Monday, 30 April 2012

So good to be back in Warsaw

On Sunday morning, I drew back my curtains and beheld a clear blue sky, a garden in full bloom, with cherry and apple blossom, set against green fields... what a contrast to the unmitigated dismalness of England last week (with the exception of Thursday evening, when a few hours of sunshine lifted the gloom).

Arriving at Okęcie airport on Saturday night was an experience. Flying in dressed in sweater and heavy leather jacket, I emerged via the sleeve into the arrivals terminal thinking that someone had failed to switch off the heating. The thermal contrast from London's damp 8C to Warsaw's 24C (at 10pm!) was a shock to the mind as well as to the body..

You poor Londoners! I'm looking at the BBC's weather website right now. Thursday's high will be 10C, the low will be 7C. Warsaw? High 25C, low 16C. Warsaw's all in bloom, it's splendid looking at the trees full of white and pink flowers against a blue sky. London's blooms are all bedraggled, sodden, ripped from the trees by wet winds and trampled underfoot. Warsaw's air is hot and dry - no mosquitoes - this is perfect weather for me.

But wait a minute - it's not always like this - last year, Warsaw had snow on 3 May.

I am generalising. I have to generalise. I blog, therefore I generalise. The climate in Warsaw is drier and sunnier than London's, and that's one reason why I'm happy to be living here.

It's not humid, the sky is perfectly azure; put on your aviator shades, leave your coat and your jacket at home, you are free - free from the restrictions of intemperate climes, free to wear a T-shirt and shorts - this is summertime, and the living is indeed easy.

This time last year:
At the President's

This time two years ago:
Summer's here, and the time is right...

This time five years ago:
Why I'm staying in Warsaw

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Shard changes London's skyline

It's been a year and half since I was last in Central London, and apart from the Boris bike revolution, the appearance of Europe's highest skyscraper has done more to change the way the city looks. The Shard, built over London Bridge Station, is nearing completion. It is visible from all corners of London, standing 310m (1,020ft) high. (For a Warsaw comparison, the Palace of Culture is 231m high, while Zlota 44, also nearing completion, is 192m high.)

Above: towering over the London Eye though standing two and half kilometres to its east, the Shard is the most prominent building along the skyline seen from Hyde Park. To the left of the pic, Rotten Row, the horse track running through the park (in 1690 this became London's first artificially-lit thoroughfare).

Left: The Shard viewed from Platform 4 on London Bridge Station, its pyramid shape giving the illusion of extra height. Somehow, it is not as impressive from close up as it is from a distance.

Dwarfed by the Shard, to its left, we can see the world's tallest hospital, Guys, with its 34 floors and standing a mere 142m high.

The location is more central than one thinks - Canary Wharf and London's second-highest skyscraper are another 5km further east.
Right: the Shard, rising over Tooley Street, viewed from the passage leading towards Tower Bridge and city hall. Unlike Warsaw, where most of the skyscrapers are clustered around the Palace of Culture forming a single Central Business District, London's tall buildings are dotted around what is an extensive city. Drop Warsaw on top of London, and it almost gets lost. But then living in a smaller capital city has its rewards too - the countryside's nearer.

This time last year:
In praise of Warsaw's trams

This time two years ago:
Plans for the railway line to Radom
[two years on: what's changed?]

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Testing the Boris Bike

This time next week, London will choose its mayor. Two candidates, implacable enemies ideologically, yet united by a desire to get the capital cycling. Launched in the summer of 2010, the Barclays Cycle Hire bicycle sharing scheme has more than met expectations. Popularly nicknamed 'Boris bikes' after current mayor Boris Johnson, the concept was in fact prepared by his predecessor and mayoral challenger, Ken Livingstone.

Below: the Boris Bike docking station at Hyde Park Corner. Most of the people hiring bikes here are tourists; the decision to limit hire conditions to credit or debit card ownership rather than insisting on a cumbersome registration scheme has boosted usage among non-residents.

Keen to try one since arriving in Central London on Monday, I was waiting for a break in the rain, and finally this evening it did. I picked up my one in Kensington Gardens, by inserting my credit card in the docking point and getting a five-digit number to unlock the bike. Costs are really low if you use it for short hops. The access fee was £1 for 24 hours and usage fee £1 for the first hour, then rising steeply thereafter.

My ride was less than 50 minutes, so I would be charged £2 in total - marvellous value for money when you consider that a short-hop bus journey costs £2.30 and a tin of sockeye Alaskan salmon at Waitrose costs £2.50. A small problem in releasing my bike was the fact that the docking stations are so heavily used that the PIN code buttons are worn out and you can't see the numbers (but then there are only three of them - 1, 2 and 3).

Above: These bikes are really popular; and not only with tourists. Only the Brompton is seen in greater numbers on London's streets.

The bike itself is heavy (indeed, weighing twice as much as my Cannondale Caffeine F2) and built around the concept of battleship-like indestructibility. A low-geared three-speed drive means its not hard to get the beast moving, but this limits top speed. As I rode the bike down the Bayswater Road, I found myself in the unusual (and somewhat demeaning) situation of being overtaken by every single cyclist on the road (except others also on Boris Bikes). But it was comfortable, stable, easy to ride and pleasant-handling. The Shimano Nexus hub gears are robust and efficient (once you work out the twist-grip system) and the brakes are also buried in the hubs (so they too are protected from the elements).

My regular Canadian readers will be proud to read that the whole Boris bike system, docking stations and all, is Made in Canada (by Bixi)

Left: if there's one mankament, it's the risk of finding your destination docking station full. This happened to me as I attempted to dock my Boris bike off outside Whiteley's on Queensway. Every single bay was taken - what next? Fortunately, there are around 600 docking stations around London's Zone 1. The nearest one was actually even nearer to my hotel on Kensington Gardens Square; here I found plenty of empty bays.

I have seen the future, and it works.

This time last year:
Corruption: reasons to be cheerful

This time three years ago:
Bicycle shakedown day

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in full bloom

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Definitely worse in Britain

...The weather that is. With the exception of an hour or two on Tuesday afternoon, it's been cold and wet. Temperatures of +6C to +8C - it feels utterly dismal. Shivering when I should be basking in spring sunlight.

The drive up and down the M40 from London to two sites in the West Midlands was rain-soaked, spray on the motorway surface, cars with fog-lights on. My plan of diverting off the M40 to sample a typical English pub with my Polish study tour came to nought as no one had the slightest intention of getting out of the minibus to get drenched. Tomorrow it will be warmer (+14C) but the BBC's weather forecast predicts rain, and rain on Friday, and rain on Saturday, and rain on Sunday (by which time I'll be back in Warsaw).

And all this with a hosepipe ban, an official drought order - your garden may be flooded, but you cannot use a hosepipe to water it!

While the authorities are at pains to point out that England has endured the driest 18 months in a century, and my recent visit to the UK was bathed in sunshine, I still far prefer Warsaw's climate to London.

Sunshine is good for us - in moderation of course - and apart from producing Vitamin D for us, it also lifts our moods by releasing serotonin into our bloodstreams. Having said that, as a population, Brits seem no more or less happy than Poles - perhaps overcast skies are just something one learns to live with.

UPDATE: Weather for the morning of Thursday 26 April, from the BBC website...

UK Today

Showers or longer spells of rain for most areas.

Showers across England and Wales becoming heavy, with hail and thunder in places. More persistent rain across other parts of the UK, especially northeast Scotland. Light winds over much of Wales, northern and central England but staying windy elsewhere.

From primary school geography lessons, where I learned that Britain has an Atlantic climate, with mild winters and moderate summers, whereas Poland has a continental climate with harsh winters and warmer summers, I have appreciated the difference. Yet since my childhood, the climate in the British Isles has changed, with unpredictable bouts of severe weather cropping up all over - heavy snowfalls, droughts followed by floods, records for high and low temperatures being broken with increasing regularity. In Poland, if anything, the climate has become more mild, with summer downpours and flooding being the only tangible evidence of climate change.

Perhaps this is one reason why Poles are more sceptical about climate change than Brits.

This time last year:
Miracle on the Vistula

This time two years ago:
Collapsing footbridge over Puławska

This time three years ago:
Four-engined jets at 30,000 ft

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Definitely better in Britain

...The electricity, that is. Behold the British three-pin plug. Reassuringly solid compared to the wobbly two-pin Continental system. Note 1) three, square, pins, which fit squarely and securely into three, square, sockets. Note 2) the fact the socket mounting is screwed into the wall with a pair of Phillips-head screws. Not loosely pushed in to wobble about freely. Note 3) the on-off switches. You don't need to pull the plug out of the wall to cut the flow of electricity to the appliance - merely switching it off will do the trick.

Some years back, the European Commission made a futile (and indeed spurious) attempt to get the British to change their electrical system to the Continental two round-pin one - and failed. For the British system is clearly superior. (Unlike British bread or plumbing...)

I don't have statistics comparing household fires in the UK and across Continental Europe, but I dare say that  conflagrations started by faulty wiring are less prevalent in Britain. (Note the sticker on the UK plug showing that it has passed its safety test... How many Polish hotels can boast this?)

When coming to the UK, you'll need a travel plug/adaptor. At Okęcie airport they charge 69 zlotys for one - don't buy this! Any reasonable gift shop in London will sell you one for five pounds - and in Poundland or some equivalent shop, you'll find a three-pack of adaptors for a pound.

This time last year:
Easter, and the end of Lent

This time two years ago:
That Icelandic volcano (anyone remember what it was called?)

This time three years ago:
Views of Historic Toruń

This time four years ago:
One swallow does not a summer make

Monday, 23 April 2012

Cycle-friendly London

Despite the explosion of bicycles and cyclists in Warsaw, in terms of absolute numbers there are far more in London. When I left London nearly 15 years ago, I was quite a rarity - someone who cycled to work daily. Today, encouraged by politicians, cycling has become mainstream. The optimal solution for me was the Brompton fold-up bike, a gem of ingenuity that folds up to tiny proportions in less than a quarter of a minute. From home in Perivale, two miles to Ealing Broadway station, thence to Paddington by mainline train (eight minutes) and onwards another two and half miles from Paddington to Centre Point. Today - cold (+8C) and wet - I was amazed by the sheer volume of cyclists commuting through Paddington Station.

Above: the bike park at Paddington. Hundreds of bikes left here overnight - they are generally inexpensive bikes of non-nickable character. In the morning, their owners will pick them up for the last leg of their journey to the office. 

Left: Cycle hire points, by Transport for London* (TfL), have popped up all over the place. I counted three between my hotel in Bayswater and Paddington Station. First half-hour is free, pop your credit card into the slot to release the bike. I shall experiment with this form of transport before my week is up in London! (Kraków already has these and central Warsaw will be getting them too).

Right: I saw more Bromptons in and around Paddington this evening that I all kinds of bikes in Warsaw. Dozens of them. They are not cheap, but they are excellent (my own Brompton is over 20 years old and has now been taken off to Łódź by Moni. I must say, I'd love another - titanium parts and single speed for maximum lightness. When I bought mine, they were available in black only; today, I saw a huge variety of colours - but the same classic design. The Brompton costs more than two Dahons (the only other fold-up bike seen in appreciable numbers), but in London the home-grown folder is the only way to go. As iconic as the red bus or black taxi.

Left: Only in London. To those who've never seen Bromptons in their thousands, this TfL notice at North Greenwich tube station must appear puzzling. A Brompton, once folded, is no bigger than a small suitcase, unfolded, pushed through the automatic barriers can cause chaos when they slam shut trapping the rear wheels between them. If you had a Dahon folder, it would a) take you hours to fold and unfold and b) even if you did manage to fold it, you'd be hard pressed to heave the thing through the barriers.

fixies - they're also to be seen in London, although there's so many normal bikes out there they become a bit of rarity. This one, with white aero rims, matching crankset and saddle, has a track frame with reverse rear drop outs and flat bars, just slightly narrowed. Brakes front and rear testify to the rider's common sense.

Cycling has become a hot political topic in the mayoral elections that take place on Thursday 3 May, with current Conservative mayor Boris Johnson a keen cyclist and his Labour opponent Ken Livingstone (former mayor of London) someone who did much to boost cycling in London. Check out how well organised the London Cycling Campaign is in terms of political mobilisation in advance of the election.

I hope that it will take less than 15 years to get cycling so well rooted in Warsaw commuters' minds.

* TfL used to be London Transport (pron. Lana Chainspaw) until 2000, when 'passengers' became 'customers' and a 'target-focused modal delivery approach based on the ongoing optimisation of key performance indicators' replaced 'good service'.

This time last year:
End of the azure week

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Politics: an apology

I may have erroneously given the impression that Janusz Palikot is usefully occupying a hitherto-unoccupied quarter in Polish politics, namely a free-market liberal who is at the same time a social liberal. I now gather from the man's latest billboards that he's trying to give Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who polled 13% in the today's first round of the French presidential election) a run for his money.

Mélenchon wants a 32-hour working week, retirement at 60 and 100% top income tax rate. Janusz Palikot wants something even less realistic - zero unemployment. And he wants it now, rather than in some unspecified time in the future.

By bandying about economically impossible postulates (rather like demanding the value of pi be equal to exactly 3), populist politicians risk being seen either as liars or illiterates. Primitive and yet comical.

By trying to outflank the dusty old-guard-led SLD ("Stalin, Lenin, Dno") on the traditional redistributionist left, Palikot is painting himself into a corner. His rainbow-flavoured movement is now seen less and less as a potential replacement coalition partner to the agrarian PSL party.

Having said all that, I like the use of typeface on the billboard - modern with a retro feel to it.

Incidentally, politics-watchers of the rabid right - have you noticed that today is the birthday of a) Donald Tusk (born 22 April 1957) and b) V. I. Lenin (born 22 April 1870). I'm sure you'll find something significant in that.

This time last year:
I cross two unfinished bridges
[the one on ul. Poloneza is still unfinished!]

This time two years ago:
What's the Polish for 'grumpy'?

This time three years ago:
Do not take this road!

This time four years ago:
Seated peacock, Łazienki Park

This time five years ago:
Spirit of place: 1930s Kentucky - or Jeziorki?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Siemens Vectron on the coal train

Train whistles in the distance - two trains are heading my way. But something new - a loco I've not seen before. This is a Siemens Vectron, double-headed with a Czech 181-class loco pulling a rake of empty wagons back to the Silesian coal fields. Note the dust - or is it steam? - coming off the wagons - have they just been washed? And the train passes south on the electrified main line, a full coal train is being hauled across to Siekierki by diesel power on parallel tracks (as far as Nowa Iwiczna).

Below: The Siemens Vectron is a new engine, available in electric or diesel flavour. This looks like a manufacturer's demonstrator, and is an entirely new shape on Poland's railways - first one I've ever seen.

the Vectron passes, the Czech 181 behind still in PCC Rail livery (now DB Schenker).

Below: the empty train on the electrified track (right) moves more quickly than the diesel-hauled train of full coal wagons. Looking south from Kórnicka crossing towards W-wa Jeziorki station.

Measuring up: Hołubcowa Bis

They are here, measuring up. Marker posts, sprayed orange, setting out where the new road, Hołubcowa Bis, will run. I wrote about this nearly three years ago; it now seems that the first steps are being taken. Surveyors have been moving about the land, placing their markers. In itself, this does not mean that roadworks are imminent. Back in January 2009, I observed similar markers being laid down along ul. Karczunkowska; I was expecting pavements along its length - to this day, they are still merely a dream of local residents.

Left: Looking south from the pedestrian railway crossing at ul. Kórnicka. On the ground, a fluorescent marker post. Several more are set out between here and ul. Karczunkowska. Question is - how long will it be before this pastoral scene becomes a suburban asphalted road. On the one hand, it will relieve ul. Trombity during the morning rush hour. On the other, some of our countryside will vanish for good, subsumed to the needs of the motorist. And the roadworks themselves, once started, seem to take forever.

Right: looking south towards ul. Kórnicka. Bearing in mind what's going on around Węzeł Lotnisko and ul. Poloneza - it's been well over three years since work started on the S2/S79, and still no sign that it will be completed at any time soon. Once they start - jeden wielki bałagan, Panie, rozbabranie terenu. So - hope for swift start and swift completion? Or that the urzędnicy never actually get round to doing what they planned? Tak źle, i tak nie dobrze. (Yes bad, and yes no good.)

Above: image from Google Earth (turned clockwise to fit - so North is to the right) onto which I've superimposed the planned route of Hołubcowa Bis. Click to enlarge. One engineering problem the roadmakers will have to face is the fact that between ul. Kórnicka and ul. Baletowa, the railway tracks are some two metres above the low-lying and flood-prone land; the roadway will have to be raised to the level of the tracks, and cross two drainage ditches.

This time last year:
High time to leave the car at home

This time two years ago:
The answer to urban commuting

This time five years ago:
Far away across the fields

Friday, 20 April 2012

Meanwhile, on the tracks

Not a good evening for travelling home; there was a traffic jam (korek) of trains stuck outside W-wa Zachodnia station resulting in 30 minute delays. Yesterday's journey on the 18:20 from W-wa Centralna to Skarżysko-Kamienna via W-wa Jeziorki, however, was exemplary; Centralna's refurbishment is now complete, with viewing terraces in the cafés along the northern side of the station, whence this view. The station reeks 80% less than it did before its pre-football remont, though one railway union leader did his best last month to restore Centralna to its old aroma by relieving himself on the platform.

Compared to Centralna, suburban station W-wa Śródmieście is still a crepesculent dump. Below: Monday evening - a man on a ladder examines a puddle of water leaking in through the roof that threatens to short-circuit the electrics of this clothes stall. Rainwater gets in everywhere at Śródmieście; puddles in dark corners, dripping down walls; fix one leak, another appears.

A current gripe of mine with Koleje Mazowieckie is the new practice of including train numbers on trains' head-boards and announcing them over the station loudspeakers. Koleje Mazowieckie under-informs passengers about train times and destinations, especially at smaller stations. But instead of giving us what's needed, KM's management is foisting entirely useless information on us. By including the train number on the head-board (right), there's less space left for the destination - can you see this train's headed for Żyrardów? (click to enlarge if not.)

Left: This is KM 201. So? Listening out for announcements, passengers want to know where the train's headed, its scheduled time of departure (delays if applicable) and platform.

Having to listen to the train number is entirely unnecessary. "Bing-Bong! Koleje Mazowieckie train number KM101 to Tłuszcz via Małkinia will depart from track 26 on platform 2..." Your ears have a hard enough time trying to make out the critical information without having some extra digits being read out to confuse you further.

Gazeta Wyborcza also says the new train numbering system's daft.

And here's that list of KM train numbers in full... Though it makes little sense - other than the fact that KME trains are pospieszone (hurried up) and don't stop at all stations. Although W-wa Jeziorki is located on line number 8, trains other than KM8xx call at this station; KM201-212, KM608 and KM711 to 714, for example.

This time two years ago:
Making sense of Polish politics

Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Zone of My Own

I am still reeling from the effects of seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece, Stalker. The film came out in 1979 (I recall reading the Guardian's review); for some reason I didn't see it. It made a huge impression on my brother, and I vowed to see the film when I had the chance. Now I have - and what a film. Not an action film; a quiet, philosophical, enigmatic, existentialist film - but above all - what klimat. The atmospheric sets - Soviet post-industrial wasteland, struck an immediate, familiar chord. A new bleaker aesthetic than the sublime one, yet one in which I can more readily set myself adrift, being closer to hand.

Made seven years before Chernobyl (but 22 years after Kyshtym and some three years after news of that disaster seeped out in the USSR), the film is about a Zone, closed off from the outside world, into which the Stalker guides visitors wanting to discover its secret. More than this about the film I shall not reveal.

Tarkovsky shot Stalker in Estonia, not far from the then-Soviet Republic's capital. Waste and abandonment on a stupendous scale, watching the film today in the knowledge of what was there before and what is there now, one can appreciate the hatred and contempt that Estonians must feel towards the USSR for despoiling their country in such a way.

Indeed Tarkovsky, his wife, and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn who worked with them on Stalker, all died of the same form of lung cancer which, it has been suggested, may have been the result of filming in and around the heavily-polluted waters surrounding an abandoned chemical plant.

Communism was a stupendously wasteful economic system; to this day, the remains of its misguided investments litter much of Poland; one is never far away from them. Here in Jeziorki, too, those Stalker-style klimaty can be found.

Above: the way into my own private Zone, just south of Jeziorki Station; step off the platform and bear left towards the junction where the freight trains once ran to the rampa.

Let us enter, then, on a drizzly, overcast evening in early spring. The ground is strewn with with overgrown broken artefacts, abandoned remains of buildings. Empty bottles litter the ground here and there as well as dumped household waste, this land lies unloved, unrespected, for it is no one's. The rails have been lifted, the rampa long leveled with the ground, but no new development emerges. Grass triumphs, and I must say, I'm rather glad. So much rubbish has been brought out here, slowly it is being swallowed up by nature, but not before more can be dumped on top.

What thoughts run through the mind as the visitor picks through the weeds and branches. Briars tear at trousers. Silence, solitude, abandonment. Concrete posts stick out in the air which once carried wires, and concrete covers cap drain holes. Concrete slabs lie like dishevelled gravestones. Nature will fight back but man will continue to despoil.

Post-industrial wastelands have a undeniable attraction. Stalker puts them into a personal and philosophical perspective.

This is all small scale. I traverse this little zone in the space between two bus departures, but to see some real Stalker-style landscapes within Warsaw's boundaries, check out Huta Warszawa on Google Earth ( 52°17'54.86"N, 20°55'15.28"E).

Does anyone have any other favourite post-industrial wasteland in Warsaw (or indeed other Polish cities)?

This time last year:
Warsaw's big billboards

This time three years ago:
Pace of development falters

This time five years ago:
Strange days indeed

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Warsaw by night

Oh yes! What a splendid sight befell my gaze as I sauntered out of the Marriott this evening to catch my train home... This is the result of two photos merged into a panorama. Click to enlarge to see in its fullest dimensions. Hand-held at one-third of a second at f3.5, 320 ISO, lens zoomed out to 18mm (27mm full-frame equivalent).

The majestic sweep from Złote Tarasy to the left, past the Palace of Culture to my destination, Warszawa Śródmieście station to the right. Quite a magnificent view! Come back in 20 years, and hopefully, the Palace will be ringed by skyscrapers, standing at a respectable distance, looking down on Stalin's gift to the Polish people.

This time last year:
Tales of the Riverbank

This time two years ago:
Okęcie before the funerals

This time three years ago:
At the General's house

Monday, 16 April 2012

more for Y u in Oran e

Bob guessed correctly. The cladding of the Novotel on Rondo Dmowskiego in orange was indeed an advert - for Orange. In retrospect, entirely predictable. When Telekompromitacja Polska was "privatised", it was sold to state-owned France Telecom, now masquerading under the groovy name "Orange".

The French like to do business with themselves. As soon as they got their mitts on TPSA, much of its fleet of cars and vans was swapped for Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots. TPSA no doubt banks with Societe Generale and uses French lawyers.

Novotel, of course, is a French-owned hotel chain, part of the Accor group. So no problems, then, reaching an agreement as to creating the largest billboard in town.

Below: the hotel's been turned into a huge ad, and in the foreground, on the patelnia in front of Metro Centrum, a huge orange cube advertising, well, telecoms services. The colour saturation of the hotel in the background toned down somewhat so as not to be overwhelmed by the cube in the foreground!

The brand 'TPSA' will soon be changed to Orange. No doubt we will still receive eye-watering monthly bills for poor-quality internet access and vanilla-flavoured telephony. Out here on the perimeter, there is no choice - TPSA or nothing. Whereas urban sophisticates can get telephone, internet (three times faster and more stable) and cable TV for less than we pay, we're stuck with a choice of one provider.

I don't mind poor service if I'm paying old-school money for it. I don't mind paying a lot for service if it's truly excellent. I object to paying a lot for service that's third rate.


Since then, the service has improved, the bills have fallen. Things are getting better. More bandwidth, fewer fails (nearly none, actually), and lower bills. Can't really complain any more.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Volcano shuts down aviation over NW Europe

This time three years ago:
Large, charismatic fowl

This time four years ago:
Antonov An-26 in the twilight of its career

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Soundtrack to the Sublime Aesthetic

It's forty (Gosh! Yes!) years since Roxy Music recorded their first, eponymously named album, (March-April 1972). The effect this piece of music – and indeed their second album, For Your Pleasure – had on shaping my formative artistic sensibilities was immense. Listening to these two albums again, though now with a much-enhanced critical faculty that comes with the decades, I can confirm that my original reactions were correct.

These are the roots of my pursuit of the sublime aesthetic.By this I define as art which can bring about that mood one has at sunset, that magic-hour transcendent feeling, raising one's consciousness above day-to-day reality, towards the eternal, the galactic, the ethereal, the numinous, the universal. Scenes like these from my dreams, atmospheres, sunsets, dense, lush, exotic, saturated colours - as a teenager listening to Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, I was spellbound. This was like nothing I'd ever heard before and yet it was so familiar; part rock'n'roll, nods to Duane Eddy and Chuck Berry, doo-wop choruses, country-style slide guitar, jet-propelled saxophones wailing – though with synthesisers taking this all into the future – the deep future meets the 1950s Sci-fi, and the proto-past; lobefins clambering up Carboniferous beaches at twilight, huge palm trees, giant horsehair ferns jungles inhabited by prowling animals and brightly plumaged birds of paradise...

How did I first come across Roxy Music? Their first single, Virginia Plain, not on the album, was a song that received significant airplay on national Radio 1 during the late summer of 1972. A song more sophisticated than the standard pop fare being aired concurrently. Chock-full of references: Robert E. Lee, Flying Down To Rio, Studebaker, Last Picture Show, this single was intelligently glamorous. I was on holiday with my parents and brother, in Pembrokeshire; here was a song like no other. “You're so sheer/You're so chic/Teenage Rebel of the Week” “What's her name?/Virgina Plain” - End. Virginia Plain, the taster... But seeing Roxy Music on Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2 showed depth, range and vision beyond a one-hit wonder.

And in the playground at school the next day... "Did you see..." And a handful of artistically-sensitive souls, profoundly moved by what had been witnessed, stepped forth to admit to communion with Roxy Music's performance.

So then; an appreciation of the albums. Most accessible are the out-and-out rockers Re-make/Re-model, from the first album, Editions Of You and the quintessential Do The Strand from the second are irresistible. The mood takes a wistful turn on Roxy Music – 2HB (To Humphrey Bogart), referencing Casablanca, "Words don't express my meaning/ Notes could not spell out the score", while Chance Meetings reflects upon lost love – and its outro – the last minute and half – is the epitome of the sublime aesthetic; piano, bass and synthesised sax, pared-down sophistication, the elegance of loss.

If you share my artistic sensibility, the three tracks on the second side of For Your Pleasure, The Bogus Man, Grey Lagoons and For Your Pleasure, listened to around sunset on a clear spring evening, will propel you into an inner wonderland of the richest imaginings. The Bogus Man gets straight into the groove; loping along at an insistent beat, surrounded by bizarre calls of wildlife echoing from a jungle crowding in upon the long, straight blacktop that ends up, out of breath in the doo-wop lounge intro of Grey Lagoons; where rock'n'roll sax, piano and guitar takes us to a sophisticated, alienated world, crowded yet lonely. And for the finale, For Your Pleasure ("Part true, part false, like anything") asks us to question the very essence of our existence – well, how, well... how, what is it all about? You don't ask – you don't ask why... waves lapping on some far away beach; wailing synthesised oboe reverbed into heartbeat and heavenly choir taking the listener's souls to another quarter of our infinite universe for boundless rebirth.

And then the dreams - falling asleep with the notes of the three songs swirling round your head - will generate dream images of memorable magnificence.

Back in the early '70s, before digital, I'd listen to the album on a bootleg C90 cassette, Roxy Music on one side, For Your Pleasure on the other. Home-recorded in mono, played back in mono, one channel only. When my budget stretched to owning my own copies of the albums on vinyl, I was amazed to hear an entirely new audio channel! It was like discovering a treasured piece of music all over again. And in mono, some lyrics were less than clear:
Catch yourself a quadrant
Emancipel and Cheesewell
Poor little Lebenine,
Josantha and Jocine
Or so I imagined the fourth verse of Do The Strand, until the internet came along and song lyrics became instantly accessible online.

Over the past four decades, I've owned these two albums on vinyl, on music cassette and on CD, at least two copies of both in all three physical formats. So much for the record industry's lame assertions that home taping or music piracy is killing music. If the music is timeless, the artefact will be paid for, owned and cherished, repeatedly.

After just two albums, Brian Eno left Roxy Music; what was left was pleasant enough (Bryan Ferry crafted wonderfully emotive songs) but lacking in edge, in sonic experiment, in unease, in atmosphere. Subsequent Roxy Music albums were collections of songs, some stronger, some weaker, but none ever achieved the status of a stand-alone album. Together, Ferry and Eno, clashing egos, with the band (notably Phil Manzanera's guitar and Andy McKay's sax and oboe) managed to conjure up music of such otherworldly atmosphere that nothing has done for me since.

This time two years ago:
Twenty years, ten months, six days

This time four years ago:
Swans still in Jeziorki

Friday, 13 April 2012

Pigeon fancier's corner

Stepping out from the underpass from Warsaw's Centralny station, I confront at eye level a pigeon at the tram stop. This particular stop is infested with pigeons. Why? here's the answer...

Every morning, a lady turns up with a plastic bag full of stale breadcrumbs, which she strews liberally on the pavement.

Within minutes, flocks of pigeons swoop to feast. (It may be hypocritical of me, but what's the difference between feeding feral pigeons outside Centralny and feeding ducks in a snowy Ogród Saski?) Below: this end of the tram stop is a mess.

Below: first impressions of Warsaw for foreign visitors as they change here for the National Stadium (just five tram stops away).

This time two years ago:
Fertile grounds for conspiracy theorists

This time four years ago:
Magnolia in bloom, Ealing

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Once Warsaw's only modern, foreign, hotel, the Forum on Rondo Dmowskiego (now the Novotel Centrum) was originally light orangey-brown. Then after the hotel changed owners and names in 2002, it turned light grey. Now, in time for the flood of foreign football fans, the 40 year-old building is being returned to its original shades.

My first memory of the building from 1976 was of the money-changers standing outside. I was 18 years old at the time and in Warsaw visiting my family. I had a few hours to spare, so I swapped a one-pound note for 200 zlotys, then entered the Forum Hotel's restaurant to eat roast pheasant with Armagnac sorbet for afters and a cigar and brandy to go with. When I'd finished, I went back outside, changed another pound note, then enjoyed exactly the same meal all over again.

Not so much fun for the locals earning ten pounds a month, but for us Westerners, cheap holidays in other people's misery.

Above: it's a hard and repetitive job, covering each external panel with orange sticky tape. The only question I have to ask is - why this particular colour? Who chose it? The hotel's French owners or the city's listed buildings curator?

This time three years ago:
That's what I like about the North

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

To live is to be aware

I'm in the kitchen reading a paper when just at the edge of my field of vision, I observe a tiny fly. Smaller than a fruit fly - small - BAFF! It's dead. I've swiped it swiftly, without consciously thinking about it. Suddenly I pull up. Its little life - extinguished. Its brief existence within the universe - terminated abruptly. Was it aware? Conscious? Its last millisecond of life taken up by the awful realisation that it's too late to dodge the massive object hurtling down upon it... Or not - the fly I killed was no more than an animate collection of a central nervous system wrapped up in an exoskeleton, propelled by two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs, provided with sensory organs and an alimentary tract to fuel it. Probably the latter.

But let's climb up the evolutionary ladder. We have a rat (Ratboy - despite its name, a girl), Moni's 18th birthday present from her friends, who after a term in Łódź, made her way back to Jeziorki where she lives (15 months old now) in her spacious cage, dining on Lindt chocolate, pistachio nuts and Parmesan cheese. Ratboy is super-intelligent, friendly and curious, though she'll bite your finger should it ingresses too far into her cage. She is most certainly aware in the sense that you or I are aware; and aware that you are aware she is aware.

Larger, but dim in mammalian terms is our cat, below, officially Papusia but to me Chisko or Chiskie (from kocisko the augmentative of kot, 'cat'). Chisko is legendarily thick. She wants to go outside, but can see from the patio door that its raining. So she miaows by the front door to be let out; because she can't observe the rain through the solid wooden door, she reasons it isn't.

Compare a cat eating (it shovels its face into a bowl of food) to a rat (picking out what it wants with its hands, then holding it as it eats); it suggests that the rat has evolved further.

Chiskie is in her tenth year and matronly. Over-feeding has given her the proportions not so much a rugby ball but of a Zeppelin, moving slowly and silently towards her moorings (the catfood bowl or any sleepable surface). Is Chiskie aware? I guess being inside her brain is much like being at the bottom of a swimming pool; vague sensations making their way through but little to make sense of. Most important things in her mind about humans - they've mastered the art of opening tins of cat food. And in winter their houses are warmer than what's outside.

Moni has acquired a stray kitten, a tortoiseshell/white female (as yet unnamed) which came to Warsaw for the Easter break. What a contrast. The kitten is a fireball of energy, full of restless curiosity, courage, trust and incredible friendliness, yet with delicate toes. Despite checking out every horizontal surface in the house, she's broken nothing. A little learning machine, she's able to put two and two together very quickly and not repeat mistakes made. A very high level of consciousness compared to Old Chisko.

That's enough cutism for this blog. Suffice to say, harmony between cat and rat has been upset; Moni's kitten returns to Łódź on Sunday and the non-human residents of the house can get back to normal functioning.

This time two years ago:
Why did this happen

This time two years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red

Monday, 9 April 2012

What's new along the S2-S79?

Not a whole lot - probably the rail bridge works are the most significant development - but let's start at W-wa Okęcie and head south along ul. Wirażowa. Below: the station's to the right, the airport to the left. Ahead of me, still asphalt-free, is where the S79 will go, up towards Służewiec and the junction with ul. Marynarska. Above, the road viaduct leading from the S79 to the airport.

Below: to the left, freight sidings - coal trains and oil cisters. Then, the main Warsaw-Radom line, a local train heading south. To the right, the S79. The low street lights indicate that this is where Runway 11/29 points - the less-often used, shorter runway for when planes land over Ursynów.

Below: A section of the new railway viaduct over the S2 awaits the construction of the bridge supports. To do so, the railway will be closed, line by line.

Right: the non-electrified coal line has been diverted onto the mail line while the first of the three bridges is being built. This will not be as disruptive as you might think - there are fewer coal trains shuttling from Okęcie sidings to Siekierki power station in summer, and they are shorter. But they are slow-moving, especially when setting off full. Passenger trains slow down for this section. Below: an Interregio express from Kielce to Warsaw - the first time I've seen the new rolling stock on this line.

Above: a current boon to aircraft spotters is the mound of soil at the end of Runway 15/33, giving several metres extra height and a superior view.

This time last year:
Literary flavours of the PRL

This time two years ago:
The Drug of the Nation

This time three years ago:
Needs and wants and economics

This time four years ago:
On the Road from Łódź

This time five years ago:
Aerial views of the ground

Friday, 6 April 2012

How hard it is to change shopping habits

Combino. Goldessa. Lovilio. Baroni. Bluedino. Tenery. Selevita. Saguaro. Cornfarm. Tastino. Sunjui. Tiradoli. Do any of these food brands mean anything to you? I mentioned a few weeks ago that Jeziorki has a new Lidl store, just one kilometre from our house. Now, if you regularly shop at Lidl, you may have encountered the above-mentioned brands. My first visit to our new local Lidl with Eddie was disappointing; and Moni was disappointed too on her first visit there with me last night. We also said the same thing - the shop was full, yet seemed empty.

Today I tried to work out what was wrong. Cartons stacked on pallets immediately give it away as a dyskont. But even so, my impressions were of a nice, clean, modern shop, convenient as anything for us (don't even have to cross a main road to get here). However, besides fresh bakery products and fruit and veg - the shop somehow struck me as bereft of anything I'd normally consider buying (and I went into it ravenously hungry).

There was stuff on the shelves all right - with brand names like Boresa, McEnnedy, Pilos, Pikok, Gardis, Dulano, Grandiol, Eridanous, Sirius, Mr Choc, Castello, Bellarom, La Cestina, Animation, Fin Carré, Rivergate, Mikado - food, but nothing I've ever heard of, let alone tasted. There were soft drink brands like Siti (sounds 'shitty' in Polish) or Freeway Cola. And a rum called James Cook.

Having spent my life shopping in Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury's (Kingdomside) and Auchan, Tesco and Géant (now Réal) here in Poland, I'm used to well-known brands from companies like Unilever, Danone, Heinz, Nestlé plus my favourite Polish brands like Tymbark, Henryk Kania, Profi or Santé making up the lion's share of shelf space with one or two retailer own-brands making up the rest.

Lidl has a completely different branding strategy to that employed by the more mainstream retailers. Flood your floorspace with a bewildering multiplicity of invented brands, with the intention of persuading shoppers that they're in a sophisticated deli full of top-notch comestibles but at low, low prices... But hang on - where's the Parmesan? The Roquefort? The pesto? The Lavazza coffee? The fresh tuna steak? The king prawns? The Pinot Noir? The Sauvignon Blanc? This is no deli. It's a dyskont trying to appear deli-like.

The service at Lidl is pleasant and polite; the male shelf-stackers don't use a string of k-words when addressing one another as is the custom at Auchan, and staff will tell you where the item you're looking for is, rather than grunting and pointing vaguely in its direction with their chin. And a huge plus - fruit and veg are weighed at the checkout and not at a separate point (at Auchan you queue separately to to weigh your fruit and veg, your fish, your smoked meats and your cheeses).

My father, a regular at Lidl in Hanwell, has been shopping there for years; one of the highlights of his week is when the Lidl newspaper drops into the letterbox, heralding non-food bargains (telescopes, motorcycle helmets, sphygmometers, digital watches, chainsaws, tool sets etc). Apparently, the thing with the Lidl newspaper specials is they are there at amazingly cheap prices - then they are gone, never to return. But there's always something tempting every week. (next week: carbon fibre Nordic walking poles for 70zł a set, decent UV sunglasses for 12zł, bike lock for 12zł, 34 litre sports rucksack, 84zł). But no continuity of supply. Here today - that's it. A job lot of something interesting and well-made, for a great price - once.

And then there are Lidl's infamous Foreign Food Weeks. These are a bit of a leg-pull. Colleagues from work who've been to their local Lidl for a "British Week" complain that the only things on offer are Village Valley goulash, Stout Yeoman Gouda cheese, Chaucer Farm frankfurters, King George lager and Monastery Bell frozen peas.

At the end of the day, I'm sure I'll get used to it. I'll be there next week for some of that camping stuff for sure, and who knows, I might get to like. There may well be a place for Lidl for some of my regular retail spend.

Left: some fish, before Lent ends; some meat and wine for when it does. I also bought 430g of unprocessed Californian pistachio nuts (40zł/kilo) and three-quarters of a kilo of seedless red grapes (8zł/kilo). The former - great value; the latter contained more seeds than taste.

The prices are good (12zł for Chilean Cab Sauv, 5zł for 100g of smoked salmon), the brands - I've never heard of. Nixo; Petri; OceanSea (that took some inventing! PondLake next?) Cimarosa ('Cimarosa wines are the best wines in the world', the Polish-language information on the label says, so they must be good) , and my favourite - Schwartzwaldrauch ('Blackforestintoxication').

This time last year:
In vino veritas?

This time two years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time three years ago:
Lenten recipe: tuna, chickpea and pesto salad

This time four years ago:
Coal train sidings, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki from the air