follows: I had to be at the Polish Embassy in London for a real-estate event that ends at 9pm. The next morning, at 9am, I had to be in Edinburgh for the first Scottish congress for Polish entrepreneurs. How to get there? All the early-morning flights from London would mean a 3:30am wake-up call. No way. And all the late-evening flights from London would mean leaving the Embassy event early (impossible, since I was chairing it).

There is a canny answer: now run night buses between the two capitals, with full sleeper facilities. Being a fan of Polish night trains, which offer transport and accommodation in one ticket, I decided to go for it. Booking ahead, the ticket cost £20 - amazing value, since a hotel plus flight, even if booked ahead, would easily cost £150-plus.

I walked from Portland Place to Victoria Coach Station (nearly 4,000 paces), arriving at 22:30, in good time for the 23:00 departure of the S20 sleeper service to Falkirk via Edinburgh. At 22:40, the bus arrived, and boarding began. First impressions - positive. The bus itself, brand new, according to the conductor/steward, a £500,000 investment.

Inside - it's cramped. Three types of berth - lower/single, lower/double and upper/single. The lower berths have very limited headroom compared to night trains. You have to be a contortionist to get ready for sleep. Remove shoes, outer garments - I found myself sleeping in suit trousers (jeans are better) - and shirt. A light blanket is provided, as is a eye-mask, small bottle of water and muffin.

As I observed about night trains - this is like being on board the International Space Station with the added disadvantage of gravity. Stowage of stuff is the trickiest thing. Emptying pockets for sleep (reading glasses, mobile phones, pens, wallet, notebook, keys, etc) and putting things where they can be easily found is a high art, and must be mastered with extremely limited room to move.

The driver and conductor were both called Kevin and were unfailingly polite, helpful and cheery. Safety instructions (you sleep feet facing direction of travel, put on seat belt round your middle) were read out, and the route - bizarrely - rather than straight up the London-Edinburgh A1, took the bus northwestward along the M40, then through Birmingham, M69... what happened next I don't know as I'd dropped off mid-announcement. Something about roadworks. Lights dimmed. First half-hour or so I was vaguely aware of stopping and starting at numerous traffic lights.

By virtue of the means of transport, a sleeper bus is much bumpier than a sleeper train. I woke up a few times, but nodded off soon after. The berths themselves are not soft, after sleeping on my side for a while I found my bones telling me to change position. Having downed four glasses of wine and a glass of orange juice at the Embassy, I knew that a night visit to the loo would be inevitable. It was clean, pleasant-smelling - and the reason was that men are asked to micturate in a seated position!

But generally, the night journey passed smoothly. Before 7am, the conductor woke everyone up, switching on the cabin lighting gradually. The bus arrived on time. Before disembarking, passengers were invited to help themselves to a carton of orange juice and a croissant.

To sum up - for £20 if booked early, £45 if booked earlier the same week,'s sleeper service from London to Scotland is a great answer to expensive capital hotels and inconvenient flight times. Ideal for tourists and business travellers!

This time two years ago:
The Regent's Canal, London

This time four years ago:
An end to the entitlement way of thinking

This time five year:
West Ealing - drab and sad suburb

This time six years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time eight years ago:
Late autumn drive-time

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Brentham Garden Suburb

Set south of the River Brent, the Brentham Garden Suburb is an architectural jewel of Ealing, one of 15 Conservation Areas, where modernity is resisted and the original buildings preserved. Built between 1903 and 1915, it was a pioneering development, following the precepts of garden cities, co-operative ownership and the Arts and Crafts movement. Some 600 homes make up the estate; to the west the Victorian housing around Pitshanger Lane, to the east the 1930s developments around Brunswick Road.

Brentham Garden Suburbs were designed and built before the motor-car degraded quality of life in cities. Hence - no garages. All cars are parked in the street, making it difficult to snap vistas that reflect the beauty of the area's layout. If you like this architecture, best to come on a weekday during working hours when at least some of the cars are driven away.

Because idealism was at the heart of the concept - there's no pub, just a sports club (in which the British tennis champion Fred Perry began his career). Fred Perry's father was the national secretary of the Co-operative Party, moving to Brentham estate after WW1.

But how were inhabitants expected to travel to work? The nearest station, on the Great Western Railway line from Northolt to Paddington via Old Oak Junction, opened in 1903 and closed in 1947. Brentham Halt (or Brentham Platform as it appears on some old maps) was over half a mile away, and not a convenient walk once the six-lane Western Avenue bisected the land north of the River Brent in the 1930s. And Ealing Broadway station is over a mile and half away.

So without a car, a good long walk was needed to get to the trains. Or even buses, such as they were in the 1920s. I'm sure cycling was popular here too - and the air, before the factories of the Western Avenue started springing up a decade later, was fresh.

The architecture is simple and pure; this was not mass-production like the later 1930s estate along Brunswick Road. A reaction to the cluttered styles of the mid-Victorian era, these Arts and Crafts homes, behind their well-kept hedges, alluded to traditional English village architecture.

Those hedges - quite magnificent, even in late November. Lower at the front of the house, higher at the rear, for privacy, a bastion of green surrounding every home. Neatly trimmed, the hedges add vastly to the visual appeal of the area.

Despite the distance to the main transport and retail hub that is Ealing Broadway, despite the absence of garages and off-street parking, even small two-bedroom terraced houses are being offered for sale at around £800,000.

This is one of my favourite parts of Ealing. The design purity and idealism of the architects and developers of a century ago makes this little enclave stand out from the rather more run-of-the-mill houses to either side of this estate. Designated a conservation area in the 1960s, Brentham Garden Suburb embodies values that make it exceptional.

This time last year:
Ahead of the opening of the second line of the Warsaw Metro
(it would be another four months until it actually did so)

This time two years ago:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...
(Portents of troubles to come)

This time three years ago:
Płock by day, Płock by night

This time four years ago:
Warning ahead of railway timetable change

This time eight years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stuffocation, asceticism and economic growth

We privileged quarter of humanity live our lives surrounded by too many things. Way more things than we need to live a full, harmonious life, reaching our full potential. I'm minded of this as I work my way through my late mother's clothes and books and ornaments - so many objects accumulated... Most of the clothing that I'm giving to charities was bought in the early 1980s (shoulder pads being the height of fashion then). My mother had four wardrobes full of clothes; my father has just one (and a chest of drawers). And I daren't go into the attic...

Watching the Robert Peston's BBC2 documentary about British retail yesterday, the economic model of the UK became clear. Retailers (food, clothing, furniture) became smarter and smarter over the post-war decades, tempting consumers to buy, buy, buy - turning wants into needs, generating desires, which could be gratified immediately thanks to easy credit. It was extremely interesting hearing Stanley Kalms (now Baron Kalms of Edgware), life president of Dixons Retail saying that the retail boom of 1992-2008 was unsustainable. "I was amazed at the ease of obtaining high amounts of credit. You could see customers walking out of the shop with a thousand pounds' worth of equipment, no deposit, no interest for 12 months... but in my heart I knew it could not possibly last." The bankers in league with the retailers, the boom driven by soaring house prices.

"Spend, spend, spend - women were the worst at it, buying stuff you don't want, you open the cupboard, everything falls out, seven pairs of shoes you never wore" said Stuart Rose (now Lord Rose of Monewden), former executive chairman of Marks & Spencer. My mother was not into shoes; rather, she had a large number of skirts, dresses, blouses, twin-sets, jackets and coats. Maybe she was making up for the austerity years that followed the war and the scrimping and saving when her sons were growing up. It all must go; there's too much clutter.

We're surrounded by it. Books belong in bookcases. But everything else must follow William Morris's golden rule: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

If we all lived life this way, our houses would be emptier by half than they are. Don't buy anything you won't find truly useful, or that does not add to the aesthetic pleasure of your life. Out will go the decorative figurines, the holiday souvenirs, the tasseled scatter cushions... Yet someone makes a living, making these things.

"Truly useful". The average household power drill in the US is used for less than eight minutes in its lifetime. Borrowing or sharing makes more sense here; the sharing economy, powered by the internet, will move society in this direction. And the internet, by making information accessible to an unprecedented degree, will reduce demand for reference books.

Cutting back on buying stuff will hit the economy. Yesterday I blogged about the automotive industry - if we all drove small cars and kept them (like my father) for well over 20 years - demand would wither and with it the jobs of the workers in factories that keep churning out ever-bigger cars; the Far East's looms would stop spinning if everyone thought twice or more about buying that new shirt or blouse. How much do we really need to attain true happiness, and maximise the potential that our life has offered us?

An ascetic life, pared down to the essentials (for me, an elegant, spacious house on Warsaw's fringe, a well-equipped kitchen, tasteful simple furniture, cherished books, no more clothing than needed and two-wheel transport) multiplied by two billion inhabitants of the developed world - would crush economic growth.

But then... are we consumers moving in another direction - away from things - and towards services and experiences? Who'd impress you more at a dinner party - an immaculately-dressed person, or a scruff who's just returned from the wilds of Borneo?

The motto of the Millennials - YOLO (You Only Live Once) suggests that stuff will become less important than experience. Stuff's cheap. If not new stuff, 'pre-loved' stuff from charity shops. Not wearing it? Give it away. Make a charity happy. Make a charity shop customer happy. Feel good within yourself about how charitable you are. Win-win-win. Not great news for retailers and manufacturers, but then recycling is so much more virtuous than the slash-and-burn of the late 20th Century consumption model.

Let's apply our consciousness to our consumption process. Buy with awareness of what it is that we are buying - and why we're doing it.

This time three years ago:
Heroes on the wall (for my father)

This time five years ago:
Tax dodge or public service?

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's woodlands in autumn

This time seven years ago:
Still here, the early snow

This time eight years ago:
Another point of view

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Cars must fade from our cities, and fade fast.

"What puzzles me is how the cult of the car remains such a popular one. Motorists - the kind who drive as a default rather than occasional or emergency mode of transport - adhere to a religion that hurts society and themselves. Some seem even brainwashed by Top Gear repeats and motoring festivals into thinking a honking lump of metal can be "sexy"."

This is not me ranting away, but an op-ed piece by Rosamund Urwin in London's Evening Standard newspaper. Varsovians - your love affair with the car is a throwback to the 1960s. You are catching up with lost time; but things change, and car use is slowly fading in world's largest cities.

Fading all too slowly. My fourth week in London, I can see how our planet's developed cities are being fouled by the motorcar just as the less developed cities are fouled by open drains. Walking around Ealing, this lovely suburb is blighted by cars. We humans want it all - house, car, clothes, etc - status, in a word. Cut the car out of the equation, and suddenly everything fits. The beautiful Brentham Garden Suburb, so carefully designed by Arts and Crafts architects between 1903 and 1915, is today visually ruined by cars parked in a solid line on both sides of the streets.

Below: Flog the black SUV with the darkened rear windows and buy a detached home, for God's sake. Apart from anything else, the cars are spoiling the view.

It's time to move on. The age of the oversized, fossil-fuel powered car has passed. Its demise will not be quick - people are lazy and selfish. But it will happen, in stages, as the new reality dawns...

Stage One. Realise that there is nothing big or clever about owning a large, powerful car. No, in the developed world, it no longer impresses; it is a symbol not of status but of your anti-social, egotistical personality (think fart in a crowded lift). What does impress, especially in London with its house prices, is property. (A nice detached house at the top end of Birkdale Road is a lot more impressive than a semi off the Brunswick Road. And motorists - you could afford it if you just ditched the mobile status symbol.) Averaged out across the week, you spend 12 plus hours a day in your house and (if you're unfortunate) two in your big vehicle, which costs you a small fortune to finance, insure and run. And contributes to your ill-health in later life.

Stage Two. If you really must have a car, have a small one, and use it as infrequently as you can. Save energy, emit less. Treat the car as a domestic appliance, not as a status symbol. It should be as energy efficient as possible. No low-profile tyres to scrape expensive alloy wheels on kerbs. No barrage of optional extras that pump up the list price to twice that of the base model. No 'performance pack' that potentially gives you vastly more speed than is legally permitted on public roads. Still, if you do need a car - hire one, or share one. Or call a taxi. The ownership model is in decline.

Stage Three. You live in a city. Use its amenities - public transportation. Walk. We all need to rack up 10,000 paces a day (8km/5 miles) of walking a day, according to the NHS, the World Health Organisation and the Surgeon-General of the US. That's really hard to do if you drive everywhere by default. Half and hour of brisk cycling is the equivalent in health terms of 5,000 paces. And on a bus or train you can benefit from Twitter, Google and the rest of the social media. Which you can't in a car. The Millennial Generation is more interested in the latest mobile devices than in owning cars. You'll not impress them with a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. An Apple iPhone 6S draws more gasps.

Finally, a bit of good news...
Nearly 60% of Poles choose public transport over car
Poles are becoming conscious of the Earth's finite resources and are making changes in their own households, the Ministry of the Environment's research indicated. According to the survey, over 70% of Poles limit their water consumption, while 57% choose public transportation or cycling over cars whenever they can.  Half of respondents said they purchase energy-saving light bulbs, refrigerators and washing machines (40%), additionally, they switch off lights when leaving a room (67%).
Ministry of Environment
This time two years ago:
Leeds, by day

This time four years ago:
Bad customer service - a camera repairer to avoid

This time six years ago:
November weather notes

This time seven years ago:
First snow, winter 2008-09

This time eight years ago: