Friday, 30 January 2015

Barefaced populism exposed

The date of the next Polish presidential elections will be announced on Wednesday; most likely the first (and only?) round will take place in mid-May. The winner will be the incumbent, Bronisław Komorowski. The outcome is so utterly certain that the opposition parties are fielding totally unknown candidates so as to save their big guns from humiliation.

Stalin-Lenin-Dno (SLD), the successor to the Polish communist party, PZPR, will not be fielding its hated leader, Leszek Millllller, the Moscow-educated, former Secretary of the Central Committee of the PZPR. Instead, SLD presents a Ms Marionetka Cucumber, a total unknown, who at least has a pretty face.

Polish peasants' party PSL has yet to announce its candidate - it's unlikely to be deputy prime minister Janusz Piechociński. One rumour is that PSL won't even bother putting a contender into the race.

Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński, having lost the 2010 presidential election to Mr Komorowski 54.4% to 46.4%, does not wish to become a two-time loser. So Law and Justice is fielding... Andrzej Duda. OK, I so never heard of him before either (he's not to be confused with rabble-rousing Solidarność leader Piotr Duda).

I recently started following Law and Justice on Twitter. Travelling home from work this evening, I was reading my Twitter feed, and chanced upon choice excerpts from Andrzej Duda's speech to voters in Grodzisk Mazowiecki. I was shocked by what I read.

"Niska płaca nie uzdrowi polskiej gospodarki,ozdrowi ją popyt. A ten będzie tylko przy większych zarobkach" [Low pay will not heal the Polish economy, it will be healed by demand. And that will only grow through high earnings.] All well and good - but who is to pay for the higher earnings? Maybe the entrepreneur? The small business owner?

"Polska jest nieopresyjna tylko dla wybranych. Zwykli, mali przedsiębiorcy najlepiej to rozumieją." [Poland is unoppressive only to the chosen. Ordinary, small entrepreneurs understand this best." So while they are currently being oppressed, under President Duda, they'll have to be oppressed even more to find the extra cash for higher earnings for their employees - and to pay the additional taxes to ensure the public sector also gets higher earnings. Given that 52% of the Polish workforce is directly employed by Polish small entrepreneurs, I feel that this particular group of voters will not be casting its vote for Mr Duda.

"Obrót polską ziemią będzie uwolniony w maju 2016 r. Jest jeszcze szansa zatrzymania tego procederu. Musimy zabiegać o ochronę polskiej ziemi, nie możemy jej oddać w obce ręce." ["Buying and selling of Polish soil shall be fully liberalised in May 2016. There is still a chance to stop this racket. We must strive to protect the Polish land, we cannot give it up to foreign hands."] Purest demagoguery. Barefaced populism of the most shameless kind.

Surely Mr Duda realises that Poland is a member of the EU? And that in the Accession Treaty, Poland signed up to the liberalisation of sale of agricultural land after a 12-year transition period? And in return, the countries letting Poland into the EU signed up to allowing Polish workers access to their labour markets - in the case of most countries, after a seven-year transition period. Over 77% of Poles voted in the 2003 referendum to join to the EU. So what is Mr Duda proposing? To tear up the Accession Treaty? Plain nuts.

"Skąd mają wziąć się miejsca pracy dla młodych ludzi, skoro zajmują je ich dziadkowie?" [Where will workplaces for young people come from, if they are being occupied by their grandfathers?] Do you know any octogenerians in the workplace, blocking the recruitment of graduates and school-leavers? This smacks of blatant ageism.

And this: "Jak można wprowadzać system przedłużający pracę ludzi, nie dając im nic w zamian? [How can you introduce a system extending people's work, not giving them anything in return?] Mr Duda's populist attack on pension reforms ignores that YES THEY HAVE GOT SOMETHING IN RETURN. It's called A LONGER LIFE. The average Pole lives three years longer today than in 2000, and six years longer than in 1990. As the lifespan of Poles increases, it is economically essential that they spend some of that extended life at work earning money rather than simply withdrawing pensions from an ever-shrinking pot.

Populist politicians trotting out such twaddle are either totally ignorant of the realities of the economy and the way the world functions - and should not hold public office on account of their outright ignorance - or they know damn well how it all works but are shamelessly lying into the electorate's face. It's binary - it's one or the other. Mr Duda is either ignorant or a liar.

I feel inclined to vote in the first round for the attractive Ms Cucumber, in order to totally humiliate Mr Duda and the PiS strategists who decided this lightweight populist should represent their party in a futile one-horse race against a dead-cert. Incidentally, 'Duda' can be translated into English as 'Bagpipe'. Very fitting.

Social inequality, over-regulation of small business, imperfections in the working of the single European market and pensions reform are all important issues that need to be resolved incrementally, by the application of human intelligence, demanding nuanced solutions that take the long term into consideration. Not by a meaningless, impotent litany of 'musts'  and 'shoulds'.

This time last year:
Straż Ochrony Kolei explained

This time two years ago:
The end of winter? So early?

This time three years ago:
How much education for the nation?

This time four years ago:
To the Catch - short story

This time five years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
From the family archives

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Warsaw Spire - still getting higher

A visit to (near) the top of Rondo ONZ One offered me the opportunity to see from the city centre how Warsaw Spire - the 44-floor, 180m (220m with masts) skyscraper is coming on. According to a post on Skyscraper City last week, there are two more floors of offices and two technical floors to build yet, so it's still got a little bit to go.

Below: Warsaw Spire pierces the skyline of the western edge of the capital. When completed next year, it will draw the city's centre of gravity westwards towards Wola. The area between Al. Jana Pawła II and ul. Okopowa has seen increasing development in recent years, and the opening of the second line of the Warsaw Metro will link Wola to the city centre and Powiśle and Praga beyond. Photo taken from the 37th floor of Rondo ONZ One, the highest accessible floor to the public.



Below: view from the 28th floor, a wider angle shot taken one hour later. Photo tweaked with the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. HDR allows me to render the pic in a slightly surreal way. Note the (rotating) Mercedes-Benz logo on the Ilmet building in the left foreground. The building - 103m to the top of the logo with 22 floors, was only completed 18 years ago, and yet is now earmarked for demolition and replacement with a 188m-high tower, which will be higher than either Rondo ONZ One or Warsaw Spire.


The broad thoroughfare heading out west is ul. Prosta, the continuation of ul. Świętokrzyska. Both have recently been re-opened ahead of the second line of the Metro. Today I heard from a source very much in the know that there are some serious delays and it might yet be some time before the second line is finally opened (something to do with water leaks).

This time last year:
Plac Zbawiciela, lunchtime, winter

This time two years ago:
Is this winter's end?

This time three years ago:
The other Jeziorki station

This time five years ago:
Launching the General's book

This time six years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
(For a while there it looked like the city authorities would provide us locals with a pavement so that we could safely walk to the station or bus stop with clean footwear. Six years on - not a bit of it. Still waiting. A Big Boo to Bufetowa)

This time seven years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The spread of craft beers - not just central Warsaw

A big thanks to Tim and Andrzej at RSK for suggesting a visit to Mam Ochotę, a klubokawiarnia in Ochota (which sounds like a suburb of Tokyo but in fact is Warsaw's Kensington). Not the very epicentre of the city, but a few bus stops to the south-west. Ochota literally means 'willingness' or 'desire'; mam ochotę literally means 'I want' or 'I fancy'. (A trendy Warsaw bar these days has to have a name with a double meaning - like PiwPaw or Same Krafty)

So, fancying a craft beer, we popped by for an ale or two. The revolution has spread beyond the city centre; although there was no artisan brew on tap, there was a fair selection of bottled ales from small regional breweries around Poland, many various brewing styles.



We plumped for two beers (above), Serce Dębu (literally 'oak heart') from Perun, brewed by the Zodiak brewery in Piaseczno, an American brown ale, 5.5% abv, a complex and multi-layered beer, a good mouthful with lingering aftertaste. Not as hoppy as an IPA, but richly rewarding. The second, Kujawskie, by the Krajan brewery from the Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, was intriguing, not for any intrinsic reason other than its taste gave me an instant flashback to the Polish beers exported to the UK in the 1980s. Żywiec used to taste like this before Big Brewing got its corporate hands on the process. Malty rather than hoppy, strong too at 6.0% abv.

We debated whether the Polish word for malt, słód, formed the etymological origin of the adjective słodkie ('sweet') [Wiktionary suggests that this is indeed the case.] In the days before sugar (cane or beet) became readily available in Poland, malt - germinating cereal grains - for brewing would have been (besides honey and fruit) the sweetest taste commonly encountered.

I must say I prefer my beers bitter and hoppy than malty and sweet, but the latter style is more prevalent in Polish brewing. Andrzej, who hails from Lower Silesia, made the connection between beer-drinking and coal-mining; a miner who'd spent a whole shift underground extracting coal would emerge dehydrated; drinking a litre and half of beer would always be preferable to the same amount of water or to a smaller amount of wine or spirits.

It is good that beer is experiencing a renaissance in Poland. Back in the late 1980s, in the dying days of the communist system, you'd go into a bar and ask naively for a beer - the inevitable answer from the sarky waitress was "we didn't have any beer, we don't have any beer, we won't have any beer". As soon as democracy was re-established the Polish Beer-Lovers' Party won 16 seats in the first parliamentary elections held in 1991. Small local breweries took off, beer drinking took hold in Poland. But the big, multinational brewing conglomerates had an eye on emerging markets like Poland with a large population, rapidly rising GDP and a lot of coal miners. So within 20 years, the Big Three (SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg) had a virtual monopoly of the Polish beer market, turning out beers like Tyskie, Lech, Żywiec, Warka Strong and Okocim that all tasted and looked the same, lacked character or conviction.

The revolution started a few years back - the big brewers were (and are) losing market share as regional breweries and craft brewers bounded back with interesting tastes, different styles, made by people with a passion rather than a focus on the bottom line and quarterly profits.

But step outside the metropolis, and you'll be hard-pressed to find this variety in a bar. Yesterday Śródmieście, today Ochota, tomorrow Piaseczno? And who knows - Jeziorki?

This time last year:
The Holocaust and the banality of evil

This time two years ago:
Snow scene into the sun

This time three years ago:
More winter gorgeousness

This time four years ago:
New winter wear - my M65 Parka

This time five years ago:
Winter and broken-down trains

This time six years ago:
General Mud claims ul. Poloneza

This time seven years ago:
Just when I thought winter was over...

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Winter woes and a creativity crisis

First new post for a week - I'm slacking. I come home from work feeling I have nothing new to say or to write, museless; I postpone writing for another evening, then yet another one. This is not to say that I'm beset by depression or seasonal affective disorder, but I do feel spectacularly bereft of creative drive right now. Have I passed 'peak creativity'? Is it all downhill from here? No - as the Rabbi says, if you're having a bad patch, remember, there will be good times up ahead - but be aware when times are good, that bad patches loom. That's life.

So then, a rather pedestrian catch-up.

The weather. 

I'm surprised if this doesn't turn out to be the warmest January on record in Warsaw. The temperature has rarely dipped below freezing; since returning from London last week the sun has not ventured out. It is dull, damp and when the snow falls, it is wet and unpleasant and soon disappears. The constant rain, drizzle and wet snow have turned the unpavemented verges of Jeziorki's roads into a muddy morass; my footwear is perpetually filthy. Cars splash pedestrians with icy water from the edge-to-edge puddles on the poorly drained asphalt. My camera, always around my neck, rarely strays to my eye - there's little that attracts my eye.

It's difficult to do one's 10,000 paces a day when it's raining, so to catch up on below-average walking on Thursday and Friday, yesterday I walked from home to Zalesie Górne, a distance of about 15km, past Mysiadło, Nowa Iwiczna, Piaseczno and Żabieniec, parallel to the railway line. The weather was so miserably indifferent, I was not moved to take any photographs.

Shopping.

Do go to Lidl - the for-special-occasions Deluxe range, which offers delicatessen fare for a budget, has Christmas left-overs at amazing prices. Roquefort cheese, my favourite blue cheese (even beats Stilton say I), is on sale at 4.99 złotys for a 100gm pack (89p), down from the old price of 6.65 złotys (£1.19). Now, this is the real thing - PDO, DOC whatever, matured in caves, made of ewes' milk. Given that Auchan sells a Roquefort for 13.99 złotys (£2.49), this is an offer not to be sniffed at. But like all good things, there's a catch - the sell-by date is 22 February. Still, this is a cheese that does not go off; it matures even further.

The Lidl formula works just the same in Poland as it does in the UK, though with different marketing. In Britain, consumers are exhorted to 'join the Lidlers' and go Lidling with them, rooting out those amazing surprises that appear each week. In Poland, Lidl ads are just a forgettable list of commodity prices which go in one ear and come out the other. Obviously, Poland is considered to be at a 'different stage of development' by the admen; but people like surprises and bargains wherever they live.

Don't go to 5áSec, the French dry-cleaning chain. High and opaque pricing. My three pairs of trousers and a jacket, according to the price-list prominently displayed, should cost 95.96 złotys to clean (£17.29). When it came to paying (up-front, of course), I was asked for 129.96 złotys (£23.16), despite having turned down all attempts at up-selling me with 'fabric treatments' and other tosh. I asked why the price is different to the one advertised. "That is because we'll have to use a different process for these," said the lady at the counter. "And anyway, the trousers may return 'not fully clean', because they have muddy stains around the ankles". I said that if they weren't stained, I wouldn't be taking them to be dry-cleaned. I've used 5áSec before and was disappointed; if it wasn't for the fact that French dry-cleaners go hand in hand with French retailers (Auchan in this case), I wouldn't use this price-gouging bunch of rip-off artists ever again.

Commuting.

Polish railways are unlucky when it comes to taking on new rolling stock. On Thursday I boarded a Koleje Mazowieckie train bound for W-wa Jeziorki at W-wa Śródmieście. It looked new; it smelled new, it boasted that it had WiFi; it had features that I'd not seen on the commuter trains on the Radom line*. The seats were comfortable, there was a flip-down tray-table, like on planes, but made from real wood. Luxury! Except that after two stations, at W-wa Zachodnia, it broke down.

After some ten minutes, the guard decided to inform the passengers - not via the public address system, which was evidently not working - but by walking down the train. It was going nowhere. Another train will be brought onto the adjacent platform, in the meantime, please remain seated, it's warm inside and snowing outside, large, heavy flakes of wet snow. So we all waited. Some 15 minutes later the relief train appeared, pulled into the track across the platform, we crossed over and boarded the empty train, waiting for something to happen. No announcements... But among the passengers were canny folk who knew that at 18:22 the next train for Piaseczno and Radom was due at W-wa Zachodnia. Duly the 18:22 arrived on the next platform. No announcement as to which would leave first. One by one at first, then in a massed rush, passengers left the train I was on and made their way, via the underpass, to Platform 4 to board the 18:22 train. It was already quite full by the time it rolled into Zachodnia, so by the time that three-quarters of the passengers from my train had boarded the other one, it was totally packed. But which one would leave first?

My one. YES! There was a short spontaneous cheer among those who, like me, had decided to stay rather than to risk boarding the 18:22. Lesson? Preserve a zen-like calm, and don't follow the masses.

Health.

This study into ageing and exercise gave me a reason to be cheerful. "A study of super-fit cyclists" aged over 55... What do you need to do to prove you are "super-fit"? Cycle 100km in six and half hours. I'm sure I can do that. If - back in 2010, at the age of 52, I managed 135km in seven and half hours, and last year, at the age of 56, I managed 84km in seven hours (including two half-hour breaks and a significant amount of walking a heavy, fat-tyred mountainbike over stretches of soft sand), it should not be too hard to crack 100km in six hours along roads. Roll on the spring! Roll on the re-birth of creativity!

So. That's it - this represents the sum total of what I've had to say all week. Boring, eh?

I just hope that my creativity will return...

This time last year:
At last! Wintry gorgeousness arrives in Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Warsaw - the more it snows

This time three years ago:
Get orf my lairnd!

This time four years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time five years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time six years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time seven years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in fog

Sunday, 18 January 2015

UK migration and the NHS

I was in London for much of last week, looking after my parents - on Wednesday, my father (91) had an eye operation, the following day I had to take my mother (87) to the clinic. And while I was round, lots of shopping - in West Ealing, Hanwell, Greenford and Pitshanger Lane.

The main media topic in the UK in the second half of last week was the state of the National Health Service, less than four months before the General Election. (The outcome of this election will be utterly crucial for the future of Britain and Europe, but that'll be covered in subsequent posts).

Key to measuring the performance of the NHS is the time patients are waiting to be seen in Accident & Emergency (A&E) wards up and down the country. Guidelines state that 95% of patients must be seen within four hours of arriving at the hospital. England, Wales and Northern Ireland were measured and found wanting. In England, 89.8% of patients are seen within four hours; the figures for Wales are 81.0%; Northern Ireland 76.7%; while in Scotland - which has a 98% target, 93.5% of patients are seen within four hours.

The NHS has set up a local hospital tracker (link here - you will need to type in a UK postcode to make this work) so every UK citizen can see how their hospital is rated for waiting times, weekly attendance at A&E, emergency admissions at A&E, operations cancelled, and beds blocked. Really useful for seeing which hospitals are overcrowded and which ones offer first-class healthcare.

Anyway, the NHS I saw last week worked above and beyond my expectations - my father's operation took a little over an hour - he had a new lens fitted into his left eye. Thirty minutes after leaving the operating theatre, we were outside the hospital, waiting for a taxi to take us home. The following day, when the eyepatch came off, my father's sight through what used to be his weak eye was actually better than my strong eye when it came to reading. Once he has the other eye operated on, his eyesight will be near perfect. Miraculous! The work of skilled surgeons - all female, and none native English. The lead surgeon was Hong Kong Chinese; she was assisted at the table by two Polish doctors. The nursing staff were from India, Hong Kong and Poland - and were all excellent.

The following day, mother was seen by her GP, from India, in a timely and efficient manner. The clinic was run like clockwork - all the horror stories about the NHS in the British media seem to be relating to a different world.

It occurred to me that the NHS - for all its faults - is dependent on immigrant staff, without which it would collapse. According to the Health & Social Care Information Centre, 26% of doctors working in the NHS were born abroad, while 22% of all nursing staff that joined the NHS in the year to September 2014 were non-British.

With migration and the health service likely to be among the top issues concerning voters ahead of the May election, the electorate needs to appreciate just how critical to the survival of the NHS is its ability to recruit the best doctors, nurses and care staff from outside the UK.

Why is the UK unable to fill its own healthcare system with native Brits? Could it be that for today's generation of young people studying to be a doctor, or working around those pesky patients is too much like hard work?

This time two years ago:
Miserable depths of winter

This time four years ago:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time five years ago:
A month until Lent starts

This time six years ago:
World's biggest airliner over Poland

This time seven years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts