Monday, 31 August 2009

What Putin wrote

A two-page article, written by premier Putin, appeared in today's Gazeta Wyborcza. Translated into Polish by the Russian embassy in Warsaw, the article sets the tone for Putin's visit tomorrow to Westerplatte for the official commemoration of the outbreak of WWII.

If you believe that the Kremlin plays a coordinated game, you will have witnessed in the Russian media over the past weeks a planned series of 'Aunt Sallies' set up to infuriate Polish public opinion. "Poland and Germany were plotting to invade the Soviet Union!" "The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a good thing for Russia!" "Poland to blame for WWII!" "Katyń - It wasn't us!"

Putin's article and tomorrow's visit seem at first sight to knock these specious arguments for six.

"Today" writes the Russian premier, "I propose that we, without any consideration, without any hesitation, admit that the one trigger of the second world war was the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 23 August 1939."

Well, that looks clear enough - no 'consideration' (zastanowienie) nor 'hesitation' (wahanie) needed for us to admit what the real cause of WWII was.

But the next sentence seems to negate this very proposal:

"Supporters of such a point of view do not ask themselves any elementary questions - whether the Treaty of Versailles which summarised the first world war did not leave in its wake many 'ticking time-bombs'?"

OK then, do we accept that Molotov-Ribbentrop was the 'one trigger'? Or do we ask ourselves 'elementary questions' first? Putin (his speech-writers and/or his translators) leave us deliberately unclear as to whether the Kremlin wants us to actually think.

The key thing to me in Putin's article is the sense of continuity between the 'rogue state' that was the USSR - and modern Russia. The Soviet Union was a 'captured nation' - indeed 15 captured nations - that had become terrorised from within by a band of ideologically-motivated gangsters. During this 70 period, Russia, by far the largest of those captured nations, extended its empire way beyond the borders of what the Tsars held sway over.

Returning to Putin on Molotov-Ribbentrop:

"I would like to remind you that in our country the immoral character of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was unambiguously assessed [as such] [on 24 December 1989, the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR passed a declaration condemning the pact from 1939]" .

In our country - the USSR? Or Russia? It is as if Chancellor Adenauer of West Germany were to justify his position on an issue by quoting a declaration passed by the Nazi Party in 1942.

Putin talks of Molotov-Ribbentrop in the context of other pacts and treaties entered into with Hitler by the West, such as Munich. Yet these were not preparations for the invasion of Britain and France, of say Belgium and Holland. Molotov-Ribbentrop was paving the way for the Soviet invasion of independent Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, eastern Finland, eastern Poland and eastern Romania. This was a land-grab on a far larger scale than what Hitler had managed to achieve through Anschluss, annexation and invasion from March 1938 to September 1939.

Putin talks about the lack of an 'Anti-fascist coalition'. Anti-fascism as a common bond between the West and the USSR is entirely specious. Stalinism had far more in common with Nazi fascism than with the democracies of Britain and France. Collectivist repression, Gulags and concentration camps, arbitrary persecution on ground of race or class, personality cults around the Leader, no freedom of expression. The list of similarities between Stalinism and Nazi fascism goes on and on. Two forms of poison.

Putin mentions "the 600,000 soldiers of the Red Army who gave their lives liberating Poland". Here we have a profound difference of view. "...Who gave their lives so that one tyranny could replace another in Poland" would be the way I'd have phrased it. These soldiers too are victims, let us not forget, driven west by Stalin in his quest to conquer as much of Europe as possible.

Putin also mentions Katyń. "The Russian nation, whose fate was misshapen by a totalitarian regime, understands well the sensitivities of Poles concerning Katyń. We should keep in our common memory the victims of this atrocity. The cemetaries at Katyń and Mednioye, as well as the fate of the Russian soldiers who became PoWs in the [Polish-Soviet] war of 1920 should become a symbol of common sorrow and forgivenness." [No mention of the fate of the Poles captured by the Bolsheviks in that same war, then.]

To enter into the Putin mindset regarding WWII, consider this part of his article.

"Because the war took the lives of 27 million of my countrymen [rodacy] and every Russian family feels the personal pain from those losses, from generation to generation, the pride is passed down, pride of the Great Victory, of the heroic deeds of our fathers and grandfathers who fought on the Front."

Again, continuity with the USSR. 27 million Soviet citizens (including those like my maternal grandfather who were Soviet citizens against their will) might have died (best academic estimate - 26.6 million). But of that awful, unimaginable total, Putin's Russian countrymen numbered 14 million. A horrific death toll by any human measure, but in percentage terms, Ukraine (6.8m) and Belarus (2.6m) suffered far worse than Russia-proper. And 2.5m civilian dead from the lands seized by the USSR as a result of Molotov-Ribbentrop. And up to 1.7m Gulag victims. By saying "27 million of my countrymen", Putin seems to be still considering himself Soviet. And the 'Great Victory' was, for the peoples of central Europe - the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the beginning of 45 years of another kind of totalitarianism.

The fact that Putin has come to Poland and is talking about Molotov-Ribbentrop and Katyń is a small step forward. But Russia needs to be more clear that it has separated itself from those 70 years of lawless totalitarianism. Maybe this can only happen when it is no longer ruled by those with the KGB mindset at the core of which is mistrust.

My thanks to Adthelad for this link to Norman Davies's article on the causes of the outbreak of WWII from The Independent.

And definitely worth reading this in-depth article by Charles Crawford, the former British ambassador to Warsaw, on the subtext of Putin's article.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Late summer dad'n'lad bike ride

Finally, the school holidays are at last coming to an end. Ten weeks of leisure. "Won't be long till summer time is through!"

To celebrate, I dragged a reluctant Eddie out on his bike for a spin around the Las Kabacki forest, then to the edge of the airport for a spot of spotting.

Above: The railway line that connects Warsaw's metro to the outside world. Rust suggests it's not been used for a while. The only traffic that comes this way is the occasional drezyna (technical railcar). But worth remembering that every single piece of rolling stock that runs daily between Kabaty and Młociny once came down this track.

We rode west from the forest towards ul. Puławska. Eddie waits, bored, while I adjust the circular polarising filter, set the correct exposure and get the pic.
This path, from the forest to ul. Żolny, is particularly atmospheric and is one of my 'spirit of place' locations.

On to the airport. The large earthworks screening the S2-S79 expressway junction (Węzeł Lotnisko) are an excellent place for watching planes land. Below: An Austrian Arrows Dash-8 flies overhead, taken with lens at 55mm, uncropped, so you can see how close it was.

Below: Eddie making his descent from the man-made plateau. There was quite a crowd up here, plane spotters and mountain bikers. Neither of us rode down - you need a full suspension bike to do it comfortably, it is steep. But we saw other guys doing it - hair-raising!

On the way back to Jeziorki, we rode along the untarmacked stretch of ul. Wirażowa. Work on the new expressways starts next month; so we are witnessing the last moments of semi-rural tranquility here (currenly interrupted only by frequent landings and occasional trains).
Below: Back in Jeziorki. Still parallel to the railway tracks. Still rural. Close to home now.

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Next Hundred Years

I've always found futurology fascinating. An article in this week's New Statesman by George Friedman that peers 100 years into the future attracted my attention, not least because of the important role that Poland plays in its author's vision.

Friedman asserts that America's global power will wane; three countries will emerge far stronger, economically and politically, during this century - Poland, Mexico and Turkey. Using the analogy of the rise of South Korea since the 1950s, Friedman believes that Poland needs to become a strategic partner for the US - for the best interests of America.

Delighted though I am to see confirmation of what I firmly believe - that Poland is a country on the rise - I feel that Friedman's predictions for the 21st Century are missing something.

Reading and re-reading this article, I'm amazed that its author ignores any mention of what's obviously the biggest geopolitical fault line of them all - the 2,700 mile (4,400km) border between the world's most populous nation, China and the world's largest one, Russia, along the Amur river.

To its south, China - over-crowded; economically dynamic, short of living space and raw materials. To the north, Russia, with a shrinking population, vast empty territories and an economy almost entirely dependent on the exploitation of rich reserves of raw materials.

On the Russian side of the Amur lies the Amur Oblast, population 870,000 and shrinking, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (a bizarre relic of Stalin's obsession with relocating peoples), population 190,000 and shrinking. By contrast, Heilongjiang province to the south of the Amur has a population of 38 million.

Chinese traders are crossing into Russia with those ubiquitous check pattern cubic bags in which they bring T-shirts and sweaters and tights and cheap consumer electronics. They come from the numerous towns in the north of Heilongjiang and from the north-east of Inner Mongolia. Some of these Chinese traders are settling in Russia, marrying local women (who see them as hard-working and not overly fond of vodka). Ethnic tensions will rise. As they do so, China will start flexing its military muscle to protect its people... Russia's crumbling transport and energy infrastructure will hamper its attempts to shore up the Amur region militarily.

Russia's weakness and China's strength and strategic needs will ensure that there's a casus belli here that's waiting for a spark, a provocation (and Russia is good at thoughtless provocation), something that will cause world opinion to side with an outraged China - and the People's Liberation Army (600 million men and women available for military service) could turn its attention northwards.

It is worth reading about the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1969 to see how a military showdown could escalate. Of course Russia is a nuclear power; but how many of its nukes will be in working order in 2040? The Russian armed forces, mired in corruption, would be no match numerically nor organisationally to deal with Chinese incursions.

How would these look? My guess is that at first, we will see small-scale cross border raids to punish Russia for local anti-Chinese pogroms. The Russians will be unable to repel these raids, China will hold the land despite UN Resolutions. By the end of the century, I predict the Russian-Chinese border will no longer run along the Amur.

From the point of view of the Anglo-Saxon world, this will not be a war of 'an ally' versus 'an enemy'. Like Hitler's war against Stalin, this will be a war of 'two bad guys'. Russia has not been endearing itself to the West in recent years, nor has China. Neither the US nor the EU will want to take sides in a Sino-Russian border conflict. Russia and China will both work hard to sway western public opinion, but the west will simply not care. In bar-room discussions, Joe Sixpack and Eddie Punchclock will conclude that it's a faraway conflict that doesn't remotely impinge on their lives.

But it will be, in my opinion, the biggest geopolitical shakeup of the 21st Century.

Russia needs to win friends in Europe; its short-sighted foreign policy is not endearing the very people it should need as allies. The only way Russia can avoid its fate on the Amur is to join the structures of western Europe - NATO and the EU.

More on this here and here.

This time last year:
Of dams and brass bands

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Honing the Art of the Written Word

I spent much of the weekend (the third one in a row), with Ziggy going over our translations of General Stefan Bałuk's wartime memoires, Byłem Cichociemnym. The fact that the very title has undergone revision since its first translation shows what a gruelling task this has been. Originally, we'd settled on The Silent, Dark Ones. Now, the book's English title will be Silent and Unseen.

This work has been a great learning experience for me. The actual translation itself did not take that long - I translated around a fifth of the book, the last 57 pages or three chapters in 12 days, around my normal working routine (evenings and weekends). The real work was to take our raw translation of the General's text and beat it into something that reads perfectly in English. Right: General Stefan Bałuk, 95, earlier this month at the commemoration of the 65th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

And it has to be perfect. The difference between a first-rate narrative told in second-rate translation and one translated so that it doesn't actually read like a translation is the difference between a something that shifts a few hundred copies and a best-selling history. My bookshelves are littered with poorly translated titles. Example. The Polish edition of Norman Davies's Europa. It shows what happens when publisher is in too much of a rush to check it thoroughly first. General Franco's mausoleum, we learn here, is in the valley of the river Fallen. (Valle de los Caídos in Spanish, translated into English as Valley of the Fallen, then translated into Polish by someone who really should know better as 'dolina rzeki Fallen').

So we spent a lot of time checking facts. Wikipedia makes this easier (today I needed to know how the Hungarian dance, spelt czardasz in Polish, is spelt in English*. Heavens knows how else one would have found this out without access to a reference library or Mastermind-grade general knowledge.) Wikipedia alone is not the absolute arbiter; facts needed checking and re-checking in text books and history books. Ziggy is a professional military historian with dozens of books under his belt as author and many more as translator (into English). And I have a pretty good all-round general knowledge, and am strong in 20th C. military history.

There are three main interferences that face translators - linguistic, lexical and cultural. The first is to do with the differing structures of language - word order, grammar (Polish has four tenses, English has sixteen, for example). The second to do with the precise meaning of words and how those meanings vary across languages (Komisja can mean commission, but commission can also mean prowizja, which does not always mean provision. That's reserwa, which can also mean reserve). The third is to do with what the intended reader is reasonably (what's reasonably in Polish?) expected to know. Words like peerelowski or Wlasowiec need to be explained, not just translated. A translator needs awareness of these three interferences.

Ziggy and I spent two weekends going through the book on screen, checking facts and improving on our original translations; making the words flow more easily, tightening the sentences, before sending the text for setting. And this last weekend, we finally printed off the typeset page proofs, and read them aloud. Which is excellent exercise - it is good for you to read aloud! Good for the lungs and vocal chords, good for self-confidence and presentation skills. Reading page after page, a chapter (typically 20-30 pages long) at a time, for 16 hours (eight hours each) over two days, was gruelling.

It's only when you do this that you spot the natural patterns of linguistic flow. You find yourself reading aloud how the passage should sound, not how you've translated it. So you correct it - and then you find - hey! That's much better! Taking out or inserting commas; breaking up over-complex sentences, tweaking the word order, smoothing out the rhythm of the language. Any words which could possibly be construed as ambiguous are replaced by ones that the reader's brain can absorb without interruptive thoughts getting in the way.

So all in all, this exercise soaked up a lot of my time. Much, much more than the publishers have paid me for. I could have just handed in a first draft translation, collected the payment (I was paid for this job in April!) and walked away. But no. This is no longer a question of cash. It's about Polish history, it's about disseminating a gripping first-person wartime narrative to a potentially huge global English speaking readership - and it has to be perfect. Here the missionary kicks in and takes over from the mercenary. And so I've given up three weekends pro bono to help ensure that Silent and Unseen will be as good a read in English as it possibly can be. So that Stefan Bałuk's amazing testament - his escape from the Nazis and the Soviets in September 1939, his training by the SOE to be a parachute commando, master forger and insurgent leader, his part in the Warsaw Uprising and his subsequent imprisonment by Nazis and communists - can be as widely known as possible. Ensuring there are no mistakes denies ammunition for ideologically motivated falsifiers of history - "that's wrong - so therefore this is likely to be a mistake too".

Review of Byłem Cichociemnym Polish by Daniel Passent in Polityka.

* Csárdás, since you ask; the original Hungarian spelling is used in English. A csárdás will be played at the 14th Last Night of the Proms in Kraków, supported as ever by the BPCC and its members. I was checking the programme's translation.

This time last year:
Michael Palin was right
Back for some more steam

This time two years ago:
Heron spotted over local pond
Agricultural scenes in Jeziorki "cause flashbacks"
Our garden spiders getting big and fat
Ul. Kórnicka loses dirt track status
Electrical storms continue

Monday, 24 August 2009

The first notes of autumn in the air

I awoke just after six to find mist in the garden and fields behind our house. A late summer/early autumn morning; equinox is less than a month away. I shall write more about the onset of autumn anon, when I really start to feel it. Now, it is still but an early intimation. Above: View from the balcony. Click on it see it full size; it really is quite atmospheric. The garden is full of spiders' webs with some huge specimens on them!

Last week saw the opening of further stretches of cycle path along ul. Puławska. Each new section civilises the city further. Today's good weather brought plenty of cyclists out, though none are evident in this photo. Above: the cycle path crosses ul. Poleczki. Raz, dwa, lewa, prawa/Co raz bliżej jest Warszawa!

Cycling burns up calories, so on my way home I have an excuse to pop in for some Kentucky Fried Chicken. Below: The Honda power tools showroom and offices, caught by the last rays of the setting sun.

It won't be long until sunset is so early I'll not be able to leave the office in good time to reach home in daylight - and that is when this season's cycling will cease. There's a couple of weeks left.
Although it's still warm enough to cycle both ways without an outer garment over my shirt, as I approached the house this evening, I found myself cycling in and out of pockets of cooler air. Autumn is approaching at a tentative pace.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

I suppose it's too much to ask

Seventy years on from the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which led directly to the outbreak of WWII and the carving up of central Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia - an act of diplomacy which was to decide the fate of my family and scores of millions of families from Finland to the Black Sea.

Seventy years on from 1 September, at the place where the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired the first salvos of the war, Russia's Premier Putin and Germany's Chancellor Merkel will both be present to commemorate of the outbreak of WWII.

For decades, Germany has consistently atoned for its bringing about the war and for its inhumanly brutal conduct. Indeed, that atonement is the very cornerstone of the modern German state. German chancellors have wept at the Umschlagplatz, at the Warsaw Ghetto, begging for forgivenness and reconcilliation. My aunt, Ciocia Jadzia, who survived Auschwitz, receives a monthly pension from the German state. German text books are unequivocal about Germany's role in the War. But for my mother, her family, and the millions of deportees from central Europe to the Gulags and labour camps of the USSR, there's never been a word of apology from either Soviet or Russian leaders.

I'd dearly love to see Russia's prime minister Putin take the opportunity at Westerplatte to set history right. To accept that in 1939, Russia was ruled by a genocidal despot, who'd gained power by murdering the rest of the terrorist gang with whom he'd wrested control of Russia in 1917. To accept that the invasion of eastern Poland, the Baltic States and parts of Finland, Czechoslovakia and Romania were naked acts of territorial aggression. To accept that millions of citizens of those territories, forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, were wrongly deported, imprisoned and murdered. To ask, as German leaders have been doing for the past 40 years, for forgivenness.

And then - and only then - can Russia be looked on by Poland as a great country; a majestic nation with a proud culture that has spawned so much great literature, music and art, a country of unimaginable natural beauty, a friendly neighbour. Until such a time, Russia can only be associated in the minds of the peoples of central Europe with the image of a boot stamping down repeatedly on their faces.

The disasters on the Yenisei, the Kursk, Chernobyl - and the ones the West never learned about at the time - Kyshtym, Sverdlovsk, Baikonur, reveal a careless, megalomaniac, secretive state, in which the individual is subsumed to the Greater Good of the Masses (Soviet or Russian).

If it is to be accepted as a 'good country', the Russian state needs to win the trust of its neighbours, and its own citizens. The best place to start is to come clean about its 20th Century past.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Funny old cars - Poland 1989

Above: The FSO Warszawa M-20; a licence-built version of the Soviet GAZ M-20 Pobieda (Victory). Although the bodywork styling was revolutionary in 1946, the M-20's mechanicals came from the Model-B Ford of 1932.

Above: The GAZ Volga M-21, successor to the Pobieda. Same engine block, bored out from 2.1 to 2.4 litres, with overhead valves (rather than sidevalves). In the mid-eighties I owned one of these back in England, a 1963 model with right-hand drive (rare!), in black.

Above: The GAZ Volga 24-10, late production version of the M-24, successor to the M-21. Something based on this is still in production in Russia today. Unlike the other photos on this post, which were taken in Poznań, this one was taken in Warsaw. Note the red Datsun Stanza, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen trucks, and lack of Fiat 126P Maluchs in the background.

Above: Moskvitch 407. Mechanically, this car was based on the pre-war Opel Kadett. In 1945, the Soviets seized the Opel factory in Germany and transported the whole thing to Russia. Three generations of Moskvitches followed; the first were basically still pre-war Kadetts, the second (1956-64) were re-bodied (above), while the third generation was square-shaped and boring.

Above: This rear-engined car is the Zaporozhets. Despite resemblance to the West German NSU Prinz, this was a genuine all-Soviet design. Not intended for Party luminaries, this was the USSR's very own 'people's car'. I saw one in Ursynów this week, so they keep on going!

Above: And finally a non-Soviet car - the original Skoda Octavia. These six photos were taken because the cars were characteristic of the communist world, yet unusual in Poland, where the ubiquitous Fiat 126P (visible in the background of all but one of the pics) and Fiat 125P between them represented well over half of all cars on the road. Once economic transformation kicked in, a flood of used western vehicles were brought into Poland, with VWs and Mercs being the most popular.

And indeed. Twenty years on, people drive old cars because they want to, not because the only alternative was a Maluch. Above: A Mercedes 190D on ul. Karczunkowska earlier this week.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

1989: Cheap Holidays in Other People's Misery

"I want to see some history/'Cause now I've got a reasonable economy". In the remarkably prescient 1977 ditty, Holidays in the Sun, Johnny Rotten of Britain's premier punk rock quartet* the Sex Pistols sang about how he wanted to go over the Berlin Wall for his vacation rather than merely 'asking for sunshine'. The song was the sound track to every one of my visits to Poland and points east of the Iron Curtain from 1977 to 1989, when the Wall finally fell.

Our holiday in August 1989 was unforgettable; we were witnessing history and having a ball with a pound buying over 11,000 (old) zlotys on the black market. As DINKYs (Dual Income No Kids Yet), we were well off while Poland economically was on its knees. Above: Fresh veg and flower sellers, ul. Filtrowa, August 1989.

Look at the prices (click on photo to enlarge); there's nothing here costing more than 1 zł 10 gr (25p) in new money. Look at the the display, the irrational mix of brands. Look on, you jaded Western sophisticates, and laugh. Yet this was the cutting edge of Polish retail just 20 years ago.

Bear in mind that the average monthly salary in 1989 was 206,754 old złotys (20.68 PLN). At the exchange rates of the day (see yesterday's post), that worked out at $34 (or around £19 with $1.75 to the pound in 1989). Nineteen quid a month. (To give you an idea of the price of a tin of deodorant displayed here in relation to the salary of an average Polish worker 20 years ago, the equivalent today would be 187 zł. Nearly £40. Or £90 in purchasing power parity terms.

No malls. No galerie. No hypermarkets. No online shopping. No 24-hour convenience stores. Just queues outside the state-run Społem groceries.

And then the miracle happened. The state allowed private enterprise to buy goods and sell them on to the public at a profit. Enterprising Poles would drive to West Berlin or Vienna and buy whatever they thought consumers in Warsaw, Poznań or Kraków needed but couldn't get, and would sell them from blankets spread out on pavements. Of course a kilo of bananas cost a week's wages, but then that, in real world terms - not Mickey Mouse Marxist economic terms - is what a kilo of bananas cost to produce, ship across the Atlantic, and deliver at a profit to the consumer. Wages caught up, but the shock therapy, introduced by Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz on 1 January 1990, had many losers; the effects are being felt to this day.

Above: Poland in 1989 was not a retail therapy holiday destination.

This time last year:
Steam in the mountains

This time two years ago:
New housing development springs up
Beyond Warsaw's exurbs by bike

Mud yields to paving stone on ul. Kórnicka
Starlings on the wire

*Moni takes issue with me on this one, she claims it's The Clash.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

It was twenty years ago today

August 1989, and my wife and I set off for a trip around Poland. It was a year after our wedding, and we planned to drive to Poland to visit family and friends.

This was at the time when the one-third free Polish parliament (elected on 4 June 1989) voted Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the first non-communist premier of any Soviet bloc country since Stalin's day. (I was in the offices of Gazeta Wyborcza at the very moment the parliament confirmed Mazowiecki's nomination. A historic moment, yet a feeling of anti-climax. The hard work of turning fish soup back into an aquarium, to quote Lech Wałęsa, was all ahead*.

That August, we visited 21 families in 13 towns and cities around Poland. Driving in from East Germany, we stopped in Poznań before going on to Warsaw, Radom, Kraków, Katowice, Tychy, Wrocław and many smaller places in between. I could tell when we were staying with communists, and when we were staying with ordinary Poles. The former would say about the absolute mess we were encountering, "to ludzie, to nie system" (it's the people, it's not the system), implying that Stalin was right when he said that imposing communism on Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow. The latter would say "to system, to nie ludzie" (it's the system, not the people), suggesting that once Poland would ditch communism, things would turn out OK. Which indeed they did.

Above: A queue to get into a supermarket. Anytown, Poland, 1989. Inside one could find vinegar, matches, flour, mustard, er... that's it. If you wanted a roll of toilet paper, you needed to bring five kilo of old newspapers to the punkt skupu and you'd get a coupon, which entitled you to stand in line to buy a single toilet roll. (Poznań? Kraków? Can anyone recognise this place?)

Above: "Our hearts, our thoughts, our deeds to You, O Socialist Fatherland". In case anyone has any delusions that the causes of Poland's postwar woes were anything other than socialist in nature. Block of flats on the approaches to Katowice.

Most meat shops were empty. This one, if memory serves, was in Poznań. On offer was Japanese sausage ('nagie haki' - 'naked hooks' - to quote a joke from that time). There were better-stocked meat shops. A queue would start forming at the one across the street from my wife's aunt on ul. Grójecka in Warsaw, at 4am each morning - the shop would open four hours later.

Above: Petrol was in short supply too. Although officially thruppence a gallon, it was hard to come by. That's me by our hired Fiat Uno in the queue at a CPN (remember them?) petrol station in south-west Poland. The Uno was a modern luxury performance car when compared to the Fiat 126P Maluchy or elderly (even then) Fiat 125Ps that stood in front of us. A solution to our continuous problems with getting petrol was the black market. I'd scour the backstreets of Kraków and other cities by night, find likely-looking taxi drivers, and cut deals involving dollar bills and jerry-cans of 95 Octane.

A propos of dollar bills, this is how much they cost back then - 63 grosze in modern zlotys (shave off five zeros). Inflation was rocketing, to reach its peak the following year (1,200% from June 1989 to June 1990, with 80% inflation in the month of December 1989 alone). The deutschmark, which, older readers will recall, converted into the euro at just under two per... so pretty much euro-dollar parity back in 1989. Although by then we were allowed to change money at free market rates, we were obliged to change a certain number of dollars per day at an 'official' rate (something like 2,000 old zlotys to the buck).

The children playing in the foreground would be in their mid-20s right now, Poland's largest demographic group. I wonder how they remember those childhood days, when confectionary was rationed. Looking at these old pics, it is the unmitigated drabness of Poles' everyday existence that struck me. I remember Joasia's flat in Kraków; empty fridge, empty cupboards, decorated inside with empty tea packets. We arrived there in the evening, there was nothing - no thing - to eat. So we all went to the only place in town where food could be bought at this time - the Holiday Inn.

And to quote the punchline of Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch, "An' you try an' tell young people today that ..... they won't believe you".

* Joke from those times: There's two ways in which Poland can transform its economy. The normal way and the miraculous way. In one, the Blessed Virgin Mary will descend from the heavens, lift up her arms, and the Polish economy will come right. In the miraculous version, Poles will do it themselves. So 20 years on - which way was it? I'll let you be the judge.

August storm

This morning's storm was like the one that passed over Jeziorki on Monday 3 August, kicking off just before 4:00am, intense in the density of lightning discharges. Today's storm, however, did not bring so much rain or hail with it. The above photo, an exposure of 26 seconds, captured no fewer than six separate flashes. The central flash is amazingly complex (click on photo to enlarge).

My recipe for successful flash photography: Set up camera on sturdy tripod. Set exposure mode to Manual, shutter to 'B' ['bulb'] setting. ISO 100, f5.6. Manually set focus to infinity. Switch off Long Exposure Noise Reduction if you have it (doesn't do much, but wastes time and battery power). Point at sky where most action is taking place, and depress shutter. Hold it open - wait, wait, catch a flash, a second one... the further away the flashes, the more of them you'll need to illuminate the sky.

Monday, 17 August 2009

A modest proposal

On my bike ride into work this morning I was musing why anyone should need a car with an engine capacity of over two litres. And indeed, reaching the conclusion that governments should simply ban their production.

This evening, I chanced upon a UK newspaper ad for the new Mercedes Benz E-class saloon. Available with a range of engines, of which one, a two litre diesel, offers fuel economy of 43mpg around town and a staggering 64mpg on the open road. At the same time, this five-seater passenger car can accelerate to 60mph in under ten seconds and had a top speed of 130mph (and just look at the performance of the same car with a 1.8 litre petrol engine!)

But the E-class is also available with a FIVE AND HALF litre engine. The E500 can sprint to 100 kmph in 5.5 seconds and has a top speed limited to 155mph. This extra speed exacts a terrible price on the environment; 17.4mpg around town and 261g of CO2 blurted out into the atmosphere per km, rather than the 137gm of the E200. [Click here for tech specs in Poland. And note that the cars cost Poles 20% more than they cost Brits.]

Why this need for speed? Why this thirst for five and half litres of engine? (And it costs 20,000 quid extra/100,000 PLN on top of the price of the E200, but that's not my point here.)

Why should anyone make or buy a vehicle as pointless as the Mercedes Benz E500, given the base models (diesel or petrol) offering more than adequate acceleration and top speed?

My point is about where to draw the line on the use of high performance cars on public roads. You can buy yourself a Formula One racing car - but you are not permitted to drive it on public roads. So why is it that you are allowed to buy a car as potent as a Porsche 911 Turbo, and take it out on roads shared with Maluchy, Super Bizony, Żuki and pedestrians? "I promise to keep within speed limits" is twaddle. You know damn well that an owner of a performance car is going to make it perform regardless of national speed limits. Which, I'd like to remind readers, are 110kmph (68mph) on expressways and 130 kmph (80mph) on motorways.

Poland's roads are bad. To drive rapidly on them is to endanger human life. To belch out unnecessary amounts of CO2, to burn up fuel two and half times faster than in a smaller, more efficient engine, is criminal waste of natural resources.

Governments should act and pass legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of passenger cars with engines with a cubic capacity exceeding two litres. End.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Frecce Tricolori over Warsaw

I'd read on a Polish aviation website that the Italian aerobatic team, the Frecce Tricolori, would be paying a visit to Warsaw airport on their way to Moscow. The wind being from the south today (a sure sign in summer of fine weather), they approached Okęcie from the north west. But they took off over our house.

I was on my bike, some 15 km south-east of the airport, on the other side of Konstancin. I knew that the Frecce were due to take off some time after 14:00 local time, so when I heard the almighty roar of 11 jet engines in the sky, I knew it would be them! With the 80-400mm lens ready and extended, I caught the team, in formation, heading out towards Moscow. By now they were at several thousand feet, but with an adequate lens, two reasonable pics (top one shot into the light a bit flary, the lower one cropped too tight so I lost one aircraft).

A propos, I've not seen the US Navy's Blue Angels, but I have seen most of the European teams, and for my money, the very best is the RAF's Red Arrows. Here's a pic I took at the Radom Air Show four years ago; the Reds will be back in Radom this month for the Air Show on 29-30 August.

And watch the river flow

I've been wanting to cycle up to the Vistula for some time now; the weather being perfect (+30C, not a cloud in the sky, light south-westerly breeze), so off I went. A ride totalling 43km. I reached the village Gassy (presumably not named after the effects of an egg-and-cabbage diet on its inhabitants). Here are some sandy islands on the river, and two promontories from which a ferry service once linked the two banks. Click on panoramic photo above to see it full size.

We are 9km upstream of Góra Kalwaria and 19km downstream of the Siekierki bridge; in other words, there's no Vistula crossing in over 28km! (Imagine the Thames with no bridges downstream of Twickenham until you get well beyond Chertsey.) Poland needs more river crossings!

On the other side, plenty of wild sandy beaches. The river, sadly, is not fit to swim in, being in effect an open sewer. Water quality will rise sharply once municipalities stop pouring untreated effluent into rivers; this must happen by 2012 if they are not be incur heavy fines from the European Commission. But that means a massive programme of water treatment plant construction - which I don't see happening right now.

I cycle a long loop back, off road alongside the Jeziorna river, then across it, and through Bielawa back to Powsin on home.

There were a great many cyclists out today - a very positive thing for the nation's health. Below: A cyclist on the opposite bank of the Jeziorna river (70m away). Warsaw's skyline is ten miles away, foreshortened through the long zoom.

Bielawa looks like a nice place to live - plenty of new houses though quiet, plenty of countryside all around, not too far from the city centre, and the Vistula so close to hand.

And a common thread with Jeziorki. Two-thirds of its way from Okęcie sidings to Siekierki power station, a fully-laden coal train heads northwards.

Saturday, 15 August 2009


Eddie's friend Wojtek alerted me to the presence of a kestrel perched on top of a dead apple tree in a neighbouring field. Smaller than the marsh harriers that live in the wetlands at the end of the street, the kestrel is only the second bird of prey I've seen around Jeziorki. The leafless tree gave this adult male kestrel an excellent vantage point over the surrounding land; its head twisting this way and that, seeking out signs of fieldmice moving down below. In the end it flew off as two people walked towards the tree, unaware of its presence.

This time two years ago:
Armed Forces Day, Warsaw

Friday, 14 August 2009

Of Missionaries and Mercenaries

I recall chatting to a medical recruitment agency boss over a beer in Rzeszów's Old Town Square in October 2006. We'd organised a job fair, and this UK-based recruiter was in Poland selecting Polish doctors, dentists and nurses for jobs in the UK and Middle East. He told me that when talking to candidates, he'd be mentally sorting them into 'missionaries and mercenaries'. The former chose to work in the medical profession to help mankind. The latter, to earn money.

This extremely useful paradigm can be applied across the whole of society. Individuals can be placed along the 'motivated' and the 'less-motivated' spectrum; but those who are blessed with motivation (and this is the key spectrum in life) can be subdivided into 'missionaries' and 'mercenaries'.

What makes one work beyond the simple necessity of feeding, housing and clothing oneself and one's family? Why do people push themselves in life, initiating projects, making things happen, organising others, when an easy life would suffice? Eight hours 'working' then feet up, watching TV with a glass of beer and a large bowl of crisps?

There are those motivated solely by money, and the choices that having money can offer. And there are those who want to change the world for the better. And there many somewhere along that continuum, who want enough money to live comfortably, but at the same time feel they want to 'give something back'.

In Britain, there's long been the convention that a career should lead either to Power or to Wealth, and that the two should not mix. The wonderful (by Polish standards) UK Civil Service was built on that very premise. (Poles: Take a good look at this article.) But Britain's apolitical, professional, Civil Service is by no means a perfect construct, but it's a damned sight better than Poland's bureaucracy, which changes with the political winds, and as such lacks continuity.

In the pantheon of British stereotypes, we have Sir Humphrey Appleby, who lusted for power, not cash. He was the arch-administrator - neither politician, nor entrepreneur. He epitomised the upper echelons of Britain's administrator caste. In Russia, by contrast, if you have money, you have power, if you have power, you use it to acquire more money, which is turned into more power, and so on. A top UK political blog has (coincidentally) today looked at the issue of British MPs, money and power. My point exactly.

I return to the excellent BBC Adam Curtis documentary I mentioned a few days ago. It is worth watching and re-watching. Friedrich von Hayek, asked 'where does altruism come in', replies 'it doesn't come in' (6mins 49 secs). Fast-forward to 28 mins 52 secs. Here we see The American economist, James M. Buchanan suggests that all civil servants/ bureaucrats/ public sector clerks are, essentially, motivated by money, not altruism: "Working for the public good is a complete fantasy". Move on now to 49:o6. And then on to Prof. Buchanan: "If our success depends on the goodness of our politicians and bureaucrats, then we're in real trouble. "Zealots", as he calls them - idealists, unbribable, driven by ideas, not personal gain, are, in the view of Prof. Buchanan, a big problem. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Dung and other monsters tend to suggest that to a certain extent he is right. They were not driven by money. They were driven by ego - their need for power, their need to be loved by the millions and destroy millions along the way. The motivation of ideologues in positions of authority needs closer monitoring than that of run-of-the-mill venal, corruptable types who are not peddling any ideology.

But Hayek and Buchanan are wrong; altruism most certainly has an important role to play; evolutionary biology and genetics are proving this. But altruism needs to be better harnessed; bureaucracies are not the kind of place where altruism flourishes. It is in the voluntary sector, the NGOs, well-run charities, where things get done; enthusiasm must be the principle driver of motivation, not advancement up Sir Humphrey's 'greasy pole' of the Civil Service career path. For these 'third sector' bodies to function properly, they need the same quality of professional management, the same financial and reporting systems that are to be found in private companies run with the profit motive at the fore. NGOs' management must have a clear, hard-nosed view of what they are doing and why. Even in a charity, the money-motivated manager is needed to instill efficiency.

Mercenaries will compete with one another. That is their alpha nature. This is where the Ladder of Authority comes in. But mercenaries and missionaries have to work together, harness one another's motivations to move mankind forward, checking one another not out of self-interest but essentially in a spirit of trust.

This time last year:
Spectacular sunrise over Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Where am I? In the village.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The land, the light

Never, ever, move without your camera. This afternoon was dismal. Rainy and dull, when popping out for lunch, I had an intense flashback memory to Coventry, April 1977, when I was a first-year student. The air temperature, humidity, greyness of the sky - it all clicked. Later, as I was about to cycle home, the heavens truly opened, rain bouncing off the asphalt in plumes of white. No thunder though. Camera around my neck, but protected by my Gore-Tex waterproof cycle jacket. Trousers utterly sodden through and through however.

Upon reaching Jeziorki, the rain ceased, and a low sun broke through, sending bright red rays through the clean air. There was a marvellous smell; the smell that you only register in the countryside after a heavy rainfall.

And that light; the quality of that evening sunlight, strong, red, fading. Out comes the faithful Nikon D40. It's bulkier than a digital compact, but it's a proper camera, and for a proper camera it's light and easy to use. Highly recommended.

Left: Our house, lit by a sinking sun. In the foreground, the oatfield, harvested. Above, a regional jetliner coming into land at Warsaw Okęcie airport.

It's 20 to 8. In a little over a month's time, it will be dark at quarter past six. Make the most of the long summer evenings while you can; drear autumn is just around the corner.

The Ladder of Authority

A comment on a recent post (on RRBI) from Adthelad included a link to a thought-provoking BBC documentary, The Trap - Whatever Happened to our Dream of Freedom by Adam Curtis. The documentary linked Cold War game theory, psychiatry, monetarism and New Labour, with an over-arching theme of social control. I thoroughly recommend it.

Watching it has prompted me to write (at last) about how I see humans cooperating and competing with one another. Man is a mammal, a social animal. As man is a mammal, mammalian rules of hierarchy apply within human society too. A pecking order clearly applies. There are alpha males and females. Leaders and followers. Top dogs and runts. Dominant individuals and submissive individuals. The rules of the hierarchy are sometimes clearly visible (in an army), sometimes less so (within a family); the hierarchy is always there, present in every social exchange. The Ladder of Authority. The same real hierarchy exists in tribes, in gangs, in schools, in the workplace.

At the basic level, the alpha individual will be taller and larger, will show external signs of above-average testosterone levels (larger jaw, deeper voice). And age, too, has a part in determining authority, peaking in the early 50s. Yet in complex modern society, these physical attributes in themselves are not enough to place an individual higher up the Ladder.

There's something else required - a will to dominate.

Even if we reduce 'society' to two people, there will be one individual who tends to be the leader, the other who tends to be the follower.

In a large society, there are innumerable ladders (family, school, workplace, church, state), with rungs, one above the other; in some, people know their place and are content in the knowledge that there are those above them, and those below. In other cases, there's a constant struggle going on, to be top dog - or at least to be higher up the ladder than someone else. This is largely innate. You can be taught to behave in a way that demonstrates your authority. "From Harrow School/ To rise and rule". You can be sufficiently aware of what's going on around you to consciously adopt the effective verbal and non-verbal commands of those above you on the ladder. You can be sent on a management training course. Yet you will need to be brave enough to use them! And you will want to use them. Those you wish to see below you will see right through such attempts - if in the natural hierarchy of things they are above you.

Among animals that work together in packs, homo sapiens, is a species unique in being able to externalise individual consciousness through verbal communication. And as such, humans have evolved complex stratagems and ruses to camouflage the simple biological truth of social hierarchy.

Politeness, courtesy, etiquette; all these conventions have arisen for smoothing over external signs of the Ladder. The more civilised the country, the less externally visible is it as to who's a rung above you. It becomes coded. (Much of my thinking in this area has been formed by observing the contrasts between social exchanges in the UK and in Poland. In this respect, Britain is more civilised, Poland less hypocritical.)

Over the millennia, human evolution has provided those with brains to overtake those with brawn when it comes to giving orders. A big bold man with large fists will not lead today's corporate giants on the strength of those attributes. Bawling commands and insulting subordinates is a sign of insecurity, not strength. The evolution from agriculture (brawn necessary for following the plough) to industry (brawn necessary for hammering the iron) to information technology (brain now necessary to manage systems-integration projects) has upset the pecking order, but does not dismantle the Ladder. It is still there.

The question that Curtis's documentary unravels is to what extent is man a genetic robot, driven and determined by genetic predisposition. In the second part, he questions Richard Dawkin's Selfish Gene theory, that we are but vessels through which our genes survive and reproduce.

So again I come to what I see as the core of the issue - what it is to be human, what it is to rise beyond the Ladder of Authority, beyond the constraints of genetic destiny, and to fulfil our potential, not just a biological creatures, but as spiritual beings.

This time last year:
St Pancras, what a wonderful place

Two years ago:
Ar y Ffordd i Pwyll Rhydd

Monday, 10 August 2009

Dove in the house

Moni's excited shouts had Eddie and me running up stairs double quick. A dove (presumably one from across the road) had flown into our house and was rather comfortable about it. It was evidently used to humans as it allowed us quite near and I even managed to pick it up. And it was clean too - leaving two small whoopsies in the house, neither of which soiled any rugs or bedding, only easy-to-wipe wooden floors.

It must have been slightly disorientated, as it flew into Eddie's room rather than out onto the balcony and freedom. In the end, it allowed me to gently pick it up and place it on the balcony, where it dined on a handful of muesli and fell asleep. By the morning, it had flown off, presumably across the road to its pigeon loft.

Below: The following evening, our dove was back with the flock, doing what it loves doing best - swooping, diving, soaring, racing around in a huge circle around its dovecote.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Topophilia - a love of place

Here's another of my favourite places in Warsaw. On the edge of the Las Kabacki forest, south of the Metro Depot, is an embankment, on top of which runs a tree-lined path, just over a kilometre long. Coming here before dusk, with the setting sun illuminating the trees (my favourite blend of silver birch and pine), fills me with a particular love of place. Especially when its empty and I can ride my bike at high speed along the path, barrelling between the trees. Riding here on a sunny summer evening is an enlifting experience, bringing me closer to the notion of eternity.

This time last year:
The beauty of the English village
Hercules low pass - Matlock Bath
Duffield to Wirksworth railway

This time two years ago:
To the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution
Over the Peaks, by bus
Memory and Comfort
The Tissington Trail, by bike
Of stained glass, rainbows and floods
Bouncing queen, see her bounce on the trampoline

Thursday, 6 August 2009

RRBI, anoraks, geniuses

The UK-English term 'anorak' (the outergarment of choice of Britain's trainspotters) has come to mean pretty much the same as the US-English word 'nerd'. In both cases, the derogatory word suggests that its subject is a somewhat obsessive person with narrow interests and below-average social skills.

Clincial psychiatrists coming to grips with the spectrum of disorders ranging from mild forms of Asperger syndrome to autism have coined the phrase 'Repetitive and Restricted Behaviours and Interests' (RRBI) to indicate one of the symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder. The spectrum can be extended to milder definitions, such as broader autism phenotype (BAP), and onwards to symptoms so mild as to blend almost undetected into the general population. Also along the spectrum is Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with the similar sounding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Characteristic restricted interests include obsession with numbers, statistics, patterns (and minor deviations from patterns), maps, railways and public transport, cult TV shows; internet forums are driven by people with RRBIs. They form a useful service, bringing detailed answers to questions from the casual internet user who browses a wide range of sites rather than habituating a single forum or two.

Psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists and historians have in recent years been poring over the biographies of historical figures for evidence of on-spectrum traits, and not surprisingly have applied the label to large numbers of them, in particular to scientists and artists. Reading the biographies of Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, the father of economics, or William Herschel astronomer, not to mention many leading figures in the IT industry, one can spot eccentric behaviours and obsessions that led to leaps in mankind's understanding of those fields.

At the extreme end of the maladjusted genius spectrum lies savant syndrome, where a person with an autism spectrum disorder shows some amazing skill, way above the average, and at odds with his lack of social skills. Savants tend to excel in art (Stephen Wiltshire), music (Derek Paravacini), maths and phenomenal memory (Daniel Tammet).

Autism spectrum disorders affect males four times more than females, while males with savant syndrome are six times more common than females with the same condition, which extrapolated along the entire spectrum, explains the predominance of male scientists, composers, mathematicians, statisticians and indeed trainspotters.

In the old days, the term 'eccentric' would have sufficed. The stereotypical 'absent-minded professor'. Today the so-called normal (for in a spectrum disorder with a long tail blending seamlessly into the rest of the population, what is normal?) person is called neurotypical, while the notion that mankind is composed of people of with a diversity of neurological traits is a good thing. We are neurodiverse as a species; many of the outstanding human beings who have contributed to our understanding of our universe, who have entertained us, who have invented technologies that improve our lives, have lived and created beyond the norm, the average, the typical.

Successul people are by their very nature eccentric, outliers, in the title of Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller. While being in the right place in the right time is important, Gladwell says that the key factor behind human success is putting in your 10,000 hours - a target you'll reach quicker when you do nothing else but that which obsesses you, if your interests are indeed limited.

These interests need to be focused and productive. The Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons - such a perfectly drawn stereotype of RRBI - is wasting his life. Focused, yes, but productive? While genius is often linked autism spectrum disorders, only a small percentage go on to achieve greatness in their fields. The reason is a factor lying entirely outside of the condition - motivation.

Biologists have identified large numbers of genes that determine how we live our lives, that shape our fate. Whether we have a tendency to be religious, whether we dance well, are faithful in a relationship, are prone to laziness - it's all in the genes. And new correlations between our characteristics and our genes are discovered weekly. Yesterday I read about the hPer2 gene, which determines whether we're larks (early risers, who go to bed early) or owls (late risers, who go to bed late); owlism is linked to intelligence (y'reading this at midnight? Good for you!)

But will scientists ever discover a motivation gene?

I hope not. I'd like to believe motivation comes from beyond the biological; something God-given, something metaphysical.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Warsaw's walls bear witness

I'd just like to remind readers that it went on for 63 days, so the commemorations should not fizzle out after one euphoric, sunny Saturday of civic pride. One terrible feature of the Warsaw Uprising was the massacre of civilians that occurred on a massive scale across central, southern and western districts of the city within the first few days of the outbreak.

Walking around Warsaw, one cannot miss these ubiquitous crosses marking the spot where the dregs of mankind carried out mass murder of civilians uninvolved in the Uprising. Criminals led by psychopaths in the service of a lunatic leading an obedient nation to its downfall.

Forty shot here, 108 shot there, 150 elsewhere, 59,400 in the district of Wola alone in just four days - the scale and nature of these atrocities put the Warsaw Uprising in a category of human suffering that is difficult to comprehend these days.

There's 355 plaques around Warsaw like these two. Here's an index to them by street name (in Polish).

The military action resulted in the death of 16,000 Polish Home Army soldiers* and a similar number of Nazi forces, although Polish civilian deaths were close to 200,000** - on top of the 56,500 Jews killed during the Ghetto Uprising, the 250,000-300,000 Jews deported from the Ghetto to extermination camps in the summer of 1942, the 100,000 Jews who died in the Ghetto of starvation and disease. Plus the 25,800 civilians killed during the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. Throughout the five-year occupation, the Nazis deported the entire Jewish population to death camps while rounding up and executing civilians in reprisal for Home Army actions.

During the war, Poland's capital was all but obliterated, in terms of its people and its buildings. The fact that today it thrives is a matter of intense pride. In place of the heavy communist-era memorials to martyrology pictured above, today's street artists commemorate the Uprising in a lighter style, but one that shows that for the younger generation the empathy with the fallen is very much there, pride in being from Warsaw.

* Five times the number of Allied soldiers killed on D-Day
** More than the number of Japanese civilians killed by the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined

Saturday, 1 August 2009

W-Hour, five pm

Today Warsaw, indeed the Polish nation, commemorates the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. The story should be well known by moderately educated people around the world; ahead of the advance of the Soviet Red Army, the underground Polish state launched a series of uprisings (Operation Tempest) to liberate Polish cities from the Nazi occupier. The aim was to establish Polish control of Polish territory before Stalin's troops moved in. In Wilno, Lwów and other towns and cities in eastern Poland, the Home Army (AK) mananged to wrest control from the Nazis, only to be brutally suppressed by the Soviet 'liberator' shortly afterwards.

The leaders of the AK in Warsaw judged that the time to rise up against the Germans would be on 1 August 1944 at 17:00hrs, as the Red Army approached the right banks of the Vistula river.

The rising, planned to last just a few days until the Soviets got their troops across the river and chased the Nazis west, continued over two months. Over 200,000 Poles died, and most of central Warsaw was levelled with the ground.

Historians may argue whether the Poles were right to rise up when they did - or whether the Uprising was necessary at all. It can be claimed that because of Warsaw's 63-day stand, the Red Army did not end the war on the Rhine but on the Elbe. The Uprising has been called "The first battle of the Cold War". It was a modern battle - 'asymmetric warfare' - that saw a citizen army taking on and holding off a professional, well-equipped occupant in street-fighting, without artillery or air power, or indeed even sufficient small-arms. The only actions of comparable scale were the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Paris Commune (1871).

But today's commemorations were not about the fine points of why and wherefore, but a matter of intense pride for those who survived, their children and grandchildren. Poland took its own fate in its hands; the country has every right to fight for its existence. Besides, after five years of enduring Nazi genocide, street executions, forced labour and malnutrition, Poles were just itching to get their own back at an inhuman oppressor.

Among the veterans taking part in the commemoration was my mother-in-law, Wanda Lesisz (nee Gutowska), who served as a messenger in the struggle to seize and hold Żoliborz.

Left: Babcia Wanda with Eddie and Moni, by the AK memorial outside the Polish parliament. Eddie's wearing his Polish scouts uniform with his newly-acquired scout's cross (Krzyż Harcerski).

My father also took part in the Uprising (I'd dearly love to see him in Warsaw for the 75th Anniversary!), fighting in Battalion Odwet ('Revenge') in Ochota and Śródmieście. So Eddie and Moni have a direct connection to the Uprising, with two living grandparents who can pass on the traditions of the Polish Underground State.

A point made during today's ceremony was that education - which the Aryan Nazis wanted to deprive the Slavic untermensch - continued in secret schools, where classes known as komplety, provided young people with the full schooling that the occupier would deny them.

The Home Army quarter of Warsaw's Powązki military cemetary (not to be confused with the main Powązki cemetary four bus-stops away). My father's younger brother, Józef, lies buried here.
At five o'clock in the afternoon, air-raid sirens across Warsaw sounded the all-clear (single tone, not the rising-and-falling tones announcing an impending air-raid). Quite something.

The crowds were huge, good natured, and the overwhelming emotion felt was pride.

Among the VIPs present at the ceremony by the Polish Parliament was 95-year old former insurgent, General Stefan Bałuk (right), an SOE-trained commando parachuted into Poland ahead of the Uprising. General Bałuk was also the chief initiator of the AK/Polish Underground State monument by the Sejm. I am currently helping to translate his wartime memoirs Byłem Cichociemnym (The Silent Unseen) into English.

It is good that after the decades of lies told by communists about the Uprising (still thoughtlessly repeated by many ill-informed commentators in the West), Poland can commemorate the event for what it was - a nation attempting to regain control of its own destiny, in face of overwhelming odds.

UPDATE: We should not forget the British, South African, American and Polish pilots who flew from Italy to Warsaw to supply the Uprising from the air. Here is the story of one such British pilot, Wing Commander Gordon Pryor, who died on 3 September 2009, aged 88.