Sunday, 30 May 2010

My understanding of the ingredients of Success

Well, here it is. What you need to get on in life.

Number One, Drive. Determination, motivation, energy, WILL, focus, courage. The opposite of idleness, indolence, can't-be-arsed-ism. I suspect that you are born with this are you are not, and that environmental factors merely exacerbate or dull one's native drive. This is, I am sure, rooted in mammalian hierarchies. Who is to become Top Dog must be courageous, self-confident, determined. Will science identify a gene for Will? (If scientists do so, will it be ethical of them to let society know?). Successful motivational speakers, successful leaders, ones who can bring about increases in the drive of their workforce (or nation) are in short supply.

Number Two, Intelligence. Smartness. Wisdom. Awareness. Consciousness. The child that instinctively understands without having to swot too hard to remember - and possesses the drive to acquire more knowledge, determined to make the most of the opportunity while it is there. Intelligence in humans has come to replace the antlers of the stag or the feathers of the peacock.

Number Three, Luck. Being born intelligent and willful. Being born rich in a rich country rather than poor in Somalia or Papua New Guinea or Haiti. Being in the right place in the right time - a Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers. Bill Gates, the Beatles, Andrew Carnegie - had they come along just a few years earlier or a few years later, would have not made it so big. But then Luck, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, is an Opportunity Not Missed.

And so. If you consider yourself - and the impact your life has - as a cake-decorating syringe, the factors that determine how much icing comes out of the nozzle are determined by a) the bore [diameter] of the syringe; b) the stroke [length] of the syringe; the force with which the piston is pushed, and the diameter of the nozzle. You are the syringe that you were born with. The force pushing against the piston may often weaken; "I'll just have a sit down, have a cup of tea"; but then, the days are marching.

(Should you need one of these gadgets, you can find them here.)

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Warsaw through the architectural critic's eye

Blogging gets into a stride; patterns become regular - update my blog, then do the rounds of the blogs outlined here on the right, paths well-trodden. But every now and than something new swims into one's ken; today, while Googling info about the architects responsible for Warsaw's railway stations, I came across a outstandingly intelligent British blogger with much of interest to say about our city.

Without further ado, then, I will link you to the [none-to-easy to navigate] blog of Owen Hatherley (below), with vast amounts of well-written insight into Warsaw's architecture. This is how the informed outsider's mind sees our city, our spirit of place.

Warsaw's railway stations
Warsaw's flats and houses
Adverts of Warsaw

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Poet's Corner

The flavour of parallel: poems by Nigel Humphreys

This collection of sixty poems is the second published by Arbor Vitae Press by this poet (the first being The Hawk's Mewl). His poems work on me because Nigel Humphreys shares my view that the essence of the universe resides at the interface between science and spirituality. Too many scientists deny the spiritual; too many people of religion eschew science. Poets' vision is often way ahead of conventional wisdom; centuries later their vision is proved to be correct.

Humphreys' poems click with universal themes; the human condition - ageing, love; nature, the arts - Tchaikovsky, Coleridge and Van Gogh - things we should be able to identify with, and then the poetry works. Spirit of place is another thread that runs through this collection; Snowdonia, Shetlands, London, Madrid; a few words that conjure a sense of awareness of being there.

He has a memorable turn of phrase: "a full cream afternoon", "an invasive rash of tenderness", (a dragonfly's) "hairgrip picklock legs", "the first crisp sky of Spring", "agonising over each stroke/as to a young queen's neck"; essential in any poet's armoury, a mind in restless search for a new understanding of our reality through metaphor.

The human condition, meat to any any poet's scalpel:
last week or the week before he had visitors: his own genes
hosted in matryoshki figures,
he worried them back to their remote controls.

since then
no one
[from Sunday afternoon on Barry Island - Chapelview Residential Home]

Or, from Embers, where Science steps in:

molecular drift? did the magnet
dull with distance and new
polarity reverse the old one?

He asks of an old flame.

but we're those other people now
who never danced

His appreciation of the universe as both scientific and spiritual is what I admire most about Humphrey's works. Tomorrow's zeitgeist. Words such as gene, atom, proton, quark, molecule rub shoulder with saints, churches, cardinals, baptism and angels. This I like. Here, from the physics of degeneracy:
the fine tuning of all those
physical constants
masquerading as
and just for
Haven't you often thought just that, yet been unable to put into such eloquent words?
The flavour of parallel is available from Arbor Vitae press, BM Spellbound, London WC1N 3XX, price ₤7.99, plus ₤1.25 postage & packing. Thanks to Jonathan Wood for sending me the book.
[And while on the subject of literature, a joke for my bilingual readers: Moni's current set text (lektura) for Polish is Dostoyevsky's Zbrodnia i kara. Eddie, thinking it was a translation of a book originally written in English, asked: "So what was the crime of Icarus?"]

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Biology and spirituality: more questions

I wrote earlier about human intelligence, about how the brains of our species are continually evolving. The use of IQ as a measure is only a snapshot in time, with 100 being the average IQ today. It is believed that our stone-age ancestors had an IQ of less than 50 compared to modern man.

With the advances in life sciences, and education (are the children of well-educated people more intelligent than those of similar native cleverness who've not benefited from education?), there is the likelihood that at some time in future, the average IQ of the human population will be the equal of 200 in today's terms. And therefore the 'gifted' and the 'geniuses' of the future will have IQs of 300 and above - in today's terms. What will they be thinking? How will their consciousness, their awareness, differ from ours? If at all? Will the only difference being that our hyper-intelligent descendants will simply be better at expressing the experience? Or will experiencing life through the lens of higher intelligence be somehow qualitatively better?

I have no proof for my supposition that other living beings are as conscious as we, despite being unable to place their experience into a wider frame of reference or communicate it as clearly to their fellows - the song of birds and whales may be the nearest. [This week we learn that scientists have discovered how to synthesise life, by creating a bacteria's DNA (from scratch) and implanting it into the shell of a bacterial cell. A bacteria, then, with no ancestors. The implications are profound in the extreme. (The story went surprisingly under-reported.) But could mankind ever create artificial consciousness? Artificial intelligence is on the way. But a machine which can describe to us how it feels to exist? To feel sorrow, elation, anxiety, embarrassment, pride, fear, confusion, jealousy? And describe it in such a way as to elicit empathy from the listener/reader/viewer?

As mankind gains in intelligence, we must learn to rise above our biology. We are born, we reproduce, we die. There is no getting away from these biological imperatives. Yet applying one's heightened intelligence to dwell on this can be a depressing and futile activity, focusing on one's impending senility and demise which approaches at an ever-accelerating speed. Physical and mental frailty will come to us all who live to natural old age. To cope with these truths, we must acquire a thorough understanding of our biology - and then, in a spiritual sense - through the richness of the life of the mind, in dreams, in our flashbacks - rise above it. We are part of a universal, eternal whole, a process of consciousness rising, of order rising out of chaos; our wills shape it, and will continue to shape it long after the atoms that currently form our bodies cease to work together as one coordinated entity.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Calling International Rescue

EMERCOM - the Russian Emergency Control Ministry - has sent over a plane load of supplies to help with the Polish flood crisis. Below: An Ilyushin Il-76TD Candid of the MChS, RA-76363, over our house. (See also this Il-76 and this EMERCOM Mil Mi-26 - world's largest helicopter)

If you are Polish and have never heard of International Rescue or Thunderbirds - well guys, you are in for a treat! I grew up on this TV series. As a child in the mid-1960s, this was the programme to watch. Not just the gripping race-against-time plots, but the 21st Century technology - in particular the aircraft, rockets, ships, submarines - and the rescue equipment with which International Rescue always managed to save the day.

Above: What will come out of this huge aircraft's cargo hold? Sandbags? Clothing? Bulldozers? Thunderbird 4? The Mole? There is something about the look of the Il-76 that would make it fit in well with Gerry Anderson's vision of the mid-21st century.

(According to Gazeta Wyborcza, it's pumps, boats, and generators. 15 tonnes-worth.)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Our avian neighbour

This fellow is a regular fixture in the field behind our garden. He is often to be heard trumpeting his presence to pheasant and non-pheasant alike. Among the green, green grass, watered by abnormally high May rainfall, he spends his time unhurriedly strolling up and down. Every now and then the noisy shadow of an airliner coming into land makes him take notice, but like the humans here, he's got used to the planes.

Looking at him eye to eye, I wonder what consciousness resides within his being; what does he makes of it all? As he looks at that human looking at him through a long black tube, what rational calculations cross his mind? What flashes of insight into his world suddenly occur to him, making him cumulatively the wiser?

Above: Taken a few days later - Pan Bażant spreads his wings and makes that trumpety sound.

Once a year in Poland they celebrate Pentecost Sunday

And all the shops are shut. Now, closing them for Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, Corpus Christi, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary or on major national holidays - this I can understand. It's a Catholic country. But Pentecost? No parades with donkeys and palm fronds, no greetings cards (Życzę Wam Wesołego/Spokojnego Zesłania Ducha Świętego)...

I should have realised, having last night stayed up to one am to bring Moni home after singing at the Dominican Abbey (as happened last year). But it occurred to none of us that all the shops would be shut (with the exception of Sklep Osiedlowy Mariola, though by the looks of the place, I don't think they'd take too kindly to credit cards).

I blame the Judeo-Masonic-Cyclistic-Bruxello-Bolshevist media (Gazeta Wyborcza, TVN) for not warning the nation of this impending hiatus to mindless consumerism. Had my morning paper and 24-hour news channel informed me earlier that the shops would be shut on Sunday, I'd have done the weekly shop yesterday. But no, they had nothing better to report but the floods.

Seriously though, the decision to close all shops on Pentecost is I am sure not a popular one (except for that one-thirtieth of the population that one could describe as National Catholics). It was passed in the dying days of the PiS-LPR-Samoobrona coalition, and like many questionable legacies left by that ill-starred government, the current one has done nothing to reverse it.

Tomorrow evening after work I shall be forced to drive to the hypermarket and jostle with vast crowds of similarly disgruntled consumers.

The Vistula's course over the years

Eddie pointed it out to me on the map of Warsaw from 1831 in my study (below). "Look at how the Vistula used to flow," he said. So I photographed it so that we could compare the 179 year-old map with a current satellite photo from Google Earth (bottom). Both maps are aligned with north to the right.

Warsaw's flood defence systems were built between 1906 and 1912 (za cara - 'in Tsarist times'). As you can see, the river has been straightened out and civilised, its banks raised and land reclaimed. The escarpment, which is closest to the river by the Old Town, has been Warsaw's natural flood defence, being some 30 metres above the mean river level. I've sized the old map as large as possible, so you can click on it to see the detail. It was published in London by Baldwin & Craddock under the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and dated November 1st, 1831.

All day long, we were following the latest news about the water levels. The flood walls are high enough to withstand 8 metres of water. At midday, the river rose to 7.8 metres. By 23:00 this evening, it had receded to 7.65m. The problem is not now the danger of the river spilling over the walls, it is of the water seeping through. The ground (as I mentioned on Tuesday) is waterlogged, the pressure of the high river is pushing water by osmosis through the soil out on the other side. Fingers crossed for dry weather.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Familiar shape in the sky

One of my favourite regulars at Warsaw Okęcie airport is airBaltic's Fokker F50 (below). This twin turboprop is a development of the Fokker F27 Friendship, which first flew in November 1955 and has been in continuous service since 1958.

The F50 (originally designated F27 Mk 50) shares the same basic airframe as the F27, the only major external differences being the smaller, more numerous passenger windows on the F50, and its six-bladed propellers. The fuselage, wings and tail are largely unchanged.

Aeronautical technology has plateaued. It would be unthinkable to see, half a century ago in 1960, an aircraft in regular revenue-earning service whose airframe dates back to before WWI*. Yet its not unusual to see aircraft that were designed and first flew in the 1950s over our skies today. Here are four (first flights in brackets): Lockheed Hercules (Aug '55), Boeing 707 (Dec '57), Antonov An-12 (Dec '57). The Douglas DC-8 (Dec '58) also flies into Okęcie (as a freighter) from time to time - I've seen it but not yet snapped it.

Growing up under the flightpath to London's Heathrow Airport, the Fokker Friendship was a regular sight in the skies over West London, along with sadly departed shapes such as the Vickers Viscount, Vanguard and VC10 and De Havilland Comet and Trident.

Below: Another Fokker F50 inbound to land at Okęcie, two weeks ago. After snapping it, I was astonished to see the Icelandic flag and registration (TF-JFM); could it have flown to Warsaw all the way from Reykjavik? No - this plane has been leased by Flugfelag Airlines of Iceland to Latvia's airBaltic. Both shots taken just after midday, the same Riga-Warsaw flight, BT461. The journey takes 1 hour and 40 minutes.

* The record holder back in 1960 would have been the Douglas DC-3, which first flew in 1935, a mere quarter of a century earlier; examples are still flying today.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Floods endanger Warsaw

The river's been rising, rising to levels unseen in over a century. The main topic of conversation in the office today, with colleagues (especially those living near the river) worried that the Vistula might burst its banks. I decide to check it out, cycling home via ul. Bartycka and picking up the flood defence walls near Siekierki all the way to Obórki. From there, back through Okrzeszyn [City każdy obcy będzie bity], Powsin and the Las Kabacki forest. Heading towards the river, I could make out its course from a distance by observing the military and civilian aircraft flying up and down its length.

Above: the river near Kępa Okrzeska. Below: looking south towards Kępa Oborska. To the left, the floodwaters rising; you can see that the water level is much higher than the fields to the right of the wall. From here, it's five kilometres to the Skarpa Wiślańska - the river's escarpment that marks its ancient course. From here, that's five kilometres of flood plain that would have been regularly subject to flooding until the defence walls were built.

On, then, to Obórki. Here, I saw hundreds of sightseers - a strange sight. A flood is a silent enemy, especially on a sunny, cloudless day. There's no sudden, dramatic moment, no noise, no panic, just a slow, relentless rising water level as the river gains volume from all those swollen tributaries upstream. Below: The Jeziorka river, just before it joins the Vistula. Another two metres and it two will burst its banks. Its normal course runs between the submerged trees, in summer it's ususally just ten metres across at its widest (see Google Earth).

Below: The police have roped off the flood wall to stop cars from driving onto it - their weight would threaten its structural integrity. Cars are being moved on by the fire brigade, but there are plenty of pedestrians and cyclists, many of them local, worried about what will happen to their property if the water level rises even higher. Just after taking this pic, the air raid sirens across the river started up. A scary atmosphere.

I covered 54km on my Cannondale today - and put in eight working hours too. And prepared this blog post for you too.

Fingers tightly crossed that the water level will start to subside. Watching the news minute by minute. We are only 30cm /1 ft from critical level. At last, in the last hour, we hear the river's retreated a whole centimetre.

MORNING UPDATE - overnight the water level rose 10cm, so there's only 23cm left.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Useful and useless in my wallet

Last week I picked up my ZTM Karta Miejska (urban transport authority City Card). I was amazed at the fact that a) I could choose whatever pictorial design I wanted - regular readers will recognise the illustration by Jan Lenica from Julian Tuwim's Lokomotywa - and b) it was ready for collection within two days of me applying for it online (which you can do here).

I uploaded a month's worth of Zone 1 travel (78 zlotys or a mere sixteen quid). Zone 1 is nine miles (give or take) from the city centre - the same radius as Zone 3 in London. A monthly TfL travelcard for London (Zone 3) costs one hundred and sixteen quid. If I want to get even more value for money, I'd be buying a quarterly (90-day) Karta Miejska contract for 196 zlotys or 41 quid - or 2.10 zlotys (40p) a day. The Karta Miejska is a great institution.

Unlike the two hundred zloty note (below), Poland's largest denomination banknote. The cash machines at PKO BP have of late started producing these. On Monday morning, I withdrew 400 zlotys and unwontedly got two 200 złoty notes. Since then, I've been wandering around Warsaw unable to do anything with them. I can buy neither food nor coffee nor newspapers. Kiosk vendors laugh at me when I show them the money. Today Mariola bought me a paper and Matthew bought me lunch. I'm a trained journalist reduced to the status of a bum.

The BBC this week ran a story about the €500 note being a problem. This is a sum of money worth ten times more than the 200 zł note. Yet Poles are only three-and-half times poorer than the citizens of the eurozone. So why the 200 zł note's pariah status?

It's to do with the Polish banking system's inability to circulate sufficient loose change into the economy, something I wrote about here. A kiosk owner, looking at a 200 zł note sees his entire morning's cash float disappearing in one single small-value transaction.

I should have ordered 350 zł from the cash machine - one stoover and three fifties. No problem with fifties. Stoovers are more problematic, but nowhere near as difficult to get shot of as 200 zł notes.

The whole business has prompted me to consider what the purpose of high-value banknotes is in any economy other than an instrument to avoid the taxman. Whenever I pay more than 50 złotys (11 quid or so) for anything, I use a debit or credit card. What's the sense of holding the cash? What is the point of any central banker printing large denomination notes?

Roll on the payment revolution. Mobile banking and mobile payment. I upload money from my bank account to my mobile phone account, and via a proximity chip in my phone (using NFC - near field communication technology), I can make small value transactions such as a newspaper or cup of coffee without having to reach for coins or notes or worry about change.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Wettest. May. Ever.

May started wet and had continued thus. Last year, a bit of rain in May was blessed relief. Now, we facing a natural disaster. Floods, when they occur in Poland, happen in July (statistically the year's wettest month) and August (second wettest). Here we are in what should be the merry month of May, and we've had vast amounts of rain.

Above: Sunday evening, and I'm driving Moni to choir practice at the Dominican Abbey in Służew. The two nearside lanes of ul. Puławska are flooded. According to the Physics Institute of Warsaw Technical University, we had five and half litres of rain per square metre between four and five pm that day. Below: field across the road from our house, this morning.

After a record amount of snow melted, causing the water table to reach high levels, the record amound of May rainfall has had nowhere to go but to the surface. Pretty much every field under crop on Jeziorki right now has at least some flooded patches. Below: potato field on ul. Nawłocka. The farmer lost his crop last summer because of flooding, and now this.

Below: W-wa Jeziorki's proto-Park+Ride. Between ul. Gogolińska and the station, the field is submerged. Unbelievable when you compare to this photo from October 2008. Looking at that picture, you would never describe this patch of land as being flood-prone!

With weather like this, the bike stays at home. Getting all dressed up in waterproofs over office clothes leads to sweatiness, stickiness and odour and we have no showers at work. Right: cyclepath in Powiśle, entirely submerged. It's so wet I wear wellies just to get from home to W-wa Jeziorki station. There's still no pavement along ul. Karczunkowska, it's impossible to get from home to the station in normal footwear without getting my feet wet.
The weather forecasters say it will stay wet. A huge low hangs immobile over Ukraine, stretching out across most of Poland. Heavy rain is expected overnight, showers tomorrow, then more rain on Thursday and Friday.

Who's to blame? Why, Premier Tusk of course. And presidential candidate Bronisław Komorowski. For these men have singularly failed to predict the rain or indeed do anything to stop it. (© TVP1 2010)

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Warsaw's Museum Night

A truly wonderful institution! For one night only, Warsaw's musuems, art galleries and other public institutions open their doors to visitors for free, to which lots of other attractions are added (vintage buses and trams). Most places are open to one am, some to three. The metro and several tram lines run on well into the night, extra night buses are put on. The result - the whole city was out in force, enjoying a night of culture and history. (Full programme in Polish here.) Tearing themselves away from the TV set, games console or beer can, families and people young and old were making the most of what Warsaw had to offer.

We all went out to make the most of the night. I went with Eddie, his friend Sabina and her dad Chris, taking in Sejm (the Polish parliament), the Mennica (state mint), railway musuem, then by vintage bus to Plac Narutowicza for an exhibition of old trams. Along the way we passed huge queues waiting to go into the Warsaw Uprising musuem and the Institute of National Memory (IPM). In both cases, the queues looked way too long.

Above: A lad in Sejm - Eddie's idea to visit the Polish parliament was a hit and worth the wait. Last night, the principal institution of Polish democracy proved to be in finest fettle, attracting huge interest from Varsovians of all ages. The Sejm buildings were open to three am. Below: packed interior of a 1960s vintage Ogórek ('cucumber') bus. This particular one was a Czech-built Skoda, but many licence-built examples of this type of bus were built in Poland by Jelcz, and were a familiar sight on the streets of Warsaw's cities in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.

We jumped on this bus outside the Railway Museum and went to Plac Narutowicza (below) for a display of vintage trams - the oldest dating back to 1907. All maintainted by volunteers, as is the case in the UK, where the heritage transport movement is thriving thanks to the countless hours put in by enthusiasts to keep old buses, trams and trains moving. A sign of a strong civil society.

My wife queued to get into the Chopin museum on ul. Tamka. They were letting people in 70 at a time, once an hour on the hour. She didn't get in at seven pm, nor indeed at eight; after an hour and 40 minutes she'd had enough, and not fancying another hour of queuing, departed. We too had our disappointments. We turned up at the Warsaw waterworks (Filtry) having discovered that you needed an invite to get in (available two weeks earlier), so that was a dead loss too. Moni and her friends managed to visit the most museums, crossing into Praga, Warsaw's right bank district, as well as visiting Sejm, and by the time she got home it was already light!

The trick to getting the most from Warsaw's Museum Night is to be aware that massive crowds will be inevitable, and to prioritise places that aren't ususally open to the public rather than trying to save on the entry price of museums that can be visited at any weekend. Plan ahead (in our case of the waterworks - we didn't know until the day that invites were necessary), and bear in mind the distances between attractions necessitates a 24-hour bus ticket (or bicycle).

It was a glorious evening - the epitome of civilisation (in the sense of its Latin root from the word for 'city'). The museums went out of their way to welcome people, staff made an effort to go the extra mile, we encountered no surliness. Everyone was happy, no disturbances, rudeness or unpleasantness, an urban ideal. This is what cities were made for. Praise to the organisers. Urban policymakers in cities without Museum Nights should copy the idea (which originated in Berlin) - the benefits are enormous.

Friday, 14 May 2010

The iron filings factory: an economic parable

As any child that has learned about magnetism will know, iron filings are an essential part of any school experiment to learn about how this phenomenon works.

In March 1949, the Council of Economic Ministers of COMECON determined that in the struggle to defeat the American hegemonists and their revanchist and neo-imperialist allies, the Socialist bloc needed Scientists. Vast ranks of them. Accordingly, science must be an important part of any school curriculum, second only to the teaching of Marxism-Leninism. Labs would need to be equipped - and supplied. To teach Magnetism to the children of the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were needed Magnets. And Iron Filings, without which Magnets would simply be useless little metal horseshoes painted red. Magnets, of course, would come from Magnitogorsk - magnet mountain - in the USSR.

But iron filings... ? The Polish delegation successfully lobbied to situate the factory in Mazursko-Pomorskie province, a rural part of the Polish People's Republic that had been, until the war, a rural part of the Third Reich.

And so, with great socialist endeavour, the sweat of the toiling masses, a giant iron filings factory was built on what once were sugar beet fields, near the town of Natomiast (pop. 15,000). Because of shortages of building materials, sabotage by backward, reactionary, anti-socialist elements of Polish society and endemic drunkenness and absenteeism, the grand opening of Natomiast's Leninist Progess Iron Filing Works (Natomiejskie Zakłady Opiłków Żelaznych im. Postępu Leninowskiego) did not take place until November 1956. To facilitate the transport of the iron filings (in 100kg sacks woven from Chinese silk), a broad-gauge railway line was built into Poland from the USSR, while standard gauge tracks carried the finished goods south and west to fraternal democratic people's republics.

NZOŻ gave full-time employment to over 3,000 Natomiastians. The production lines were full of skilled workers, patiently filing away ingots of pig-iron and carefully sweeping the resultant dark-grey powder into small heaps which were checked for quality under microscopes, before being bagged for onward shipment. Socialist production norms were set and exceeded*.

It was not just production line workers. There was a large administration and personnel department, a transport and maintenance department, a book-keeping department. And because the Polish People's Republic existed for the best interest of the workers, there was a Social Fund run the by the official trade unions; the iron filing workers of NZOŻ had their own sanatorium and resort in the Złota Sól mountains by the Czechoslovakian border. Workers had their own shop, where luxury items such as lard, mustard, boot-laces, nail-scissors and hair-curlers were available, even when the shelves of the local shops were empty.

And so, the factory fulfilled its obligations, and schoolchildren from Magdeburg to Vladivostok would be able to learn about how opposites attract. The factory's seven smoke stacks belched smoke to show how productive it was; trains would arrive bearing ingots and take away sackloads of iron filings. Sometimes the factory was paid in tractors, at other times, in oil, and again at other times, not at all. Times were good, times were bad, but everyone had a job. And in the town of Natomiast, hairdressers' cooperatives, taxi-drivers and even the odd private-sector hat-maker, all managed to live from month to month.

Natomiejskie Zakłady Opiłków Żelaznych im. Postępu Leninowskiego in 1956

In this quiet corner of Poland, far from the hot-beds of cosmopolitan intelligentia, the factory kept on going, toiling away to turn lumps of iron into something that let Socialism's young students experience the power of magnetism at first hand. 1968 came and went, as did 1970. The workers kept on filing while the works Party Committee would take turns to read chapters from Marx, Engels and Lenin through the factory's public address system between the pop songs of the day.

In 1980, as Solidarity-inspired strikes swept the nation, something snapped. Suddenly, the workers rose up, demanding rights they'd never dreamed of before. The management caved in. A marvellous 15 months of freedom ensued, ending as it did in Martial Law. Things were never the same, many young people upped and left, heading west.

The Big Man from the Party running the factory was replaced by someone lean and hard, someone without family or connections in the town, but well connected with Warsaw and the Ministries.

Then, in 1988, something changed. There were strikes, the people from the Party were looking scared. From Warsaw came rumours that communism was doomed. A year later, there were elections. The workers were fearful; what would become of their factory? They could hardly focus on the task in hand: filing iron. Quickly, the state enterprise restructured itself and changed its name to the Sendivogius Science Education Supplies Joint Stock Company, 100% owned by the State Treasury.

Privatisation. The Free Market. Freedom. Deutschmarks and dollars legally on sale in the streets. Goods from the West everywhere, though at prices that seemed absurd. You could practice religion and be patriotic and no one would bother you! The people from the Party suddenly had Mercedeses.

But then orders for iron filings from Bulgaria dried up; The USSR disintegrated, as did Czechoslovakia. Their ministries of education no longer even picked up the phone... Things looked grim. With no one to buy their iron filings, the factory would close, they'd all lose their jobs...

The men from Solidarity went to Warsaw. They sold their case well. "If the Natomiast Iron Filing Works closes, the town would die," they said. "Keep it going for a bit, we'll look for new markets in the west, we'll restructure... invest in new technology to make the iron filings more efficiently... don't kill us off... We'll find jobs for the boys..." It worked. Warsaw didn't close the factory.

Cash-strapped education supply departments from Bonn to Ottawa suddenly realised that they could source iron filings from Poland for a fraction of what it had cost them before. Within 18 months, Natomiast had reorientated its customer base entirely. A new breed of young manager emerged, speaking foreign languages, able to negotiate, started to make itself felt in the structures of the factory. Somehow, they managed to keep the place going. Old people, who'd been with the works since they opened, retired. The sanatorium was sold off, the railway lines gathered rust as delivery vans took over. But at the end of the day, the factory was getting deeper and deeper in debt and making bigger losses each year. The cost base - keeping all these fixed assets going, and all the people - was way too high.

The Marshal (chief executive) and Voivode (governor) of Mazursko-Pomorskie realised that if the factory closed, the town would die, and they'd have political problems. So although they were from different parties, they agreed to find the funds to keep the factory going.

Twenty years passed. Poland's Ministry of State Treasury has privatised tens of thousands of state enterprises large and small, but the iron filings factory in Natomiast remains in public ownership. At each parliamentary election, the winning party would take control of the Ministry of the State Treasury, throw out the old Secretary of State, under-secretary, directors, managers etc., and replace them with its own people - trusted people. They in turn would replace the chairmen and boards of state-owned enterprises such as the Sendivogius Science Education Supplies Joint Stock Company in Natomiast. The chairman and the board, they'd be party members or friends or family of party members - never mind of what party - UW, SLD, ZChN, PSL, PiS, PO - they would take over the company, sweep out the senior and middle management and replace it with their mates and their family members.

After each election, out would go the placemen of the losing party, in would come the winners; knowing nothing about the iron filing business (and indeed not in the least bit interested in it), they'd take the salaries, the chauffeured cars, and do the minimum needed to hang on in there on until the next election when they too would get swept out.

On the shop floor, the West German filing machines, bought in the 1970s, have broken down long ago, so the filing is done by hand as it was in the 1950s. For every person filing iron, two calculate the VAT owed on each (infrequent) transaction, another three work out the ZUS contributions; health and safety paperwork is ticked and filed, accidents duely noted down (17 cases of scraped fingernail in April 2010); the Social Fund, a shadow of its former self, still pays for staff trips and drunken teambuilding and training sessions. The Chairman of the Board, the directors and managers have their chauffeured cars for when they need to rush to Warsaw for an urgent meeting at the ministry.

Glamorous state-owned companies in sectors such as construction, energy or financial services have long been privatised; foreign capital now owns them. Run along the lines of global best practice with HR manuals inches thick, they are now as efficient and productive as companies anywhere. But back in Natomiast, things go on the way they always have. In a huge warehouse, sackloads of iron filings rust into solid lumps, unwanted at any price. School supply departments have long since found cheaper, higher-quality sources of iron filings (China), the bottom has dropped out of the market. The Sendivogius Science Education Supplies Joint Stock Company currently employs around 1,850 people. Natomiast's population has shrunk to 10,000, but the closure of the factory in a district (poviat) where unemployment is currently over 26% would be a disaster for the town and its hairdressers, restaurateurs and hatters.

So Poland's tax payers keep forking out millions of zloties each month to keep Natomiast's iron filing factory going. Though no one wants its product. Local and national politicians cannot bite the bullet on this one. How long will the Polish taxpayer have to keep such factories open?

* Falsified.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Travel broadens the spirit

With the onset of summer come thoughts of holidays and travel plans. Time to share some thoughts on the subject. Why do I wish to travel? Primarily, to seek spirit of place - genius locii, atmosphere, platzgeist, ambience, klimat. Seeking happiness-through-being-there. Happiness - that micro-moment when everything is right, that pleasant flavour of the mind. When I'm in that right place, those micro-moments connect up to a larger, more general sense of well-being.

This is what being on holiday should be about; improving the flavour of the mind, swelling the consciousness with beatitude. Rest, of course, yes, what's good for the body is good for the soul. But the idea of an idle fortnight in a hotel by a beach resort fills me with indifference.

Spirits of place are fickle. Walk or cycle (you'll not catch it with the same intensity sitting in a car) a few hundred metres (or less) one way or the other - and you've lost it. My sense of it is as fine-tuned as a metal detector. Moving, searching. *Paff!* There it is. Catch it, consign it to your soul*, and move on, slowly, lest you miss another such moment.

I want to seek spiritual communion with the landscape - be it rural, urban or suburban. I seek to travel to find places I don't know and yet do know - places that are replete with an instant sense of atavistic familiarity from dreams and flashbacks.

I intend to visit Scandinavia and would wish to return to the USA - backroad, small town USA; coast to coast, on to the Pacific. Canada too. I must say I have no real interest in taking myself to Africa or Asia or Australasia. Europe I'd want to see more of - in all directions. Spain, yes. But right now, time and money is limited, Poland needs to be discovered. As I recently wrote, the bicycle is the optimal way to catch the spirit of place, three times faster than walking yet three times slower than driving, not isolated from the landscape by laminated glass. I'll be back in Dobra with Eddie before too long, we both feel very comfortable there. But the Big Journeys beckon. It will be a few years, but they will happen.

* Ah yes - photography. For a pictorial record capturing spirit of place to be worthwhile, on looking at the photo, it must capture the emotional effect of being there - it must engender what I saw and felt at the time. And if others can share that feeling - then perfect.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Optimised for long-distance commuting

Out of the garage today came another of my bikes, the fifth and last of my bicycles to be introduced to you on this blog. This bike was designed by me for long distance urban commuting in London in the early 1990s. Built by frame-builder Pete White at Ealing Cycles, this bike is optimised for stop-start traffic, safe yet fast riding through city streets.

The geometry is tight - short wheelbase, like on a criterium racer. Short chainstays, short rake on the front fork (one feels every bump!), steep frame angles. Slightly raised bottom bracket and shorter cranks so as to avoid the risk of a pedal hitting the ground on a tight corner. The frame itself is made from Reynolds 531 alloy tubing, a good compromise between strength, lightness and being easy to fix if broken. Yet the riding position is upright, not crouched, like on a racing bike. This allows optimal visibility. To see what's behind you, merely turn your head, you don't have to look under your armpit. And being more upright, I'm more visible in traffic. There is an aerodynamic penalty here; it took me three minutes longer to get to work on this bike today than on my Holdsworth racer yesterday (42 mins v. 39 mins). Still, I feel much safer.

Handlebars are shortened by 5cm on both sides to reduce the risk of clipping vehicles. Bright yellow, it's meant to be seen. Badge of pride: A London Cycling Campaign membership sticker with 071 area code phone number (pre-1995). Hub gears (Shimano Nexus seven-speed) allow for gear changes while stationary at traffic lights. In urban traffic, lights can catch you out leaving those with derailleur gears to have to get going in a high gear. The hubs also contain the brakes. This means a) improved braking efficiency (slowing the centre of the wheel rather than its circumference) and b) better braking in the rain (wet rims don't respond as well to wet brake blocks as the sealed hub brake). Mudguards are off for summer, they are full-length and close-fitting.

Drawbacks? Warsaw's roads are not as smooth as London's. This is the result of far greater temperature variations between winter and summer; frosts tend to break up road surfaces, which at the same time need to be able to withstand +40C heat. The ideal Warsaw fast commuter bike should at least have front suspension, and a sprung mattress saddle for comfort. This is a bike with just one use. It's no good off-road (the tyres are narrow, pumped up hard for low rolling resistance, but hopeless in soft sand). It's no good touring (there's only one position for the arms). But for urban journeys of 10-20km, it's as close as you can get to optimal.

Above: Holdsworth Triath-Elan, optimised for fast one-day touring and covering ground, though not so hot in urban stop-start traffic.

Right: optimised for multimodal, shorter distance all-weather commuting, the Brompton. Plus it's as chic as a MINI; heaps of style and cachet. Folds and unfolds faster and smaller than lesser fold-up bikes.

Below: optimised for uncompromising purity: my home-built fixed-wheel bike, for blasting up to the end of ul. Trombity and back. Good for winter training too.

Below: if there's one bike that's near universal for Polish conditions, it's a decent mountainbike. Nowadays, they come in a variety of flavours - DH (downhill) - full suspension for hardcore mountain descents. Too heavy for most other types of riding. XC (cross country) is the best all-rounder. My 2007 Cannondale Caffeine F2 has served me well for long rides, urban commuting and just pootling around local byways while whistling show-tunes. If you want but one bike, this is the sort to opt for.

Unusual Hercules over Warsaw

A grainy photo taken this evening of a C-130 Hercules over Piaseczno, just after eight. I saw a Hercules over western Warsaw as I waited at W-wa Zachodnia for my train home at around ten to seven. I checked with EPWA spottaz forum; the plane had been seen yesterday evening too. Apparently, it took off from Minsk Mazowiecki military airport and belongs to the USAF.

To my trained eye, that nose looks bigger than the usual Herc nose. The fuselage does not look long enough to be a C-130K (as used by the RAF), nor does it have an air-to-air refuelling probe above the cockpit. Seems to have four- rather than six-blade propellers (so not a C-130J then). Is it an electronic countermeasures or special forces aircraft? EC-130 or MC-130?

UPDATE: Thanks for the tip-off, Anon!

UPDATE 2: I'm convinced it's an MC-130 after seeing this pic by Michał Franczyk. Look at the characteristic shape of the nose, the bubble under it and the blister on the rear fuselage.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Jeziorki in the infrared

Guest photography from Jeziorki visitor Ryszard Szydło, over in Warsaw for an exhibition. Rysiek has had his Nikon D70 converted to take infrared black and white photographs*. His IR landscapes convey an ethereal and other-worldly vision, a poetry that appeals to the sublime aesthetic. (See more IR works from Rysiek's recent London exhibition here.) Click on all photos for enlarged version.

Above: ul. Dumki, looking towards the wetlands. Shadows from left to right belong to me, Ad the Lad and Rysiek, taking the photo. Strong sunlight and blue skies (which darken in IR light) add to the Wood Effect (which causes foliage to appear white).

Right: the wetlands at the end of ul. Trombity. A similar effect in the sky can be obtained by using a dark red filter when shooting b&w, but without the white foliage. Reminescent of the great landscapes of Ansel Adams, though the IR makes them more dreamlike.
Below: flooded field, corner of ul. Trombity and ul. Kórnicka. The field had only been sown last week; the continual rains and the high water table resulting from the volume of snow this winter have rendered Jeziorki's lower lying fields waterlogged. This time last year, there was a ban on entering the tinder-dry Las Kabacki forest!

Below: looking towards ul. Baletowa from ul. Dumki. The ploughed furrows with their flattened trapezoidal peaks are noteworthy.

Below: looking towards W-wa Jeziorki station (in the distance) from the pedestrian crossing at ul. Kórnicka. Low evening sunlight makes the trees look like they are covered in snow.

* An infrared filter blocks out all wavelengths of light visible to the eye and lets in only light in the infrared part of the spectrum. The filter is placed in front of the CCD sensor, so light meter readings, focusing and all other photographic functions are not disturbed. Digital IR photography, once the CCD sensor has been converted this way, is so much easier than with film, which had to be loaded and unloaded in total darkness.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Slavic yearnings

Last week, on 3rd May, Poland celebrated the adoption of Europe's first written constitution in 1791. On the 9th, Russia celebrates the defeat of Fascism, VE Day.

Remembering my midnight conversation with Dr Halina, the Radio Maryja listener a week ago, I'm prompted to write about pan-Slavism, a significant undercurrent in Polish society and politics. She had a PhD from the University of Lvov and had travelled the length and breadth of the USSR. Despite her strong anti-communist, patriotic and Catholic stance, she had a clearly sympathetic point of view towards Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, their peoples and their culture.

Scratch a Pole and you'll find a German or a Russian. That one part of the Polish identity that comes from the west is organised, technically-minded and seeks order. That part of the Polish identity that comes from the east is poetic, spiritual, wild and disorderly, sentimental, fantastical in vision, determined and hard.

Genetically, eastern Germany is populated by germanised Slavs, decendents of the Sorbs, Wends and Veleti. Slavic populations have a high percentage of the R1a mutation of the Y-chromosome. To quote from the Wikipedia article:

In Europe, R1a ... is found at highest levels among peoples of Eastern European descent (Sorbs, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians; 50 to 65%).

With genetic science still in its infancy, we do not yet know what personality traits are characteristic of peoples of the R1a haplogroup. They are certain to differ (though by how much?) from peoples of the R1b haplogroup, who are predominant in western Europe.

It is possible to rewrite central and eastern European history, in particular the Drang nach Osten, Grunwald, the Teutonic Knights, the ostfront in WWI and WWII, as the struggle between the R1b and R1a haplogroups.

[Remember, that in any national group there is a significant minority of a haplotype other than the dominant one.]

So if there's a genetic as well as linguistic bond between Slavs - why are they split geopolitically between eurocentric western Slavs, fractured and fractious southern Slavs, and the north-eastern Eurasian landmass dominated by Moscow?

It is because of history. I've already mentioned the religion/alphabet split, but another reason why Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have found it easier to absorb democratic ideas is their distance from oriental despotism. Russia has had a hard history. Under the yoke of the Mongol hordes, Russian people would watch their princes tied up and dragged through the mud for sport; those same princes that had failed to save their people from the random pillaging and raping of Genghis Khan's mounted warriors as they swept westward. And when the Golden Horde finally went home, those princes, humiliated in front of their people, had to somehow reassert their authority. To do so, they used zamordyzm.

Zamordyzm. The strong holding the weak by the morda - the snout. A lack of human respect, a lack of civilisation. Despotic command-and-control, denying dignity to the weaker party. Might is right. The Tsars did not go in for Enlightenment. Serfdom was only abolished in Russia in 1861; its scale far greater than slavery in the USA or British Empire (23 million serfs vs 4 million slaves in the USA and 750,000 in the British Empire at abolition).

Civilisation to me is above all society rising above the biological mammalian hierarchy whereby the alpha puts the others beneath him into the pecking order by force. Civilisation is politeness, manners, rituals. Noblesse oblige. "Hello Mr Jones, how are you, half a pound of lamb chops please, nice day isn't it?" as opposed to "Dawjcie mi pół kilo karkówki, dobra? " (There's less hypocrisy, though).

As human society evolved, so brute zamordyzm has given way to more subtle systems of political control whereby freedom is not taken but traded in exchange for someone else taking responsibility for your welfare. The feudal prince would give way to the mill-owner, the welfare state or the Supreme Soviet. Consenting to servility in exchange for freedom from want.

Radio Maryja listeners yearn (as does their entire age cohort across the former Soviet empire) for the certainties of communism - welfare, pensions, cheap food and housing, free healthcare. None of this could communism sustainably deliver, so the system imploded. The fundamental difference between the elderly veteran with his medals and Stalin badge in Red Square and a Radio Maryja listener in Częstochowa is Catholicism and Polish patriotism. Other than that, there is a bond.

I sense within the Radio Maryja mindset a yearning for some kind of a pan-Slavic union, a return to a simple life of religious observance, tradition, folk-song, crafts, extended families. On the issue of vodka and wild behaviour, I suspect there is ambiguity, although during the era of Soviet hegemony, the vodka bottle was ubiquitously used to cement pan-Slavic bonds.

(Is there something in the R1b haplogroup that makes people more likely to consent to servility in exchange for freedom from want? Probably not. Differences within groups are greater than between them. Could Bolshevism have taken hold in any other country than Russia? Probably not, though for historical rather than genetic reasons.)

Gazeta Wyborcza*, which in the Radio Maryja mindset is a judeo-masonic organ run by anti-Poles with a Brussels agenda, has initiated a campaign to light a candle for the fallen Soviet soldier on 9th May. Promoted by figures such a Andrzej Wajda (who spoke out against burying President Lech Kaczyński in Wawel Castle), the logic of the campaign is entirely human. The Soviet dead (as I wrote here) were primarily peasants and workers herded west at gunpoint to gain territory for the USSR, treated instrumentally as cannon fodder by Stalin. We should mourn them as victims, not as liberators or occupants.

There is ambiguity among Polish social conservatives towards Russia. On the one hand there is deep distrust of Moscow, tsarist partition, Bolsheviks invading in 1920 and 1939, and returning in 1944 to install their puppets for another 45 years. On the other, we are all Slavs, and Slavs should not be drawn, they say, into the clutches of Brussels and the morally bankrupt EU.

Politics aside, Poles need to draw a distinction between the Russian state and the Russian people. In matters artistic, musical and literary, there's so much in common between our souls. It's just that history and politics have got in the way.

* Another campaign currently being promoted by Gazeta Wyborcza and the Civic Platform City Hall is Kręć, Warszawo, aimed at getting people to cycle to work this month. Proof, if any is needed, that there is indeed a conspiracy of Jews, masons and cyclists.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Bleary eyed but well informed

I watched the BBC's UK election night special through to the wee, wee hours. I went to bed at around 3am Warsaw time, waking up just after 6 to carry on.

This is the first time I watched live streaming TV on the internet - it worked without a hitch even on TPSA's sloooow 1.3mb/s connection. Events such as general elections are where the internet beats traditional television hands down. In one window I've got live election video, headline results and a news feed containing tweets and blog links. In another window, I've got detailed results - seats, percentages, gains/losses, for each party. In yet another, I can check results by individual constituencies.

The BBC wheeled out its best-know political commentators and journalists with David Dimbleby as anchor; slick computer graphics presented by Jeremy Vine made a complex electoral system easy to understand, and Jeremy Paxman grilling successive trios of senior politicians in his characteristically brusque style that borders on rudeness.

It has been said in the run-up to the election - especially after the 15 April televised debate won by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg that the new media were over-hyped and that old-tech TV was still the most potent force in shaping politics. To an extent. After Clegg's performance, the LibDems soared in the polls, briefly even overtaking the Tories, and consistently in second place ahead of Labour. On the night, the LibDems faltered, taking not 28-30% of the vote but a mere 23%. So much for the power of TV.

In the end, the exit polls got it right with great precision. At 22:00 UK time, the forecast number of parliamentary seats was Con 307, Lab 255, LibDem 59. The final outcome was Con 306, Lab 258, LibDem 57.

The turnout - 65.1% - was a surprise too. This compares to 61.3% in 2005 and 59% in 2001. And 53.8% in the Polish parliamentary elections of 2007 (and a pathetic 40.6% in 2005).

Final question posed by the pundits this morning - is a hung parliament the will of the British people?

For insight into what happens next, read Charles Crawford.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Today's missing words

Three commonplace English words that came up in meetings today that don't translate readily into Polish:

Bully [n]. Osoba terroryzująca innych says Getionary. What - like Osama Bin Laden is a bully? Or in the sentence Pani synuś jest osobą terroryzującą innych?

Underwhelming [adj] (as in a politician's wooden manner in public). 'Overwhelming' is przytłacający. So what's 'underwhelming?' podtłaczający?

Fragile [adj]. Getionary gives delikatny (that's 'delicate' in my books), kruchy ('brittle', 'crumbly') and łamliwy ('breakable', 'prone to breakage'). 'Fragile - handle with care' is given as ostrożnie - szkło. Delikatny is the closest - but PWN Oxford gives ten English words for delikatny - but none of them are 'fragile'. 'The fragile peace was shattered by a single violent incident' - delikatny pokój był rozbity przez jedno gwałtowne wydarzenie?

Suggestions please!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Where's the sunshine?

I'm worried. Six days in a row now, dull, leaden skies bearing showers. Nothing unusual for London, but for Warsaw in early May - a worry. Having read about the Year Without a Summer (1816), when volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere screened out significant amounts of sunlight leading to failed harvests and epidemic, I worry about a repeat.

Should I worry? 1816's anomalous summer is thought to be caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815, which spewed 160 cubic kilometres of ejecta into the atmosphere.

This spring's eruption of Eyjafjallajökull caused major disruption, but the amount of magma and ash spewed out of it was much lower than in the case of Mount Tambora. Still, after six days of unseasonable coolness and rain, I trust that better weather is on its way. It will soon be time for the Ice Saints. Before their arrival, early May is usually very pleasant in Warsaw.

Compare with the weather we enjoyed in May 2009, May 2008 and May 2007.

The bad weather is hitting my cycle commuting. The month is meant to be Warsaw City Hall's cycle to work month. Travelling around town today I've seen but two riders, both looking miserable.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Two Polands. Two anywhere elses?

Today is Poland's National Day. In 1791, Poland's parliament adopted the country's constitution, the world's second (after the USA) and the first in Europe. So national flags are flown; it's a day off work, and a good time to reflect upon what it is to be Polish. Indeed, or to be a national of any country on earth.

What exactly are the ties that bind a nation together? Are they stronger than that which divides it?

Language is key to national identity. It's what allows Pani Ewelina from the nice new house on the edge of town to converse with Pan Heniek in the village grocery store. It was language that held Poland's national spirit alive during the partitions when the country disappeared from the map of Europe for over 120 years. The Slavic word for 'German' is niemiec (or permutations around that). It means, literally, 'dumb one' (as in 'can't speak'). But go too far east, and the defining element is no longer linguistic but religious. Poles are of the Church of Rome. Christianity, introduced in 966, brought the Latin, not Byzantine, rite; more importantly, the written language of Poland uses the Latin, not Cyrillic alphabet.

When our children were born in London, my wife and I took the conscious decision to teach them Polish as their first language - just as we'd learnt Polish at our parents' knees in England a generation earlier. Moni spoke no English until she went to nursury school at the age of three and half; Eddie spoke no English at all until we moved to Poland. Only when the children started going to Polish schools did we revert to speaking English at home, so that they wouldn't lose it. I write in English a) because it was the language in which I was trained to write, b) to explain Poland to non-Poles, and c) so that advanced Polish students of English can read about Poland in English. [On growing up Polish in England. So that you know where I'm coming from.]

Binding a nation together is its music; the songs one learns as a child that one passes on. More than just nursery rhymes (which in PC UK are being sanitised so as to better reflect the diverse nature of British society). National anthems - God Save The Queen reflects a familiar stability, like the chimes of Big Ben. But intrinsically it does not stir me like the Mazurek Dąbrowskiego. The Church has had a vital role to play here. So much of the music that has kept Poland going through the dark decades of partition, Nazi occupation and communism has been been sung in churches. Boże coś Polskę, for example. Taught by parents and grandparents, folk song has also had an important role in binding the Polish nation together.

Other elements of national identity: costume - eroded totally by globalisation; cuisine - heading that way. Much as I enjoyed the excellent pierogi in Kraków on Saturday night, I also loved the prawn vindaloo I had on Wednesday in Saska Kępa. Fusion as a trend in cuisine means that food preferences will become more tailored to personal metabolic choice than where one lives.

National identity is about pride in one's country. I take pride in Poland and its achievements. Sports is an obvious category (Poland does well in individual sports - ski jumping, cross-country skiing, swimming, walking - and team sports like volleyball and handball)* . I take pride when I see Polish surnames achieving greatness in the field of science. (Sadly, Poles invariably do so in American, British or German universities or R&D establishments.) I take pride in Poland's economic achievements - delighting in the fact that it was the only EU member state to record positive economic growth last year. Or a new inward investment, or the development of Warsaw's skyline over the past decade. It gives me great satisfaction when impartial foreigners praise Poland in the international media. And I'm immensely proud that my daughter is proud to be Polish and proud to come from Warsaw.

Now onto the controversial part of this post.

Looking at the Polish nation, there's a clear split. Between those cultured, educated Poles, working hard to create wealth for themselves, their families and society; and those Poles that use the 'k' word with mindless frequency, drink for the sake of getting drunk, dump their old fridges, TV sets and beer bottles in the nearest forest and are generally not much use in a meaningful conversation about Mickiewicz, Chopin or Piłsudski.

But then there are two Britains. Prosperous, sophisticated Middle England and inner city Britain - 'broken Britain' - sprawling council estates, mums with five kids each of a different colour, squalour and hopelessness. The gulf between a middle-class family from picturesque rural Oxfordshire, well-versed in English culture, tradition and history, and a disfunctional family of inner-city council-flat chavs, out of work for generations, congenitally violent and unintelligent, is as great as that between a Kraków intellectual who'd kept Polish traditions alive throughout communism, and the inebriated, incoherent villager for whom life is a day-to-day struggle to find the cash for the next bottle.

I confess to having far more in common with a Polish, English, American, German or Russian intellectual than I do with a boorish uneducated Pole. Does this make me a representative of nie-Polska? Am I too cosmopolitan, too pro-EU, too open to the ideas of global business, too wishy-washy in matters of theological dogma, to be a true Pole? This seems to be the dividing line that Poland's social conservatives are trying to draw up in the wake of the Smolensk tragedy and in the run-up to the presidential election. Between Polska and nie-Polska.

On this, Poland's National Day, the country needs to be looking for commonality not division. Poland's elite need to reach into to countryside, to ensure that in human development terms, rural Poland can enjoy the civilisational benefits that urban Poland has. Access to education, culture, healthcare, broadband, public transport, opportunity. I think there's more hope for the Polish village than for Britain's decaying inner cities. Internal and external migration, investment (domestic and foreign), EU funds and above all, education, can break the cycle of rural despair. 'One Poland' as a slogan will happen when the Polish countryside becomes as rich and contented as Britain's green and pleasant villages.

* Britain's sporting excellence tends to be in bizarre areas of human endeavour where few other nations dabble - underwater wheelchair hockey, rowing (440m coxless nines), welterweight badminton etc.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Night train, carry me home

All aboard... the NIGHT train!* [Open in new window so you can listen to James Brown while continuing to read this post in this one]

So there I am in Kraków, half past ten at night, and keen on getting back to W-wa Jeziorki. I wheel my bicycle through the Planty, full of revelers of every nationality, to Kraków Główny station to assess the chances. I'm in luck. There's a TLK train (Tanie Linie Kolejowe - Cheap Railway Lines) at 23:20. It's the long distance night train from Zakopane to Gdynia via Kraków, Dąbrowa Górnicza Ząb (!) Częstochowa Osobowa, Warsaw, Malbork and Gdansk (Główny, Wrześć and Oliwa). And also stopping at small places few have heard of - Krzeszowice, Trzebinia, Jaworzno Szczakowa, Myszków, Prabuty.

The Romance of the Rails is felt at its most intense on a night train. I remember my first night journey by train; from Wrocław to Kłodzko in 1976, steam-hauled by my favourite loco, the Ty-2. I spent the whole time with my head out of the window, catching the soot and burning embers in my face, the smell of coal burning, passing sleeping towns and villages. Being on a night train is not about what you can see out of the window, but what you can imagine...

Miami, Florida
Atlanta, Georgia
Raleigh, North Carolina, hey!
Washington D.C.
Oh, and Richmond, Virginia too
Baltimore, Maryland
New York City, take me home
Boston, Massachusetts,

And don't forget New Orleans
The home of the blues
Oh yeah
Night train, night train, night train
Night Train, carry me home...

Leaving Blackpool-in-the-Tatras at eight in the evening, it arrives in the town that's the final berthing place of the ORP Blyskawica at eleven the next morning. For me, the time between departure from Kraks and arrival in Warsaw will give me time to snooze a while. The ticket between the two cities costs a mere 51 zlotys (11 quid).

Parking my bike at the locomotive end of the front carriage where it won't block passengers, I get into the first compartment, which I share with a Radio Maryja listener all the way to Częstochowa. A deeply scary experience. Apparently, the European Union is the new USSR. (Funny that - I've not heard of mass deportations, show trials, archipelagos of forced labour camps or executions of millions of class enemies by President Herman van Rompuy's henchmen.) Brussels is run by freemasons ("do you know what freemasons are?"); there is a 14-story building there that houses a gigantic computer, called 'the Beast' that, when the time comes, will control every one of us through microchips. Says a Greek monk from the monastery on Mount Athos, so it must be true. The scariest thing about this lady is that she has a Master's degree and a PhD.

Neither of the two stations before Częstochowa has a single signboard saying what it's called, so my fellow passenger is understandably distressed about the possibility of missing her stop, especially as the train's running late and we don't know where we are. Rather than bemoan the wretched state of Poland's railway stations, Dr Halina continues to warn me about microchips, which have been implanted into the people of Boston in 2001.

Fortunately, I'm spared any more apocalyptic visions as the train pulls into Częstochowa, where extra carriages are added to the train. While they're being shunted into place, I witness an interesting sight. Overlooking the tracks at Częstochowa Osobowa station is a wooden hut; two men are chasing what looks like a small fat beige dog that's broken through the chicken wire fence. Except - it's not a dog - it's a piglet. It's two o'clock in the morning, you will understand. Two grown men are running around the railway tracks in Częstochowa at 2 o'clock in the morning chasing a piglet.

In the next compartment are a group of Polish soldiers, back from duty in Afghanistan, wearing those desert uniforms so familiar from the world's TV news broadcasts, with Polish national colours on their shoulders. The guys have been laughing and joking all the way, so relieved to be home safely. Poland's new-style professional army is something to be proud of, compared to the gangs of pissed-up conscripts who until last year used to disgrace public transport as they ended their 18 month compulsory national service.

As the train pulled out Częstochowa, I had the compartment to myself, so I remove my shoes and nod off, waking up just before W-wa Zachodnia station, where the train arrives half an hour late. It's raining again, so I wait for a Radom-bound local train and jump off at W-wa Jeziorki, arriving home 26 hours after setting off yesterday.

Above: Night train passing through W-wa Jeziorki, en route for Kraków, August 2010

* If you can stand the excitement, watch The Greatest Man That Ever MOVED getting on down to Night Train live. Turn up the volume, set screen mode to full size, and enjoy. Mr M. Jackson is a fruity dwarf by comparison.

A ride across rural Poland

May Day Bank Holiday. The Feast of the Working Man. P'yervomaysk. My plan for the day was ambitious; to get as far as I could to Kraks by bicycle and local train, arriving in time for the Polandian blogmeet. Lots of preparation and planning, and a conscious decision not to take an SLR camera; all photos below taken on my Nokia N95 mobile phone.

I left home at daybreak just before five. The route was planned as follows - home - Piaseczno - Grójec - Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą - Końskie - Jędrzejów. At Jędrzejów, I would pick up the all-stations to Kraków service, getting me in to Kraks by quarter to six in the evening.

The air smells quite different at 5am on a spring or summer day; a beautiful fresh smell that's all but gone by 7am. There's no one about other than the occasional bakery van, the bird song pervades one's consciousness. This is the beauty of cycling. On foot, you're covering ground slowly. In a car you are insulated from the outside world by laminated glass and the sound of the engine, and the landscape is flashing by to fast for you to acquire a more reflective relationship with it. On a bike you are moving three times faster than walking pace, three times slower than by car.

Once clear of Piaseczno and the southern edge of the Warsaw agglomeration, the landscape along the 722 to Grójec is dominated by orchards. If Kent is the Garden of England, then Grójec and the surrounding district is Poland's equivalent. At this time of year, the apple and cherry trees are all in bloom. Beyond Grójec, I pick up the 728, which leads all the way down to Jędrzejów. Here there's still orchard and blossom, but the landscape becomes more undulating. I pass Mogielnica, where my paternal grandmother was born. There is a familiarity of klimat; slight hilliness, orchards, masses of blossom against a darkening sky.
Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą: Holdsworth Triath Elan and Lim-5

Above: 8:30 am. Three and half hours/75km into the journey, Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą, which used to be home to an airbase during the Cold War. [There's still lots of this kind of post-Soviet empire stuff all over Poland. The Lim-5 and Lim-6 were Polish licence-built versions of the MiG-17 fighter / fighter-bomber. Here's a list of all existing Lim-5s, -6s and MiG-17s gracing Poland's public spaces.]

Crossing the Pilica river, the landscape changes, it's flatter, the orchards give way to arable farms, the klimat is 1950s America. I'm in my stride. The road surface is good, slight tailwind, bike working perfectly in harmony with my legs, nicely run in. A while more and I have a break at a petrol station and a light breakfast. As I rested and ate, I observed across the road, a mother (in her 60s) and her son (mid-30s) planting potatoes. He was seated on a tractor and yelling furiously at her. She was bent double over the soil, patiently putting up with it all, as she'd done for a lifetime. This scene went on for several minutes before he finally roared off on his tractor.

Soon after setting off, some five hours after leaving home, it starts to rain. Just spotting at first, it gets more and more intense. There is no alternative but to carry on; there was still 50km to Końskie. When the rain got really heavy, I would shelter for a while. One such stop was in the village of Gowarczów. Below: the hardware store, where you can buy building materials, plumbing and electrical supplies, carpet beaters, artificial roses and bicycle parts.

11:45 am. A guy at the bus shelter is breakfasting on garlicky sausage meat. He reeks of alcohol fumes after a hard night's drinking. Across the street, a group of four men are working out how to buy the alcohol they needed to get them through the day. A tetchy discussion; hands diving into pockets in search of loose change and some tough negotiations ended with their leader announcing in a firm tone: Jest wódka. ('There is vodka').

By the time I'd reached Końskie (pop. 20,000 and falling) just after midday, I'd had enough of the weather; soaked to the skin, my shoes full of water that had wicked down through my sodden socks. Worst of all, the pot-holes in the road were brim-full of rain so as to become invisible. After a couple of metabolism-jarring jolts, I decided it was not worth carrying on, and so I put Plan B into operation.

Rather than heading south for Jędrzejów (another 67km), I turned off towards Końskie's PKS bus station. Making my way there across the town's park, I observed in an archway, three extremely inebriated men manhandling a fourth whose legs were giving way beneath him and who was on the point of passing out despite their aggressive language and actions.

Rural and Small Town Poland is so unlike the Big City Poland so well known to us urban sophisticates as to be quite another country. Different people, different mind-sets and values and life-goals. I shall pursue this thread tomorrow, Poland's National Day.

Above: Końskie's former rail and bus station, now just a bus station. The last train ran from here to Radom on 1 October 2009. You may think the above photo is dull, lacking in interest or spirit of place, in which case my intention to faithfully replicate my emotional response to being here was successful.

Outside this building I picked up a bus for Kielce and the same train I would have caught at Jędrzejów. [Tip for cyclists: Take both wheels off bike, secure them to frame, and there's no problem with getting it into a bus's baggage hold.] 11 zlotys got me to Kielce. From there I bought a ticket to Kraków, which, with the bike, came to a shocking 36.70 zlotys. It was only when I was on the train did the conductor explain to me that the woman in the booking office had mistakenly sold me two singles (one full price, one with excursion discount) to Kraków plus bicycle. The conductor then found a ticketless traveller who boarded the train at a rural halt along the line; rather than sell him a new full-price ticket, he introduced us to one another and passed on his fare (14.70 zlotys, with excursion discount) directly to me! Now there's client-focused thinking - something I completely didn't expect.

And so between home and Końskie I covered 135km, around half the distance between Warsaw and Kraków. I felt no unpleasant side effects (maybe I'd have had aching legs and sore knees had I pressed on to Jędrzejów). On the train I had a half-litre of Coke; on reaching my destination, (the restaurant Nostalgia on ul. Karmelicka 10, Kraków), I downed four large peevoes. Only then, after drinking two and half litres - nearly five pints - of fluid - did I need to go to the toilet - which shows how dehydrated the body becomes as a result of long-distance cycling.

Below: a screenshot showing the route from Warsaw's southern edge to Końskie. Roughly halfway to Kraków. Click to enlarge.