Thursday, 30 June 2011

Stalking the stork

Storks (or rather white storks - ciconia ciconia) are characteristically Polish birds - 25% of the world's population is concentrated in Poland. I associate storks with the countryside - so imagine my delight when, returning home from work on Monday night, I saw one in the field between the W-wa Jeziorki station and the bus stop. After popping off a few shots from a distance, I then, slowly, carefully, approached the fellow from the main road to get a closer pic (remember the two rules of photography. 1) Get close to the subject. 2) Get closer still).

So here's the next photo... I did not want to approach too close in case the stork flew off. And I was not equipped with my lens of choice in such situations, the 80-400mm Nikkor zoom (optically very good but slow to autofocus, although here it would not have been an issue).

The light was a problem - strong contrast between low, evening sunshine streaming in from the west (right) - some judicial adjustment was required in Photoshop to get a decent result.

Interestingly, Marcin Daniecki who lives in the vicinity, managed to get a shot of what seems to be the same fellow three days earlier (left). Will this stork is becoming a Jeziorki regular? I hope so! This heron that I snapped earlier this month perched on the stump of a concrete post in the wetlands at the end of ul Trombity seems to have become a fixture, I've seen him several times in the same place. Sadly, the swans that visited in past years didn't come back this year.

The Cold Weather Guys - Part II

[Part I here]

The giant bird took an eternity to tear free of the earth's pull, even without a massive bomb-load. James Martin sat in the front crew cabin for take off. In the back, separated by an 80-foot long tunnel, sat the cook, the tail-gunner and the photo-recon guys looking after the cameras. Once aloft, the RB-36 needed a leisurely 25 minutes to get up to cruising altitude, slightly above the maximum ceiling of the latest Soviet fighter jets.

James peered through the domed window at the sun rising over the horizon, the deep indigo blue of the sky at 40,000 ft. The throbbing and hum of the six piston and four turbojet engines were constant, soon overlooked by his consciousness as he contemplated the external beauty of the heavens. Though should something go wrong with any engine, he'd be crawling into narrow tunnels running into the wings to check that the radiators were not iced over, that oil or fuel were not leaking, or that the engines weren't overheating. His ears were fine-tuned for any tell-tale sound that one of the ten engines was misbehaving - he had a vast number of instruments to keep checking too.

As they headed north, hour after hour, night would not befall them. Making the most of the midnight sun, the RB-36 would fly over three thousand miles across the Arctic icecap to make landfall over Russia, probe enemy territory and turn back with high-resolution photos and radar maps. An hour into the flight, they'd just left the North American continent and were heading out over the Arctic ocean. All was proceeding smoothly - indeed uneventfully. Several hours to go. All was well. Outside, the beauty of the Arctic was glorious. Several hours later, James made his way to the rear crew cabin to take a rest, and got chatting with Tony the electronic intelligence officer, whose job was to plot where the Soviet radars were located. They were approaching the enemy coast.

James loosened up and started getting philosophical about the glories of flying so high above the ice cap. "Why d'you fly, Tony? I mean, educated guy like you, you could get a job with IBM doing stuff with electronics and computers, yet here you are, risking your neck in a dangerous mission?" "Yeah? So how about you, James - what makes you fly, eh?" Both men quickly reached the same conclusion: women. "Dames - they're a distraction. I want fun. They want commitment. Soon as they do - I lose all interest in them. I can't settle yet - so I figured that getting back to the military would take my mind off them. 'Till I'm good and ready. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."

Tony winced at James. "Me? It's the other way round. I fall in love. Beautiful girl. Immediately I want to marry her. Start a big family. She runs a mile! I try to forget. Meet another one. Same thing happens. And again, and - like, James - what's wrong with me? Hell, I need to forget. Too much pain, repeated sadness. Everything reminds me of the girl. But at 40,000 feet over enemy territory, eyes focused on the electronic read-outs, I forget all about 'em. So do me a favor, pal, don't remind me!"

"Hey bud, you seem to be meetin' all those dames I wanna be meeting!" laughed James. He was just about to offer swapping places with Tony, when the captain called Action Stations. Down beneath and to the left of their flight path, a pair of MiG-15 fighter jets had been scrambled to intercept them from a hitherto uncharted airbase. It would be a mere five minutes before the Reds reached their altitude. The pilot pulled the RB-36 higher, as high as it could possibly fly in the thin air of the stratosphere, turning it round back towards the Pole. Tony had a fix on the interceptors and the radar that guided them. James kept an eye on the instrument panels for the engines as all ten were now delivering full power - just the time for something to go wrong.

Neither man could give a thought to women.

This time last year:
Demise of my old Nokia N95

This time two years ago:
Late June lightning

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Cold Weather Guys - a short story

James Martin lay in his bunk, flicking through the pages of Esquire and taking an easy drag on a Lucky Strike. It was two in the morning and getting light outside. Outside he could hear the distant drone of aero engines warming up across the base. It would soon be time for his first operational mission of the Cold War - flying across the Arctic to Russia, into Soviet airspace, to photograph airbases from which the Red Air Force could launch attacks against the USA. He scratched his chest and made his way to the shower room for a wash. A mission that officially was not taking place. He felt apprehensive yet marvellously excited.

It was the summer of 1951. The Korean War was not going well, the Soviet Union had long since ceased to be America's ally. The previous fall, James had heard some general on the radio talking about the danger that the free world was in, what with Communist Chinese troops pushing the United Nations forces down the Korean peninsula. He knew what he had to do - rush down to the recruitment office and sign on again, nearly six years after being demobilised at the end of WWII.

But then, saving the free world was only part of it. Hell, it was a tiny part of it. James had failed to find himself after the Pacific war. God knows he'd tried to keep himself out of it long enough - a farm deferment on account of his dad dying and him having to keep the family farm going, he was a damned good mechanic and could keep all that machinery going - but they got him in the end. He got his call-up papers in May '44, bid farewell to his mother and girlfriend and - on the day after D-Day, had his hair cut and became a Marine.

Throughout basic training he'd always be making one thing clear about himself - James Martin was more valuable to the USA as a mechanic than as a warrior. After he made some miraculous repairs to his unit's trucks and and the base commander's motorbike, he found himself transferred to the Marine Air Wing. He spent the rest of the war fixing broken piston engines on fighter planes based on Tarawa and other Pacific island bases. Although he was not one to get into harm's way unnecessarily, James had always fancied flying - something that had bugged him since childhood living close to Plane-O-Field, near Bowling Green, Kentucky. His mechanical skills and aptitude to learn technical stuff quick got him promoted as a flight mechanic, getting him airborne on long-range patrol and reconnaissance types just before the war ended.

He got home in the fall of 1945 to find his mother had just died, the family farm sold to pay off debts. Just a little money was left for him, his parents' only child. So he spent it on a big motorcycle and joined a biker gang, terrorizing respectable citizens from the Midwest up to Pacific and across to the East Coast. His attempts at settling down never amounted to much. He'd got a routine job in New York City just before Christmas 1946, mechanic for a delivery van company. Had a steady girl - Evelyn - but hell, she kept wanting from him, always wanting; he didn't feel right settling; so in the summer of 1948 he roared off into the night and rode all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, to try something new - new city, new job, new girl - but it still didn't feel right for him.

So he tried to pin down why he was dissatisfied; he craved freedom, excitement - action - the War had given him just a touch of this but without any heroism he could brag about. He'd loved flying, even as a flight mechanic, it felt good to be up there above the clouds. He signing up with the Minnesota Air National Guard as a 'weekend warrior'; a chance to learn to be a pilot - but they wouldn't let him, just fix engines. Then the Korean War kicked off. He rushed to the recruitment station and signed up. USAF this time. But not Korea though. To the far north he was assigned. After training, he ended up in a strategic reconnaissance squadron. And now he was going to fly over the North Pole to spy on the Reds.

Kitted up, Corporal James Martin crossed the tarmac to the waiting aircraft, a huge ten-engined RB-36D Peacemaker. The plane was capable of staying aloft for two whole days; its cameras could photograph a golf ball from 40,000 ft. James's job was to ensure it stayed airborne for the duration of the covert mission. He boarded the giant craft, proud to be serving his country again.

[Stay tuned for Part II - click here!]

This time last year:
Bike ride along the banks of the Vistula

This time two years ago:
Three hill walks around Dobra

This time three years ago:
90th Anniversary of the Polish Navy

This time four years ago:
Memory and comfort

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Birds of omen

One for sorrow. The magpie, traditionally considered in Britain (and indeed north-west Europe) a bird of omen. In England, I've met otherwise rational and intelligent people who will make the sign of the cross on seeing a solitary magpie or utter phrases to ward off any evil that might result from such a sighting. No other bird is so deeply associated with portent as the magpie. Above: This young specimen sits on the tree outside my bedroom window.

Two for joy, perched on the same tree. Female in foreground, male behind her. Sighting a pair of magpies is supposed to bring good luck. Indeed, the variety of English folk rhymes that attribute other happenings with sightings of multiples of magpies (see here). But the 'one for sorrow, two for joy' seems to be a constant.

One could try to give an explanation for why people devised the notion that a pair of magpies brings good luck while a lone one brings bad luck. "Please, accept the mystery".

This time last year:
Yes it does matter who you vote for

This time two years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time three years ago:
Warmth of the Sun - the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time four years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

If A Serious Man was for me last year's Great Film, then The Tree of Life is this year's. Parallels between the two run deep. Both are essentially autobiographical at the core; both movies rest on the foundations of the film makers' childhood memories (the Coen Brothers from Minnesota, Malick from Texas). The Book of Job is central to both. Through the prism of childhood and lost innocence, the very essence of existence is examined - and what it is to be human, what it is to suffer and to cope with suffering and loss. Both films run heavy on philosophy. Malick studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, Ethan Coen at Princeton (and both men wrote theses on the works of Wittgenstein).

The Tree of Life was clearly a film I had to see. Malick's Badlands (1973) is in my pantheon of all-time favourite movies ever since student days; the parallels between Malick's first and latest films are obvious - from the long red hair and unusual beauty of Jessica Chastain (mother) or Sissy Spacek (Holly), to the images of Texan suburbia; the narrator's philosophical voice-over; images of a house on fire; shooting at fish in water; long grass; contre-jour lighting; languorous, lyrical photography. Yet is difficult to compare a film you've seen scores of times and can quote passages from, and one you've only just seen.

Central to The Tree of Life is the Big Bang/evolution sequence, a visual answer to the question uttered at the very beginning of the film from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"

And so we Malick shows us the creation. From the Big Bang, we see galaxies being formed, planets, volcanoes, life - sentient life - emerging from the seas - dinosaurs... Here we have a 20 minute sequence that touches on yet another of my all-time favourite movies - Koyaanisqatsi. All that's missing is Philip Glass's booming organ soundtrack. Quite beautiful - though what that dinosaur sequence was all about was indeed puzzling.

Against this Malick pitches the tribulations of the O'Brien family, three boys, authoritarian father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain). We first see the family as they learn of the death of the middle son at the age of 19, then go back to the birth of the three boys and their childhood, focusing on the eldest, Jack, when he was around 11; his end of innocence. The film flashes forward to the middle-aged Jack asking existentialist questions about life, his relationship with his father, brothers and mother.

I generally like slow-moving films, especially ones rich in philosophy and ones beautifully photographed - and set in 1950s USA. Yet the pace of the main body of the film - Jack's childhood - was too slow (even for me). Too many sequences, stretched out too long (there are rumours that Malick's planning a six-hour long director's cut).

I found myself yearning for light relief; some comedic touches, irony, allusion, something to interpret - and a smattering of popular music.

The Tree of Life is heavy on the classics - (two Polish composers feature in the soundtrack - Górecki and Preisner). The Coens regularly dip into a broader repertoire (as indeed did Malick in Badlands - Nat 'King' Cole, Mickey & Sylvia, Carl Orff, Erik Satie).

The Tree of Life, for its luminous, numinous beauty, is too po-faced; the vision's set out - so what's to interpret? It's not a flawed movie - it's perfect in its own way; it's one man's vision, one man's world view, one man's theology.

Malick's vision is as Christian as the Coens' is Jewish. Essentially, the former is simpler, less questioning; truth revealed. Malick here is the Vicar, the Intermediary between God and Man, passing on received truths. The Coens are the Rabbi, the Teacher. The latter demands interpretation and discussion. The ending of The Tree of Life was disappointing for all the reasons that A Serious Man's ending was so great. "Resurrection of the body and life everlasting amen." There's your answer. Rather than a whole lot of questions running through your mind as Jefferson Airplane reprise Somebody To Love as the screen cuts to black. Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you. The Tree of Life's opening quote is a question, one which is resolved simply - submit to God's grace and eternity awaits.

If you've not seen The Tree of Life - see it - if you have seen it - see it again. I know I will - and soon. But will I see it dozens of times over the years? Maybe.

Israeli 707 visits Warsaw again

The sound of four turbojets alerted me to the fact that something unusual was landing - an Israeli Air Force Boeing 707. Repainted in darker grey, and shot against the morning sun, the pic's not too detailed, but you can see that the cabin lights have been left on for landing (click to enlarge).

I've photographed IAF Boeing 707s before; this one is without the in-flight refuelling boom that was present on previous visitors of this type. For spotters - this is a Boeing 707-366C of 120 'Desert Giants' Sqn based at Nevatim Airbase, serial number 295, built in 1974. That's 37 years in the air!

This time last year:
Selection of interesting aircraft over my garden

This time two years ago:
On foot to Limanowa

This time three years ago:
Nice Nysa

This time four years ago:
A ride in the country

For previous visits of other IAF Boeing 707s to Okęcie click here.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

What's the English for tężnia?

This (below), dear readers, is a tężnia (pron. 'TENZH-nyuh'. Something that's well known to Poles, entirely unknown to Brits. This one is in Konstancin, a posh(-ish) exurb of Warsaw, which were it situated in England would be known as a spa*. The town of Konstancin was set up in 1897; before WWII, there was a sanatorium here as well as many villas belonging to the well-off.

Central to Konstancin is the spa park; central to the spa park is the tężnia, and central to the tężnia is a device (in Polish grzybek - lit. 'little mushroom'), left, that vaporises mineral water coming up under pressure from deep underground, creating a salty mist. The tężnia itself is a wooden construction that reminds me of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre stuffed with twigs. Mineral water, rich in bromide and iodine, trickles down the twigs and evaporates in the sun, leaving salt deposits on the twigs. Now, abiding in this environment is supposed to be healthy.

The interesting thing is that Polish doctors actually prescribe fortnightly stays at sanatoria such as Konstancin - paid for by the national health fund.

The park and the tężnia is open to one and all, and people of all ages come to enjoy the tężnia. You are only supposed to be in the vicinity of the grzybek for 15 minutes at a time, and within the tężnia itself for an hour. Entry is 9 zlotys (two quid), concessions for the young, old and infirm, open from April to October.

View from the outside of the tężnia, looking in. Note the lightning conductor running along the top. If you think this tężnia looks cool, you should visit Ciechocinek, 20km south south-east of Toruń; the sanatorium there has three tężnie (plural), in total 1.7km long and 16m high - these are the world's largest.

OK, so what is tężnia in English? Well, in German, it's gradierwerke (the Germans invented them in the 17th C.). There are several in Germany. In English, then? According to Wikipedia, it's graduation tower. But I don't think that makes any of my UK, US, Canadian or Australian readers any the wiser!

*Think of Royal Bath Spa or Harrogate Spa transplanted to Croydon to get an idea of Konstancin's place in Warsaw's consciousness. And to my Polish readers: the word 'spa' should not be capitalised (SPA) - the letters are not initials!

This time last year:
Literature and biology

This time two years ago:
Kraków air museum

This time three years ago:
Crumbling neo-classicism in Grabów

This time four years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Downhill all the way to December

Yesterday evening, the sun reached its northernmost point in the sky, the summer solstice. This morning we had the year's earliest sunrise, which I woke up early this morning to photograph. And I was in luck - a totally overcast sky would have been no good, while a cloudless sky would have yielded a dull photo. So here it is - untweaked in Photoshop - the image as captured directly on my Nikon D40's chip - the earliest sunrise of the year, 2011.

Click on the image to see it full size on your monitor; look into the sun and meditate upon the meaning of light and life...

From now on, until 22 December, the day's length will get shorter and shorter. Today, we have in Warsaw 16 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. By 22 December, it will be 7 hours and 38 minutes. But no need to fall into Seasonal Affective Disorder just yet - over the next month, we'll lose less than 50 minutes of daylight - the shorter days only start getting noticeable around the end of August (although there's an old Polish saying 'od Św. Anki, zimne noce i chłodne poranki' - from St. Anne's Day - 26 July - the nights get cold and mornings cool.)

Astronomically (rather than meteorologically) speaking, summer has only now begun, though the year - and the sun - is now in the descendent. For me summer starts when I can set off for work in the morning wearing only one layer. In six months time we'll be wrapped up in multiple layers of thick clothing, shivering at bus stops and eking out those few hours of daylight at the weekends having travelled to and from work in darkness. But for now let us be merry. There's an old English saying 'make hay while the sun shines'.

It was 70 years ago this morning when Hitler's Germany mounted an all-out attack on the Soviet Union - Operation Barbarossa - the largest military operation in human history, an event crucial in understanding the history of this region. Which prompts me to link a link that my cousin Teresa sent me from Canada - a review of Timothy Snyder's crucial book, Bloodlands. It's just come out in Poland, and is billboard-advertised, so big sales are expected here. The book has had outstanding critical reviews since publication, and will enter the canon of central and eastern European studies.

This time last year:
What do I want for Poland

This time two years ago:
Summer holiday starts drizzly

This time three years ago:
Israeli Boeing 707 visits Okęcie

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

And the Lord spaketh unto the tribe of Hipsters...

Wheresoever Couriers shall deliver Artwork, and wheresoever skinny lattes shall be sipped, there shalt Thou find Fixies.

This week's Wprost contains an article about Polish hipsters, Dyskretne promieniowanie lansem (soooooo 2008, and behind a sad little paywall) covering all aspects of hipster life, fashion, music, etc. Trendiest places? PKP Powiśle and Plan B. Trendiest form of transport? Bicycle. Not just any bicycle - as well as the amsterdamka (Dutch gas-pipe roadsters, with lady's frame)... najmodniejsze w tym sezonie ostre koło - rower bez przerzutek i hamulców (OK, może być ewentualnie przedni hamulec) - "most fashionable this season - a fixed-wheel bike ['fixie'] - a bike without gears or brakes (OK, maybe front brakes)"

This season??? My dear Aleksandra Krzyżaniak-Gumowska! How out-of-touch you are! The fixie has been a hipster accoutrement since the late '90s, bicycle couriers being at the forefront of popularising this type.

Above: Trying too hard. White tyres? Matching saddle and grips? Minimalist front brake cable? Le Vélo de Merci? Pretentious? Moi?

Ah! This is it - purity. A real track frame (rear-facing drop-outs), rear aero-rim with matching chainwheel, Criterion geometry, Brooks leather saddle - I doubt if this is a hipster's bike. The owner knows what's going on.

Hmmm. Again, trying too hard. No front brake. No helmet. On your head be it (literally). The white-black-red scheme - isn't it just a bit too - factory?

Australian Honda Jazz advert, featuring hipsters and fixies
Hipster Hitler never invaded Switzerland
My own fixie here, here and here

This time last year:
Exit polls can get it wrong

This time two years ago:
In search of good Polish beer

This time three years ago:
In the Solstice garden

Monday, 20 June 2011

Along the Vistula trail

Heavy rain was predicted, but my multi-location day meant no alternative to the bicycle; from home to Platan Park, from their to the office, on again to Kijowska, on to a meeting at Pl. Piłsudskiego, back to the office - and then home.

A total of 46.5km cycled today. The weather was cool and wet; once I got wet, once I got soaked. Average daytime just 14C, and more rain today than in the past fortnight. If I can cope with weather this bad, it augurs well for the rest of the summer.

I turned up for the meeting at Pl. Piłsudskiego mercifully between downpours; the person I was meeting observed that, by cycling there I should be deemed "environmentally compliant" - a nice corporate spin!

Still, there were some rewards. Between Kijowska and Pl. Piłsudskiego, I took the opportunity of the fact that ul. Sokola is completely closed to try out the stretch of the newly-built cycle trail running alongside the Vistula between Most Poniatowskiego and Most Świętokrzyski. Pic above left taken on Nokia 6700 Classic; pics right and below taken on Nikon D40. Note difference in sharpness and colour cast.

Opened a month ago, it's a well-thought out and executed trail; it shouts out for further exploration northwards.

This time last year:
After the first round of the presidential election

This time two years ago:
New house appears in Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Moni's first time on stage

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Another Polish airman dies

I was saddened to hear of the death of Marek Szufa (below) in an air crash yesterday. He died after his aircraft hit the Vistula river in Płock, at the air show there. I am also mindful of the death two weeks ago of Polish architect Stefan Kuryłowicz, who failed to heed air traffic control advice that the weather at his destination airport was dreadful. He pressed on, in the best tradition of 'debeściaki', Polak potrafi, etc., and killed himself along with three other people. Marek Szufa, however, died doing something he loved, mindful of the risk, and endangering the life of no one else.

Below: Marek Szufa's Skybolt in action over Konstancin; both photos 5 September 2008.

Marek Szufa was a LOT Boeing 767 pilot with 20,000 hours flying experience; he was also an acrobatic glider champion.

Stand Easy - Part II

Flo died in February 1965. Lung cancer - unusual that; Nobby smoked far more than she did. Though their house might have been spotless - no overflowing ashtrays, no specks of ash on the carpets, it did smell like a smoker's house. After Flo's death, Nobby might have been emotionally devastated, but he didn't show it. He carried on as usual, doubling his efforts at work and at home, teaching himself ironing and other domestic chores that until her death had been Flo's exclusive preserve. Nobby's routine remained unchanged. Those that knew him could not detect any tell-tale signs of grief-related depression. His clothes were as ever tidy, shoes gleaming, hair Brylcreemed back, moustache trim.

He might have wondered what life was all about, what was the purpose of it all, but at the British Legion or at the Stockwell Arms he never mentioned any worries or questions he might have - all was as it should be. He took to regular church-going at the garrison chaplaincy; at work, he never took a day's sick leave.

And so Nobby's life continued, interrupted but unimpeded. After Flo's death, his brother would contact him more often. Nobby's three nephews were all growing up, like any teenagers, enjoying their pop music and increasingly the new freedoms that the Swinging Sixties had to offer.

One Saturday in the summer of 1969, Nobby had an unexpected visit from his eldest nephew, Stephen, who was studying at the University of Essex. Opening the door, his eyes befell a young man with unkempt shoulder-length hair, frayed and somewhat dirty denim trousers, and a T-shirt with a questionable cartoon on it and a Victorian military jacket that looked like it had been once worn by a dashing hussar. Nobby ushered him in. "Come on in Stephen - " "Steve," the young man corrected him. "Glass of beer, son?" Nobby asked politely. Steve sat down in the parlour, which had been kept untouched since his aunt's death, and still dust-free. Nobby came back from the kitchen with two glasses of Courage Pale Ale.

"How are you, son?"
"Fine, uncle, I'm fine - nearly finished my second year at Uni... but how are you? How are you coping without Aunt Flo?"
"Just keep going - don't think too much about it - "
"That's... that's..." Steve's voice petered out. He didn't know how to address his deeper feelings to his uncle. How to say it. He knew that Uncle Nobby been through a lot during the war, unlike his dad who was too young to see action, he knew Uncle Nobby was a quiet man.

Nobby lit up a cigarette and drew a succession of long puffs between steady, parsimonious sips at his beer.

"Uncle - I'd be, well - could you - could you, er... lend me twenty quid please? Until my grant cheque clears - I'll pay you back in two weeks' time - it's just that I need it, well, I'm going to a music festival on the Isle of Wight, and dad, well..."

The beer had loosed Nobby's inhibitions a bit. "I don't wish to seem rude, or unkind - and it's not my place to say this - 'cos I'm not your dad - but just look at yourself! Long hair - when's it last seen a comb? And your trousers! Look at you! You're a mess, boy!" He tried to keep his voice calm, but felt the tone of the Regimental Sergeant Major welling up in him. Sorrow was giving way to anger, but Nobby felt he had to show restraint. Everything he saw in his nephew angered him - the clothes, the pop music, the free-and-easy lifestyle, the sociology - "these young people today - they don't contribute," he thought. But anger, he knew, was not the answer.

"Stephen," he asked, "what d'you think I think? About you, your sort, your way of life, your attitudes, your music? What d'you think I think?, eh?"

Steve sat back, a question like this so much more profound than any senior lecturer could have dropped him. "Well, Uncle..." he pondered a while, "it's hardly my fault that your youth was, like, er, tainted by war - I know when you were my age you were fighting for King and Country - who knows, I might have back then..."

"But you'd not fight for Queen and Country today, would you, boy?"

"No - I don't think I would. It'd be better to talk than to fight, I think, Uncle," said Steve nodding his head firmly.

"Tell you what, young man," said Nobby, reaching for his wallet, "Here - " he pulled out four five pound notes. "Here's twenty quid. It's yours. One condition. You go down the High Street and get your bloody hair cut off. Short back and sides. I'll even give you one-and-six for the barber's." With great sadness, the young man stood up and bidding his uncle a sincere farewell, he left Nobby's house.

Steve remembered this incident several years later as he went for a haircut before his job interview with Coopers & Lybrand.

This time last year:
The problem of household waste

This time two years ago:
End of the school year for Moni and Eddie

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki midsummer scenes

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Stand easy! - a short story

Reginald Clark was conceived in 1919, not long after his father returned from the trenches. By September 1939, a boy of 19, he had been called up, drilled, trained, armed and nicknamed Nobby; nine months later he had been sent off to Cyrenaica to fight the Italians. At first the war in North Africa went his way. Nobby's regiment, the King's Royal Rifle Corps, saw success in action after action - he could hardly believe the vast columns of Italian soldiers that were surrendering to them. One of 'Wavell's thirty-thousand', Nobby's first taste of war - despite the physical discomfort of army life in the North Africa desert - was a glorious one. Tobruk fell, then Benghazi - the British fighting alongside Indian and Australian troops and sweeping the foe before them.

Nobby's mates were in superb spirits. They'd sustained miraculously low casualty rates, swept five hundred miles across the desert, capturing goodly stocks of Italian wine along the way. Morale was high, but disciple was maintained. The unit drilled in the heat of the desert spring: "By the right... quick MARCH! HALT! About - TURN!" Soldiers that had come out of battle victorious instinctively knew the value of square-bashing - it was why the British Empire has trounced those dolce vita-loving Italians. Discipline! "Present... ARMS!" "Right... TURN!"

But even the King's Rifles' discipline and close-order drill could not protect them against the superior equipment and strength of will of Rommel's Afrika Korps. The Germans had been sent to prevent an Axis collapse in North Africa after the destruction of the Italian 10th Army. They were a formidable enemy, having fought victoriously in Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France; they were experienced and they were ruthless and hard. Unlike the Italians. On the day of his 21st birthday, Nobby's position was overrun by German troops. He was to spend the next two years as a prisoner-of-war, first held by the Germans in a barbed-wire compound in open desert near Benghazi, then shipped off to a camp in Sicily.

Life in the PoW camp was tedious and depressing; lice everywhere, hunger. At least the Italians were more humane captors than the Jerries or the Japs. The camp was physically small - there was little to do. To keep up morale, Nobby and his fellow prisoners would drill smartly, and keep their louse-ridden uniforms pressed, keep their barracks tidy - so that they could show up the slovenly, half-hearted parade drill of their Italian guards. After a year and half, the camp was liberated by advancing American troops.

Nobby returned to England determined to have another crack at the enemy before it was all over. He was not deemed medically fit enough to re-join his unit until early 1945, by which time the King's Rifles were on the German border. The war was over before he'd had a chance to get stuck into to the enemy once again.

He met Flo shortly after coming back to England. She was a former Land Girl; a country lass from Lincolnshire. They married, but had no children. Whether this was the result of Nobby's captivity or something Flo had caught off an Italian captain from a PoW camp near Peterborough, you and I will never know. The couple settled down in a council house in Colchester; Nobby felt a sense of security and familiarity living near the army barracks although he was now a civilian - working in the Essex County Council's Highways Department.

Nobby's younger brother (also nicknamed Nobby but within the family, Alfie) had three boys born in quick succession in the early post-war years; Stephen, David and Nicholas. Nobby and Flo doted over the youngsters; Alfie and his wife Joyce also lived in Colchester and would often be round. Flo was house-proud and Nobby was proud of that; the house was always immaculately kept. Whether going to work, popping out to the shops or dropping into the Stockwell Arms for the occasional pint, Nobby would wear his regimental blazer and tie, perfectly creased trousers and highly polished shoes.

While the war was a period of intense contrasts and experiences, the post-war decades were to prove somewhat dull for Nobby - and all around him, he saw more and more things that he did not like, that appalled his soldierly eye.

This time three years ago:
God Save The Queen!

This time four years ago:

Thursday, 16 June 2011

On a musical note

To the British Embassy for the Queen's Birthday Party, one of the highlights of the social year in Warsaw. As usual, excellent food and drink - and this year the weather was kind (no downpours, no heatwaves, no clouds of midges). For me, the best part was the music - provided by the Band of the Polish Air Force. The guys were, to use the Polish expression, do tańca i do różańca (lit. 'to the dance and to the rosary'); they played both national anthems, some stirring patriotic tunes (Maszerują strzelcy)... but then they went on to... swing. Below: the band before they started to seriously get on down.

As brass bands go - this was by far and away the swingiest I've ever come across in Poland! A repertoire that covered the Blues Brothers, Count Basie (Splanky - from the great Atomic Mr Basie album) and Glen Miller, played with great verve, superb arrangements, melodious solos - and the 28-piece band was as tight as the proverbial duck's behind.

Sadly, the set was short and soon after 20:00, the flags were lowered outside the Embassy accompanied by a lone kilted piper. But I shall look out for more gigs by the Polish Air Force band - definitely worth catching again. According to the official programme, the band is based in the 1st Silesian Rocket Air Defence Brigade in Bytom.

Got home to discuss this with Moni, and we began discussing our musical tastes - and to what extent mine have influenced my daughter's. Moni went through all the artists on her 4GB Apple iPod - several hundred of them. Were they her discoveries, or music that I had introduced her to?

The result was 38% were artists that she'd come to learn about from me. A flattering reflection on how an 18 year-old rates her father's tastes in music!

I considered this phenomenon. This figure is lower than it would have been a few years ago, but even so. Great music stands the test of time. Today's music is derivative and lacking innovation. Indeed, I'd go so far as say that nothing really new has happened on the popular music scene since the early 1980s. There isn't that same precipitous watershed between, say, Jimi Hendrix, and what was happening even five years earlier (compare 1967 to 1962), or between, say, the first wave of rock'n'roll in the mid '50s and what was happening just five years before that.

So today's young people (at least those more critical ones) will be far more likely to reach into their parents' music libraries than my generation was to dip into theirs. Glen Miller and Count Basie excepted!

This time last year:

This time four years ago:

Monday, 13 June 2011

Thirty-one and sixty-three - Part II

"What is it to love one's country...? Before I tell you what I think upon the subject, Mr _______: let me ask you that question. You tell me - first."

I thought for a while. It was not something I'd ever considered; taking up arms against Russia's oppression did not cause me to engage in the slightest mental activity to justify it. Yet Count ______ could see I was not thinking along his lines. "Is it like loving a woman, loving one's country?"

The fellow was bordering on the impertinent now. Yet I stammered: "Loving one's country is not the same as sharing a tender kiss with a woman..." He smiled and nodded. "You are not a married man, are you, Mr _______?

"No, Sir, I am not" I replied, attempting to keep my temper in check. "The Russians, Sir - I was forced to complete my studies first in St. Petersburg and then in Kiev - as you must know, they closed our universities. I then had to enter the Russian government administration - five years in Turkestan - and all that time I was thinking of home - the estate taken from my father by the Tsar as punishment for his part in the 1831 uprising - and when finally I returned home, I immediately enrolled with the conspirators to help plan the next uprising - Sir; like any man of my age, I dream of marriage, but first - Poland must be free!"

The Count's eyes sparkled with mischief. "So here you are now, Sir - running to Paris - and you will not marry until Poland is free?" I glared at him. He was right. "Would I be wrong to posit that you hate Russia more than you love your native realm?" he asked.

Damn the man. He had my measure. "So then, my 31 year-old friend, you are the same age I was when I rose up - along with your father and our entire generation - against the Russian yoke, in 1831. Then what? What will you be up to when you're my age, eh?" He chuckled. I did some mental arithmetic. "1895. Hah!" I replied. "By then, the world will be a utopia, and I will be a happy grandfather, settled in my ancestral lands in a Poland that's free, and prosperous and stretching from sea to sea!"

"And what - " he asked, "will you have done to help bring about such a blissful state of affairs, Sir?" Again, he had me. "Mr _______. Let me tell you what will become of you in 32 years' time," he said, jabbing a plump forefinger in my direction. "One of two things. You will either be enjoying a comfortable exile, making a living from the book trade or wine trade or whatever - or you will be like me - keeping the flame alive for the next generation - or to pass on to the generation after that - or even after that one - who one day will see a truly free and prosperous Poland."

What is it to love one's country. I pondered the question in silence, oblivious of the other passengers, who were increasingly excited by the prospect or nearing their journey's end.

The carriage drew into the forecourt outside Nancy's railway station. Count _______ made his way to the platform, the woman in black walking alongside him. I did not follow them, neither did I bid the Count farewell. Instead I silently slipped away, and found myself in another horse-drawn carriage headed back towards Prussia - and Poland.

A month later, snows swirling around the forest, our partisan detachment ambushed a Russian army wagon train headed towards Lublin. It was a trap. My men were surrounded by well-armed infantry. After a brief exchange of musket-fire, we could see there was no point of provoking a slaughter, so I gave the order to lay down our arms. I was arrested and sentenced to ten years in exile, and marched off in chains to Tobolsk, where today I write my testament, bearing witness to what had befallen me.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Czachówek Junction

This time three years ago:
One night only - Moni's school band

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Thirty-one and sixty-three - a short story

The horse-drawn carriage clattered over the border into France; I was safe. I'd soon by in Nancy. From there, a railway train would take me on to Paris. A world away from the horrors of war in my tragic, enslaved, Poland. Light autumn rain tapped on the windows of the carriage, wind rushed through the tall poplars that lined the road, sending leaves into flight. Afternoon was beginning to turn to evening.

I recognised the man seated opposite as a fellow Pole; we switched to our native tongue from the French in which we had hitherto been making small talk. I presented my credentials, and he his. It transpired, that he was an émigré - he had been living in France now for over 30 years, since the failure of the 1831 uprising against the Russians.

"Sir - how goes the War with Russia?" he asked me, once he knew where I was from. "Not well. Not well at all, Sir," I answered, my head hung low. I told him how the company of riflemen under my command during a skirmish along the banks of the _____ river near ___ had been decimated by a far larger Russian force supported by artillery and Cossack cavalry. Along with the remnants of my routed unit, I fled deep into the forests. On my return to my ancestral home in _____, I learned from my mother that the Russians were looking for me; and that I should leave Poland. I have family in Paris, and so three weeks ago I left my mother, my young brother and my sisters. "And so, Sir, here I am."

The man, Count Adam ________, was well-dressed, stout, grey-whiskered and bald; his face expressive and mobile, indicative of the moods that passed rapidly through his mind. "So - you too have abandoned your fatherland, Sir!" he said,the slightest tingle of spite in his voice, enough to put me on the defensive. "Yes, Sir, for the time being I have." He could sense resignation in my voice, so I felt that counter-attack was necessary. "And you, Sir," I enquired, "have you been here in France while Poland rises up against the foe?" I looked around at our fellow passengers. Sitting by the Count, a woman in her mid-50s, dressed in black, not unattractive, who I took for a Lotharingian widow. She was taking no interest in our discussion, gazing instead at the passing scenery. Beside her a chatty German merchant talking to a French farmer opposite about livestock prices; between the farmer and me, a priest, thumbing his breviary.

Count Adam took me into his confidence. "I was born in Poland more than sixty years ago - like you, as a young man I took up arms against Russia. Born with the Century, I was. And when the November Uprising of 1831 was crushed, I left Poland, vowing to return to it only when it became free." I pondered the coincidence. "I too, am 31 Sir," I told him. He thought for an instant. "A good age for a officer. No longer a callow youth, prone to run at the first whiff of powder, no longer prone to take daring, though uncalculated risks." He smiled sadly and looked out of the window, before turning back to face me directly.

"And 63, Sir - is that a good age for a soldier?" he asked. "For a general, maybe!" I replied with diplomacy. "Well, Sir, I am no general. But I fight too. I fight, Mr _______. I can no longer fight with musket and sabre; I fight with printing ink and paper - and ideas!" he replied, patting his briefcase. "Pamphlets, Mr _______! I fight for our fatherland with pamphlets!"

I was hoping he'd pull out of his briefcase an example of his pamphlet, but my expectations proved unfounded. Instead, he whispered to me in a harsh tone: "Sir, I am going on to Paris to print patriotic material - to strengthen the nation's resolve. To stop its young noblemen and officers from fleeing the country they should love!"

"What is it to love one's country?" I asked him.

[Click here for the concluding part of Thirty-One and Sixty-Three]

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki to Jeziorki - the big rail loop

This time three years ago:
Automotive miscellany

This time four years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The end of an Era

At 11:51 on Monday morning, I got an SMS - as did millions of other users of Era mobile phones - that the brand is no longer. We shall have to get used to calling it T-Mobile.

This must be one of the most expensive re-branding exercises in corporate Poland. Tuesday's Gazeta Wyborcza was published on T-Mobile pink paper, a full-page ad on every other page in the front half of the main section. Happy people, soap bubbles. Billboards everywhere with the same images.

It will take months to change all the shops, franchised points-of-sale, stationary and software (five days on, and my phone still identifies the network with the old name, for instance).

I'm not a fan of such splurges on re-branding. Much of the ad spend is completely unnecessary - I mean what do we, the users, who pay significant bills each month, have to say about it? Some corporate control-freak on the T-Mobile board determines that it is to be done - and that's it.

I remember when Commercial Union Polska rebranded itself, in a similar global exercise, Aviva. There was a huge billboard, several stories high, on ul. Puławska by Wałbrzyska, with the new logo. As the bus I was on approached it, I heard a middle-aged man in front of me explain it to his fellow-passenger as follows. "Commercial Union has had a hard time during this economic crisis and now some unknown Spanish insurer has bought the whole company". As it was, Commercial Union/Aviva was, at the time, running Poland's second largest pension fund.

I doubt that the growth of Orange, one of T-Mobile's competitors on the Polish mobile telephony market, made much headway as a result of re-branding itself from Idea, itself a re-branding from Centertel, the operator's original name.

Things change. One must get used to that. So many British brands that I associate so intimately with my West London childhood have disappeared for good - AEC buses (the iconic Routemaster, built in Southall, a few miles from our Hanwell home), the Vickers and de Havilland aircraft that flew into Heathrow Airport for BEA and BOAC, the Morris, Austin, Triumph, Hillman, Singer, Humber and Standard cars that would be seen on British roads. Those brands have gone - merged, swallowed up or plain gone bankrupt - yet buses, aircraft and cars are seen in greater numbers than ever.

Remember it this way...

When I got my Era number - oooh, 12 years ago now, it was a company phone, all employees where I then worked had Era. So bad was reception, so patchy the coverage, so unreliable the handsets and so huge the bills, we'd call the network 'CholEra'. Since then, the operator has (because of the tremendous competition in this market*) brought about incredible improvements in service. So I can't say I have any major gripes today.Will the change to T-Mobile affect levels of customer satisfaction positively or adversely? We shall see. I can't say as a user (and payer of my children's phone bills too) that I'm too happy with the size and cost of the re-branding.

* Wherever there's tremendous competition in Poland, things generally work. Wherever there isn't - viz. the public sector - they generally don't.

This time last year:
Lost and lamented link

This time two years ago:
Over Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
The day the bus caught fire

This time four years ago:
Beautiful light on a stormy evening

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Getting around Warsaw - a practical guide

If you're thinking of visiting Warsaw this summer, please be aware that the Polish capital is one big building site ahead of next year's Euro2012 football championship. Much will not be finished on time - although many projects are running to time.

Best way to get around is by public transport. By London standards, it's incredibly cheap. A central zone one-day travel card currently* costs 9 zlotys - ₤2. Which you can use before 9:30am if you so wish. An both-zone one-day travel card costs 14 zlotys - ₤3.10. To put this into perspective, a pre-9:30 one day travel card for zones 1-4 (roughly the same radius of travel as Warsaw's central zone) costs ₤10, while zones 1-6 (a similar radius of travel as Warsaw's central and outer zones) costs ₤15. So Warsaw's five times cheaper (while wages are but three times lower). If you buy a quarterly ticket, Warsaw's seven times cheaper.

Here's my quick guide to Warsaw public transport in plain English.

Warsaw's public transport authority is ZTM, which operates buses, trams, the Metro and some local rail services (SKM). ZTM travelcards (from one- to 90-day validity) are also good on Koleje Mazowieckie (Mazowsze Province trains) and WKD (the suburban light rail line heading out to Grodzisk Mazowiecki and Milanówek rather than the alcopop).

There are but two zones; the first zone extends to about a ten-mile (16km) radius from the city centre, the second about 15 miles (25km) from the centre.

The key thing to remember, when visiting Warsaw, is that whatever ticket you choose - from 20 minutes to 90 days - you need to validate it on your first journey using it. As soon as you get on your first bus or tram or SKM train, head for the bright yellow ticket validator. If you have a card ticket (20-minute, one-day, three-day, seven-day or single journey), put it into the slot face-up. The machine will make a whirring sound, then emit a double-beep, and a green light will show and your ticket will re-emerge. When you remove it, you'll see an expiry time and date will have been printed on the reverse.

A travel card for a longer period (30 days, 90 days) has to be acquired from the ZTM office. This can be done on-line (you need to submit a digitised photo of yourself). You can also customise the design of the card as you want it (here, for example, is mine). Sadly, the English version of the web page is so badly translated, I shudder to think how someone not knowing Polish could possibly work out how use it.

Bus stops - ones with a green outline around the number of the bus are request stops - you need to flag down buses to stop them. If your destination stop is 'na żądanie' (request), you'll need to press the red button in good time (green button on the old Ikarus buses). Newer buses will require you to press a blue (sometimes red) button by the door to open it once the bus has come to a halt at a bus stop.

Information given at bus stops and on buses is precise and generally (outside of rush-hour korki or jams) buses run to time. Trams cut through traffic jams, although woe betide tram passengers should one tram break down on a busy line. Tram jams of 10-15 stationary trams are a dramatic sight to behold.

It's been two years since paid parking came to Powiśle and I gave up driving to work on a daily basis. I'm much wealthier for it. A tankful of petrol, which I would use up in a fortnight's commuting, costs as much as a quarterly ZTM travelcard (196 zlotys). The travelcard is so cheap it's no problem when I have a day off or else I use my bike.

Coming back to practical issues to do with getting around Warsaw - many city centre roads are closed. Świętokrzyska and Prosta (building of second line of Metro), Nowowiejska (upgrading tram tracks), Targowa (ditto), Sokola - to do with building the National Stadium.

Above: Most Poniatowskiego, behind it, across the river to the left, the new National Stadium, under construction. Ul. Targowa is being dug up, so trams routes north of Rondo Waszyngtona are being diverted Below: Ul. Nowowiejska (lit. 'Newvillagey Street) also bereft of trams.

And, as I've mentioned, Dworzec Centralny aka W-wa Centralna, the Central Station, is currently being modernised - total chaos - (allow an extra 10-15 minutes to find your way to the platform as passageways and staircases are closed - below).

Dworzec Wschodni aka W-wa Wschodnia, the Eastern Station, is also being refurbished. Ironically, Dworzec Zachodni aka W-wa Zachodnia, the Western Station, seems to be left as it is - a museum letting you the public experience at first hand how the communist system used to humiliate citizens by not offering them information or service.

UPDATE 16 June - ul. Nowowiejska is now re-opened to tram and vehicle traffic.

* Fare rises are due at the end of August.

This time last year:
Lessons for local policy-makers

This time three years ago:
Recycling for fun and profit

This time four years ago:
Giant dandelion clocks

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Cara al Sol - Part II

The rage within Ramón would not abate as he thought about Capitán Jesús Méndez; that human cockroach, that evil piece of excrement. He, Ramón must slay him. Yet was that not a mortal sin? Would his soul not be condemned to everlasting damnation? It did not take Ramón long to overcome that objection. Captain Méndez was not a human being. He was a beast in human form - a rat walking upright on two legs, devoid of any human feeling, lacking a conscience, lacking the slightest breath of divine spirit... it would be best to destroy that beast. A single bullet to despatch this incarnation of evil. A swift act, like stamping on an earwig; a bold act, like the estocada in the bullring, a quick, clean death, devoid of gloating or triumph or revenge...

The wine swirled in Ramón's head. He was aware that he was not thinking clearly. The consequences would be clear - murdering an officer of the Guardia Civil - sentence - death by garotte. Extenuating circumstances - he was only defending the honour of his daughters - might mean a life of penal labour. And besides, no one could call him a Republican sympathiser, despite his brother living in exile.

Ramón wrestled with his conscience. "Is it, or is it not, God's will that I should assassinate Captain Méndez?" he asked himself as he dipped his face into a enamelled bowl full of cool water. He fancied that the voice of the Holy Ghost had visited upon him, bearing the simple message "No." And then he boiled up with rage and self-hatred again, slamming both fists on the table. "I - I am the runt of my mother's litter, impotent in the face of evil and injustice!" The torment continued within. "Shall I fight this intolerable weakness of mine? Or should I think of my family, without me, a husband and father behind bars..."

He stood up, still wracked with indecision. Another glass of wine. Too many. He'd go for a walk in the night air, to clear his head. The Guardia Civil patrol would be on the streets. Maybe Captain Méndez. But there'd be two of them. Even if he slayed Méndez, the other one would identify him... He could not kill another. He was beyond caring, beyond thinking it through. No plan - just go for a walk on the empty streets, gun in the front pocket of his glazier's overalls. See what would happen. Probably - he thought - nothing. A short walk, he told himself, and to bed.

In the empty cobbled street, the anger flared up within him again. He pictured himself in court, defending himself on a charge of premeditated murder, and imagined what he'd be telling the judge. He'd denounce Méndez as inhuman, fitting in with society's rules simply so that he could be top dog, to bully, to strut about, to belittle - a man not at one with the life of Jesus - his namesake; a man neither meek nor caring about his fellow man - indeed, not a man at all. Above all, he, Ramón, was a father defending his daughters from the bestial attentions of this monster.

Crazy. Conflicting thoughts clashed in his head. Even as he sobered up in the cool autumn air, Ramón was still unable to think clearly, to decide, to plan. "Méndez has won the ultimate victory - he has rendered me impotent! Without even thinking about me! Without even willing it!" Ranting to himself, he headed up the Calle General Franco towards the bullring, angrily kicking an empty bottle in his way. A back door was open; he made his way up to the top tier, where 20 years earlier he'd witnessed the slaughter of the Republican prisoners. The moonless night contrasted with that sunny afternoon.

He pulled out the gun and pointed it at the spot where Captain Méndez had orchestrated the massacre. "Life will go on," he reasoned. "Good and evil will continue to co-exist, whatever." He was not happy. There was no outcome. So often, such was life. No great dramatic gesture, no sacrifice, no clarity - just an impure compromise. He hid the gun, went home, and suffered.

This time last year:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time two years ago:
European elections

This time three years ago:
To the Vistula, by bike

This time four years ago:
Poppy profusion

Monday, 6 June 2011

Cara al sol - a short story

Ramón picked the revolver off the kitchen table and felt its weight in has hand. He broke it open, examining it in the candlelight. The six bullets were still there, as they were on the day he found it, discarded on the battlefield, abandoned by some Republican officer nearly 20 years ago. He'd kept that gun, kept it hidden, all those years - not even his mother nor his wife knew about it. It was a big revolver. A British-made Webley, firing big bullets. This gun was the final argument. With it in his hand, he had power of life or death.

Over another glass of red table wine, he contemplated what he'd do with it, as he'd contemplated so many times before. Yet now, there was even more reason to do so. His family were fast asleep in the back room - his wife and his two daughters. His mind wandered, oh, it wandered. So often if would wander, bidden or unbidden, to that summer afternoon in 1939, a few months after then end of the Civil War, to the town's dusty bullring. Ramón, then a young glazier's apprentice, had been working that day under a glaring sun up in the top tier of the bullring, replacing some stained glass windows that had been missing since the war passed briefly through the town two years earlier.

There was a clamour outside; the puertas de los toriles were open and a large group of local Republican sympathisers were herded in by the Guardia Civil at rifle point. Behind them trooped in a shabby brass band. A lorry drove in. Out jumped Capitán Jesús María Méndez y Castrejon, who Ramón had long known - the classmate of his oldest brother, Raúl. The Guardia Civil captain was renowned in the district as a ruthless man of extreme cruelty, a man who Ramón's brother had hated since childhood. Captain Méndez stood amid the prisoners, haughty in his polished tricorn hat, a look of disdain on his face. He drew a pistol from his holster, and holding it high, started shouting angry commands at his men. The musicians, who had positioned themselves up in the grandstands, took up their instruments, and struck up a discordant version of the Falangist anthem, Cara al sol.

As they did so, Captain Méndez aimed his pistol at a prisoner's head. And he pulled the trigger - a loud retort, the man toppled over into the sand. His gunshot was the signal to his men to open fire into the prisoners, seemingly at random; staccato rifle fire burst out all around, a dirty, untidy slaughter, a comedic massacre... Looking down, Ramón crossed himself instinctively. He watched men fall - men he knew - from school, from Saturday afternoons at the bullring, from the bar; he watched the blood pouring out onto the arena, like bulls' blood, yet not. Their piteous calls for mercy were met with jagged, halting laughter, foul curses and more gun fire. Rifles would jam, then the bullets began running out; many wounded men writhed around in the sand. Their piteous cries mingled with the ragged march of the brass band... "Formaré junto a mis compañeros/ que hacen guardia sobre los luceros..."

Ramón looked around the arena for his middle brother, Rafael. He hoped that the one child who had defied their God-fearing mother and had committed to the Republican cause, had escaped the round-up. Down in the ring, Méndez gesticulated wildly, shouting angrily at his men to finish the job ; bayonets were fixed and half-heartedly plunged into fallen bodies. This obscene spectacle of inhuman butchery went on for maybe half an hour.

Ramón prayed for their souls. He prayed that God would receive them, even those who had desecrated the Cross and had supported anti-clericalism during the Republican period.

And so, over those bleak post-war years, that image of Captain Méndez, strutting around the blood-soaked bullring in his black tricorn hat, crouching down to put a bullet into a wounded men pleading for his life - would stay with him in his waking nightmares for the next two decades. They were local men, family men - how could he have done such a thing! That very same Captain Méndez, now a portly middle-aged man, would patrol their small Extremaduran town, strutting with that same arrogance; his haughty gaze demanding subservience from all but the mayor, the parish priest and the wealthiest of landowners.

Ramón had hated Captain Méndez for as long as he could remember. Rafael had managed to escaped to exile in France, but the fact that Ramón had a godless Republican brother abroad, remitting French francs to his family back home, marked him down for particular harassment from the authorities. His small glazing business would be subject to all sorts of controls and tax inspections.

But Ramón had a new reason for reaching for that revolver that autumn night in 1957, and imagining what it would do to the innards or brain of Captain Méndez; the vile man had taken a shine to his two teenage daughters. The filthy man would sit close to Ramón's family during Holy Mass, leering at the girls. He'd observe them walking up and down the main street, watching them... watching them... Ramón knocked back another glass of wine, chased back with a handful of olives, and, raising his revolver, considered his options.

This time last year:
Of pumps and film crews

This time two years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time three years ago:
Unbridled development

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Beauty at the end of the day

Warsaw's weather has settled into entirely agreeable (if maybe a tad too hot) summer pattern; skies with thin clouds that presage gorgeous sunsets. And where better to shoot me some mood-enhancing photos but from the end of the road, across the tracks - flat fields, trees.

Above: Still half an hour to go, but the sun has descended behind a meagre bank of cloud casting a golden light on the surrounding fields. This - as I've mentioned many times before - is the Magic Hour, beloved of film makers; that golden time of day. The effect it has on the human spirit is entirely mellow; a sublime frame of mind ensues.

As the earth spins from west to east, so the sun appears to settle towards the western horizon. Well, at this time of year, the north-western horizon. In the distance, roof tops of Dawidy.

Through the elderflower trees, the setting sun sets the sky afire; the end of the day wreathed in beauty and the weather set fair for tomorrow. The night now is less than eight hours long; the sun will rise at 4:30.

On weekend days like this, when nothing else is going on, it is a waste not to take time out to witness the setting of the sun and to participate in that majestic sense of spiritual wellness that doing so engenders.

I'd be interested to know what neurobiology ascribes this particular feeling of euphoria brought on about by nature's light show at the end of the day, an explanation for the sublime nature of a summer dusk.

This time last year:
Jeziorki's flood of floods slowly subsides

This time two years ago:
Black-and-white homage to Ansel Adams

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Wetlands in late spring

After the floods, the snow, the hard frost - the sun shines hard and bright upon the reed beds at the end of ul. Trombity. Below: The water level is sinking slowly, it's noticeable now (the browny-yellow line below the fresh greenery).

The frogs and bullfrogs are back and enjoying life. And above them in the food chain, the grey heron. The herons have moved back into the wetlands between ul. Trombity and Dumki in recent years and are readily identifiable in flight by the way they pull their long necks into a tight 'S' shape. This individual was perched on a broken concrete post, looking for signs of froggy movement below. When bored of this activity, he'd take off and lazily fly around the wetlands, soaring above the treetops in circuits.

While not as immediately charismatic as the stork - the very essence of summer in the Polish countryside - the heron is still an exciting neighbour with whom to share one's street.

This time last year:
Jeziorki's flood of floods: Puławska and Pozytywki
Jeziorki's flood of floods: Sarabandy and Karczunkowska
Jeziorki's flood of floods: Trombity and Kórnicka

This time two years ago:
Another time, another place

Friday, 3 June 2011

Łódź Widzew

Łódź is the sort of place one only goes to on business. Sure, it has Manufaktura, one of the world's largest post-industrial retail and entertainment centres, and ul. Piotrkowska, one of the world's longest shopping streets. And then what? For a city of almost 800,000 inhabitants, occupying an area two-thirds that of Warsaw, it is surprisingly... er... uninteresting compared to other Polish cities of similar size. Today, I was in Łódź Widzew, a district to the west of the city centre which seemed to be notable for wide boulevards and blocks of flats. So then... here we are, Łódź Widzew. Along the main drag, ul. Rokicińska.

Above: having alighted at Łódź Widzew station and made my way to ul. Rokocińska, this is my first impression: garishly coloured blocks of flats set among greenery.

Above: as there are no street numbers prominently displayed on the blocks of flats, navigation along this 17km wylotówka (a road heading out of town) is not easy. I assumed, on the basis of studying Google Maps, that my journey from the station to Tulipan Park, a newly-opened industrial estate at ul. Rokicińska 168 would be a short walk. It turned out to be 40 minutes.

Sprayed on a flower shop on ul. Rokicińska - an anglophone alternative to HWDP. (For my Polish readers not in the know, it means 'all coppers are bastards'. Meanwhile the road goes on forever. And it was hot - about a thousand degrees. And me in a suit.

LinkWidzew is thinning out (it's the largest district of Łódź by area, the least densely-populated) and I'm still walking.

I finally arrive to the official opening of Tulipan Park; among the more interesting discussions I had was one with two local real estate agents who were talking about the concept mooted to join Warsaw and Łódź into one mega-agglomeration of five million people. A key part of this idea would be a new airport, midway between the two cities; this was the lead story in today's Warsaw section of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Given that (as I wrote last week) trains from Warsaw to Łódź currently take over two hours to cover the measly 83 miles (130km) between the two cities, I think that such grands projets should be promptly forgotten. Below: map of the proposed locations of a Warsaw-Łódź airport

[Source: Gazeta Wyborcza article cited above. Link to artwork here.]